Chris Maynard's Reviews > Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos
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Here is my blackboard post on Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, the first part of a three-part series that I need to read after this semester.

Overall Response: When respectively looking at and reading the front and back cover of Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, I was expecting to engage in a silly novel about a hyperactive child who struggled with his impulse control, resulting in entertaining misadventures that would prompt some laughs and insight into what I perceived to be ADHD. While JPSTK certainly had his fair share of funny moments, including Joey’s early chapter catchphrase of “Can I get back to you on that?” (p. 5) whenever asked a question, this novel was much more to me, stirring a wide range of powerful feelings, including far more unexpected and painful sadness when learning more about Joey’s home life, which to me was incredibly disturbing and added an incredible twist to this story. At the end of reading this novel, I certainly felt a bit tired, as if entrusted to watch Joey Pigza, yet happy for this wonderful child, who is a good kid after all despite what he has been led to feel. Having never read Jack Gantos before, I came away very impressed with JPSTK, making me want to read the rest of the book in this series.

● In Chapter 9 of Children’s Books in Children’s Hands, TMY write about the role that setting plays in realistic fiction, noting that “…the setting influences the way the story moves along” (p. 311). JPSTK takes place around but not in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Joey’s alcoholic father and abusive grandmother apparently live. Like the internal and external conflicts that Joey faces as a result of his “wiring” (p. 8), a symbol for his attention deficit and impulse control problems, Pittsburgh is a place of conflict for the wild yet sensitive boy, who hopes to find his father in Pittsburgh but ultimately finds some much needed assurance at the end of the book, when a medical test reveals that his brain is not messed up like he has been told and led to believe by far too many people in his life.
While the city of Pittsburgh has an important role in JPSTK, this story essentially takes place in Joey’s school, where he is viewed as dangerous to his classmates because of his roller-coaster behavior, and his home, which we find out is far more unstable than we could imagine at the beginning of this story, when his struggling grandmother is taking care of the boy, who has been abandoned by father and mother. While Gantos does a strong job of casting how we, as current and/or future educators, tend to see ADHD in terms of how it affects the classroom, his depiction of its effects inside the underrepresented setting of the home is an incredibly revealing and disturbing perspective.

Just how bad is Joey’s home? Tired by Joey’s unpredictable behavior, his grandmother tries to force him to take a timeout inside a refrigerator. Even a kid like Joey, who struggles with his decision making, knows that “there were good rules and bad rules, and having a time-out inside a refrigerator was a bad rule” (p. 13). No freaking kidding! With his Mom out of the picture, until she returns early in the book after staying with her drunken husband, Joey is tormented by his grandmother, who calls him an idiot, literally treats him like a dog, telling him to roll over, smacks him with a flyswatter when he doesn’t comply, and engages in a sick game in which she provides the boy with false hope that his mother is coming home.

As seen in the above descriptions, Gantos uses the dual setting of school and home to show ADHD in an entire new light, resulting in a much different and heartbreaking story than I expected.

● In terms of plot, TMY notes a big difference between events in real life, “…in which the lion’s share of our days is full of meaningless details…” (p. 311), and realistic fiction, in which “…just about every detail…is meaningful” (p. 311). This point is especially important when considering how Gantos depicts the unpredictability of not only Joey but his ADHD, thus providing the reader with an incredible perspective on what it’s like to struggle with this disorder, whether dealing with it in the shoes of the child, teacher, parent, behavioral social worker, etc.

Consider how Gantos describes a hyperactive Joey literally bouncing off the walls of the school hallway at the beginning of the story (p. 5). Not only is every detail of Joey the literal and figurative tornado examined, including how he uses his belt and shoelaces to spin himself around, but the entire paragraph, “I nodded, and when she was gone I wrapped the belts and laces around my middle and gave it a good tug and began to spin and spin and slam…” (p. 5), is a run-on sentence and fitting symbol for the craziness that consumes Joey’s ADHD and life in general.

● In terms of theme, JPSTK deals with the contemporary issue of ADHD in a very intriguing light. Like Adriana insightfully noted, we saw how the ADHD affects other characters beside Joey, including his grandmother, mother, fellow classmates, teachers, etc. While the point of view is primarily from Joey’s perspective, we see how others treat him through Joey’s own recollections, which are not easy for him to deal with.

What especially strikes me about Gantos’ depiction of ADHD beyond the incredible details of its physical manifestations is its mental effects on Joey, a sensitive soul who is always blaming himself for things, many of which are out of his control. Gantos essentially provides the reader with unique insight of the incredible pains, isolation and fear that Joey feels because of his attention disorder, which includes him being called such insensitive names like “…Retard, or Brain-Damaged, or Zippy the Pinhead” (p. 82), providing just a few examples. What’s especially disturbing is that Joey is called such names by not only some mean children but awful “adults”, including his grandma and the father of a female classmate whom Joey accidentally injures with scissors during one of his “bad” moments when he struggles to make a “good” decision. Instead of describing symptoms of ADHD, Gantos makes us feel for Joey and better understand what he deals with both physically and emotionally with his disorder, which is interestingly not mentioned as an “attention disorder” until page 114. Two pages later, we learn that Joey has been physically abused by his grandma in the past. In my opinion, these three pages (114-116) really took the story to a whole new level, allowing me to have even more compassion and empathy for Joey.

Gantos also seems to be making a powerful message about the dangers of throwing medication without thinking about their effects on children who have problems like ADHD. Self-described as a “… a good kid with dud meds” (p. 76), Joey does not seem to make progress until he is paired with a social worker and doctor when moving from his school to a special education center downtown, whom analyze the disorder in far greater detail than just solving it with medication.

● In terms of characters, which TMY notes are created in realistic fiction “…through physical descriptions, through their actions , through their thoughts and speech, and through their relationships with others” (p. 311), Gantos certainly paints Joey as a character to be remembered rather than disregarded by society. Despite what others may think about Joey’s messed-up brain, he is a far more introspective and perspective person that some of the assumed “normal” people in the story. Consider Joey’s reaction to meeting some of the special education students at the downtown center. When meeting Special Ed and talking about some of his new classmates whom deal with extremely serious physical and cognitive impairments, Joey notes “…how every kid here has been punished” (p. 96). Such a powerful statement makes the ending of the story especially more powerful for the likable Joey, who is told by the mother of a wheelchair bound student that “the medication has helped you settle down, but you have been a good kid all along” (p. 153). Amen to that.

Curricular Connections: Adrian did a nice job of describing how this book can be used to teach students about ADHD. An additional power of this book lies in its message of treating people like Joey, who are deemed different because of certain impairments that are often out of their control, with respect and the dignity that you would want to be treated. This book is more about tolerance or mere acceptance; it’s about looking at the Joeys of the world beyond the surface level and as unique human beings who experience a wide range of emotions.
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