Module 6 — Realistic Fiction (Younger Readers)

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos

Module 6 — Realistic Fiction (Younger Readers)


Gantos, Jack.  (1998).  Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key.  New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


The book’s narrator is dealing with big problems at home and, because of his severe ADHD, even more problems at school.  He is completely distracted in class and his teachers have been steadily losing patience.  Events reach a breaking point when Joey somewhat inadvertently swallows and ingests his housekey during class.   Joey’s problems at home include an abusive grandmother and an alcoholic and sometimes absent mother.  Over the course of the book, Joey learns some important truths about himself and begins facing his problems while hoping for a better life at home and, perhaps, a dog to take care of and add as a member of the family.

My Impressions

While aimed at younger readers, this book tackles some important issues that many kids deal with on a daily basis.  The book shows that ADHD is a serious problem that can cause great frustration and can impede a child’s growth and development.  The problems Joey faces at home, including neglect, emotional abuse, and an alcoholic parent, are also serious, but Joey’s narration manages to keep the tone optimistic without minimizing the extent of the problems.  The story is also quite funny, and Joey’s narration is consistently witty and entertaining.


Lempke, S. D. (1998, Dec. 15). [Review of the book Joey Pigza swallowed the key]. Booklist, 95, 752.

Books for Youth, Middle Readers: Gr. 4-7. Joey Pigza, who lives with his hyperactive grandmother, understands that he’s also “wired bad.” Despite his best intentions, he can’t concentrate and can’t hold still. What’s more, he can never resist an impulse: when his teacher assigns him to sharpening pencils to keep him from getting into mischief, he sharpens pencils, then chalk, then a Popsicle stick, and finally his own finger. He begins to settle down when his mother returns and gets him started on medication, but unfortunately, his morning pill wears off by noon every day. What makes this unusual is Gantos’ sympathetic approach to all concerned. There are no bad guys among the adults, just well-meaning, occasionally exasperated grown-ups trying to help Joey get his behavior under control. Joey tells his own story, giving a vivid, keenly observed, detailed account of his actions and the reactions of others: “By lunchtime my meds had worn off again and I was spinning around in my chair like it was the Mad Hatter’s Teacup ride at the church carnival.” Gantos sometimes seems to be using Joey to inform readers, and occasionally makes Joey’s comments seem too adult, but Joey is warm, lovable, and good-hearted, though maybe just a little too nice to be realistic. (He never even gets angry when he’s deprived of the sugary treats he so craves.) Most teachers and students know at least one child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and this book will surely help them become more understanding, even as they enjoy Gantos’ fresh writing style and tart sense of humor.

Brommer, S. (1998, Dec.). [Review of the book Joey Pigza swallowed the key]. School Library Journal, 44, 124.

Gr 5-8-Joey Pigza suffers from severe attention deficit disorder and struggles to remain calm when his world chaotically slips through his fingertips. When his medicine wears off, he cannot concentrate or sit still and is constantly in trouble at school. After leaving him for several years in the care of his abusive grandmother, his mother returns to reclaim him and her parental responsibilities. But Joey remains a challenge: he continually disrupts his class, swallows his house key, and runs away during a field trip. Eventually, he injures a classmate and is sent to a special education center for six weeks; here his medication is regulated and he learns how to manage his behavior. Joey leaves the center feeling strong and in control and he triumphantly returns to his old school. Gantos creates a strong cast of multidimensional characters. Joey is inherently a good kid and just as his teachers want him to succeed, readers will empathize and feel his emotional and physical bruises. References to alcoholism and abuse add realism to the novel without impeding the flow of the plot. In his first-person narrative, Joey relates incidents that are heart wrenching and humorous. From the powerful opening lines and fast-moving plot to the thoughtful inner dialogue and satisfying conclusion, readers will cheer for Joey, and for the champion in each of us.

Using in the Library

In a booktalk, present the Joey Pigza books as a series, reading funny and dramatic passages to set up conflicts and cliffhangers in each book. Starting with Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, read the sequence in which Joey ingests his housekey.  Tell about Joey’s problems at home and at school and ask if Joey can accomplish his goals of improving at school and at home and maybe even getting a dog.   Read funny and dramatic passages from Joey Pigza Loses Control, What Would Joey Do?, and I Am Not Joey Pigza to sell the books to kids.


About Boyd Waltman

Boyd Waltman is a film editor in Houston, Texas.
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