A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Helps kids understand the experience of ADHD from the perspective of a child with the disorder.
Differences often seen as negative can have positive aspects, too. Behavior labeled "bad" isn't always intentional or completely within our control. Empathy and compassion are important character strengths but can sometimes get overlooked in people with behavioral challenges. With the right support and understanding, things can get better.
Positive Role Models
Joey demonstrates empathy, kindness, and compassion. He often wants to do good things and help others, but he struggles to focus and follow through because of his ADHD, which means he breaks rules, is disruptive, and sometimes makes dangerous decisions. His mom can be caring and protective of Joey, but she also abandons him for a time and says upsetting things (like that no teacher wants to get him two years in a row) and asks "why me?" in front of him. She has an alcohol dependency and has Joey make her drinks.
Main character has ADHD, and story is told from his perspective, showing him to be kind, caring, and smart, and focusing on difficulties that come with his condition. The author himself has an attention disorder, putting him in a stronger position to portray the experience. Mention of both medical (pills and patches) and non-medical approaches (family support, past experiences) as part of Joey's overall treatment, though drugs feature most prominently. Some indication that Joey's dad and grandmother may have had similar disorders, and that's linked to their abandonment and abuse, which adds to the stereotype of those with mental health issues being dangerous. Joey uses words like "retard," "spastic," "deformed," and "mentally not all there" toward other kids and describes a boy with small arms as like a crab, which shows a lack of respect and understanding of other disabilities -- though he also shows empathy toward the same kids. Joey is in a nontraditional family unit, as he lives with just his mother. She's shown as caring, though reliant on alcohol. References to Joey getting locked out of the house while she's at work, and to his poor diet, implying that there are gaps in his home care. The story never mentions (or hints at) race or ethnicity, but most book covers illustrate Joey Pigza with light skin with reddish and/or brown hair.
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Violence & Scariness
A character trips while holding scissors and cuts another's nose tip off, resulting in blood spraying and an ambulance. An incident with a pencil sharpener leads to a bloody finger with the nail hanging off, a kid jumps from the rafters in a barn and twists an ankle, and there's a description of a character putting a key on a string down his throat and bringing up food. Grandma is abusive, including incidents where she forces Joey to behave like a dog, makes fun of him for wanting his mom to come home, beats him with a fly swatter, and tries to make him get inside the refrigerator. He's also bullied by other kids, with them tying a rope around his neck to control him. A character has a patch on their head where they've pulled out hair and rubbed it bald as a coping strategy. Reference to a photo of a car crash in a newspaper. Scenes in doctor's offices and hospitals involve a child having blood and urine samples taken and having a brain scan.
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Characters belittle others, as well as themselves, with terms like "dumb as dirt," "batty old bird," "lousy, no-good kid," "nasty trash-talking old fool," and "moron." Joey refers to other kids with disabilities or behavioral needs as "spastic," "crippled," and "retard." Other language includes "turd," "oh my God," and "damn."
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Products & Purchases
Frequent reference to brands such as Tootsie Pop, Amaretto, Mountain Dew, Rubik's Cube, Dunkin' Donuts, Burger King, Band-Aid, Coke, Silly Putty, and Greyhound bus. Franchise characters mentioned, including Tasmanian Devil, The Hulk, Dr. Doom, Charlie Brown, as well as shows such as Wheel of Fortune and The Simpsons and The Great Gilly Hopkins book.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Joey's mom drinks regularly, and sometimes Joey fixes her drink for her. It is implied that she relies on alcohol to the point of addiction. Grandma smokes on many occasions. Joey refers to his "meds" from the doctor, which include both pills and patches to treat his attention disorder. He's given Ipecac to make him throw up and later a laxative after swallowing an object.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, by Jack Gantos, is a sympathetic and realistic portrait of a child in the fourth/fifth grade at elementary school with ADHD. The story touches on Joey's experiences of abandonment by his father, abuse by his grandmother, and his mother's addiction to alcohol -- and the effects these experiences have on the way Joey thinks and behaves. Joey is seen to have character strengths such as empathy and compassion alongside his disruptive and sometimes dangerous behavior. Incidents have bloody injury detail, with a child's nose being cut and a fingernail being torn in a pencil sharpener. In addition to Joey's mother's drinking, his grandmother smokes cigarettes, and Joey takes medication for his disorder. There's name-calling, including toward those with disabilities, as well as a use of "damn." Frequent references are made to brand-name products and franchise characters. Sequels are Joey Pigza Loses Control, What Would Joey Do?, I Am Not Joey Pigza, and the series finale, The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza.
Is It Any Good?
Told in the first person, this harrowing but ultimately hopeful story doesn't pull any punches when it comes to Joey's behavior. Even for readers who know what's going on inside Joey, including his many well-meaning qualities, he can sometimes be a complicated character to root for in Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. Nonetheless, author Jack Gantos succeeds in making him sympathetic and bringing out his inherent goodness, clearly portraying the sensory experiences that overwhelm Joey, such as the smell of sharpened pencils reminding him of the inside of his mom's blanket chest, or words crowding together to the point it's "more like circus music than talk." The teachers, the principal, and even his troubled mother all are portrayed as kind -- if worn out -- people who are doing the best they can.
Though much of the story is realistic, in the end the solutions come a bit too easily. And given that medicating children with ADHD can be controversial, some readers may be bothered that the solution focuses strongly on giving Joey the right medication, even as it touches on environmental and psychological aspects, too. Still, this novel -- one of the best out there about this common disorder -- will be interesting and entertaining to many children and adults, though parents may want to discuss some of the complex issues and themes with their kids during or after reading.
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