The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza

Book review by
Kate Pavao, Common Sense Media
The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza Book Poster Image
Joey tries to heal his family in emotional series finale.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Readers will gain some understanding of what it feels like to have ADHD and learn empathy for people who learn to cope with this difference. As Joey learns something about the Greeks, readers do, too. Readers who like this book may want to go back and read other books in the series, starting with Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key 

Positive Messages

As Joey and his girlfriend, Olivia, deal with the difficult hands they've been dealt, they learn to talk out their problems, let go of their anger, and face their difficulties, solving them realistically if not perfectly. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Joey's not an easy character. He attracts a lot of teacher and other adult attention at school and makes some pretty outrageous decisions. But he's loyal to his girlfriend, Olivia, and to his parents, even though they've treated him badly, and he's very responsible and loving toward his younger brother. 

Violence

Joey hides a meat cleaver from his mother, whom he doesn't trust. Later, she checks herself into the hospital because she's afraid she might hurt her baby. She also says that someday she'll stick her head in the oven and tells Joey that he's a "ticking time bomb" who will do something awful one day. Joey's blind girlfriend hits him repeatedly with her cane. Joey recalls some awful accidents at school. Joey's dad is suffering from an infected face-lift. He throws a pizza at Joey while trying to kidnap Joey's baby brother.

Sex

Joey and his girlfriend share a sweet goodbye kiss. Earlier in the book, he buys her underwear. Joey's mom has a tattoo around her belly button that says "press here for more options."

Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Joey remembers his grandmother smoking before she died. A man Joey's dad works with also smokes. Joey's yard is full of cigarette butts and beer cans.  

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza by Newbery award-winning author Jack Gantos is the fifth and final book in a series about a boy from a troubled home who has ADHD. There's some violence: Joey hides a meat cleaver from his mother, whom he doesn't trust. Later, she checks herself into the hospital because she's afraid she might hurt her baby. She also says that someday she'll stick her head in the oven and tells Joey that he is a "ticking time bomb" who will do something awful one day. Also, Joey's dad throws a pizza at Joey while trying to kidnap Joey's baby brother. Some adults smoke, and beer cans litter Joey's yard. Readers will gain some understanding of what it feels like to have ADHD and learn empathy for people who learn to cope with this difference. Joey and his girlfriend, Olivia, learn to talk out their problems, let go of their anger, and face their diffculties, solving them realistically if not perfectly. And they share a sweet goodbye kiss.

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What's the story?

THE KEY THAT SWALLOWED JOEY PIGZA is another emotional adventure about Joey, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a depressed mother, and a dirty home filled with roaches. In this final installment of the series, Joey has to stop school to care full-time for his baby brother when their depressed mother checks herself into the hospital. As she leaves, she warns Joey that his father -- who recently deserted the family -- will try to steal the baby, Carter Junior, so Joey must protect him. Sensitive Joey, who can feel the emotions of everyone around him, becomes determined to fix his family ("I just need to remember my special gift -- if I can feel all the good that's in them, then I think it will work out").  

Is it any good?

The outrageous characters make this book a highly creative, entertaining story. There's Joey's angry, blind girlfriend; his father, who's trying to heal his botched face-lift; and Joey himself, who eats nothing but pizza and marches to school "with my head thrown back and arms pumping up and down like I was the conductor of an All-Star All-Roach marching band." But be warned: For a thin, kooky book, The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza packs an emotional wallop.

Readers may be shocked by the terrible things his parents tell him ("I already ruined you," his mother says. "Inside your head is a ticking time bomb") and feel deep empathy for poor Joey when he curls up in the crib his father prepared for his baby brother and begins sucking his thumb. In the end, readers will cheer for Joey and his hard-won fight to put together his highly imperfect family -- and stand up for himself.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Joey. Is he "broken"? How does he change from the beginning to the end?

  • Have you read the first Joey Pigza book, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key? Why do you think the author chose to give this book such a similar title?

  • Do you know anyone who reminds you of Joey? How do reading books like this one help tween and teen readers develop empathy and understanding?

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