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Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key

joey pigzaThe Joey Pigza books are hugely popular with upper elementary kids. Joey Pigza is the first of the series and while it’s not spelled out, I think it’s pretty obvious that Joey has ADHD.

I like sharing this book with teachers because they tend to look at the situations so differently from the way Joey’s contemporaries — the real target audience — would. As you react to this book, it’s important to allow yourself to read it as two different people: you as a critical adult who is allowed to be horrified by the adults in the book (and maybe a little sympathetic, too?) AND as a child who is Joey’s age. If you allow yourself to read this through your student’s eyes, do you find that your reaction to the book changes?

Note that we are also reading an interview with Jack Gantos this week from the Embracing the Child website.

Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.



  1. Lindsey Horowitz says:

    Reading “Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key” from an adult perspective was a difficult task because, as Lolly points out, the adults in the book are not the most admirable people. Even though I did not “like” most of them, I found the characterization of Joey’s mother to be particularly strong because it is so hard to determine whether she is a “good” or “bad” mother. On the one hand, she abandoned Joey and drinks in his presence (even having him fix her drinks!), but on the other hand, it is clear that she cares for him and will not give up on him, even at moments when the other adults in his life have trouble tolerating him.
    I imagine that children will love Joey and his antics; I can pinpoint some Joey qualities in several of my students. However, as much as I tried to read like an upper elementary-aged student, Joey’s actions, like when he tries to sharpen his finger in the pencil sharpener and rips off his nail, made me cringe.

  2. Diwen Shi says:

    This is no doubt a special book. I never knew that an author could depict a kid with ADHD in such a realistic way. I could even sense his anxiety even from his way of speaking: long sentences with a lot of connectives, few pauses, and a wide range of vocabulary (probably not that realistic, but still showing a sense of haphazardness). It is surprising to me that the author could manage to do it from a first-person perspective. As an adult, I still feel uncomfortable when reading the ripping-nail, the swallowing-key, and the cutting-nose-tip parts. I seriously wonder how children would react to these. At least I imagine if I were Joey’s age and got to read this book, I would be terrified and couldn’t help picturing the bloody scenes.

  3. Esther (Kyungeun) Lee says:

    THIS is the perfect book I could have read to my class! My class consisted of 11 boys and 2 girls, in a self-contained classroom. Most of my kids were labeled ADD/ADHD with learning disabilities, among numerous other disabilities. I think there is a lot of value in an adult writing a book about a boy like Joey from the boy’s perspective, and a teacher choosing to read this book out loud (though the principal would have to approve of this first – Joey and the adults in the book are clearly not the best role models for kids).

  4. Kim Fernandes says:

    This book made me ache for all the things Joey knew he was doing but for the way he didn’t seem them as wrong, and made me think a whole lot about the way I see kids with ADD/ADHD. As a second year teacher, I only knew that I had a few kids who had been diagnosed, but didn’t understand how they felt because of course I couldn’t really get into their heads — and so I tended to see their behavior a lot of the time as something I couldn’t really do anything about, because I didn’t quite understand it. This book was incredible because the author’s perspective shone through so clearly, and was an amazing way not just for a teacher like me but also for other kids who didn’t have ADD/ADHD to be able to try and understand what it might be like to have either one. I’m in agreement with the other comments about the actions that make people cringe, and as great as this book is, I would be a little hesitant about reading it out to my class, or offering it to kids who might not be comfortable with the images.

  5. Cami Gordon says:

    Like many of you have already mentioned, this book was tough to read from an adult’s perspective and I wondered how students both with ADD/ADHD and without might read and react to it. It seems that there are a lot of different tough themes being explored throughout the book (dealing with ADD/ADHD, abandonment, abuse, etc.) and I wonder what kind of push back there might be in using this book in a classroom. I think the topics explored in the book are important to talk about and I’m interested to see how other teachers have used or might use this book.

  6. Andrea LeMahieu says:

    I LOVED that this book was from the child’s perspective. I thought the use of run-on sentences (that sometimes went for almost a page) really let me get into Joey’s mind and it let me really feel the energy built up inside of him. This book gave me an entirely new perspective and made me think about those with ADD/ADHD in a different way. Growing up my brother had very severe ADHD and as I child I really struggled to understand why my brother acted certain ways or why he was always getting in trouble in school. Many times I was ashamed and embarrassed by the way he acted in public. Until reading this book I never really thought about what he was feeling inside or that he might have been trying really hard to control his behavior but was unable to do so. After reading this, I wanted to immediately call my brother and apologize for the many things that I said and did to him growing up not without ever thinking about his view or how he might be struggling inside. I actually still might make that phone call…

  7. While I can’t remember if I read aloud this first of the series to kids (as it came out a while ago) I did read aloud the last one, I AM NOT JOEY PIGZA, to my 4th graders with great success. I find the best way to get a handle on a book for me is to read it aloud to my students and that year I was on the Newbery Committee and was very interested to see if my supposition that kids would react very differently form adults was true.

    It was. While adults are experienced enough to be horrified at the parents’ actions (especially the dad’s), kids see it more as an over-the-top crazy book. And most of all, they admire and adore Joey. He is a remarkable, resilient, and wonderful character and kids connect with him, hurt with him, and cheer with him. Reading it aloud also caused us to truly appreciate the fabulous sentence-level writing, the descriptions, settings, and more. I talked with the kids about the way adults were viewing the book and they were very articulate about their differing take on it.

    I believe the final Joey book is coming out this year?

  8. Abigail Russo says:

    As others have mentioned, I felt that the writer’s style made Joey’s voice very authentic. The run-on sentences crammed with lots of different ideas, feelings, and observations helped me get a sense of how Joey thinks and reacts to what’s going on around him. There are a whole host of interesting things about a book that characterizes a child with ADD/ADHD and the way it could be received by different audiences. Personally, I was most satisfied by the way that the author clearly communicated that Joey is smart and observant with sophisticated language and thoughtful insights. This helps create a nuanced character who isn’t just defined as a kid who “can’t sit still,” because of course children with attention issues are so much more than that.

  9. This is a difficult, yet wonderful book. I appreciate how Gantos provides a realistic window into the head of someone with ADHD, and how he articulates the uncontrollable urges and highs so clearly with his imagery of springs and the use of run-on sentences. While this book might increase empathy for kids with ADHD amongst their peers, I think this book would be most beneficial to those with ADD and ADHD, to see how Joey struggles in situations that might be familiar to them (hopefully without any copy-cat nail situations). As an adult reader, I would love to know more about the backstory, especially the characters of the mom and the grandmother. For more mature older readers, it might be an interesting perspective to have them write a chapter from the mom’s, or teacher’s point of view!

  10. Oh. Oh my. This one really resonated for me.

    I WAS Joey Pigza. To a lesser degree, perhaps, but this dug up a lot of memories for an ADHD kid who still hangs onto some of those tendencies. It’s pretty remarkable that the author was able to describe the internal plight of a child with ADHD, and I was truly surprised to read that the book is not at least semi-autobiographical. I know I would have loved to read this book as a child, especially because the author emphasizes that Joey is smart in spite of his behavioral problems.

    As for the comments that a few people left about being uncomfortable with the negative adult figures… I feel that this is a refreshing take. Think back to your childhood — you had positive adult figures, but chances are you had just as many that didn’t understand you, thought little of you, or were mean for reasons you didn’t understand. It’s a powerful thing to have this truth acknowledged, and it’s one of the reasons I loved Roald Dahl books so passionately as a child (and now). It reminds me of an article that I recently read which I sent to Lolly.

    These quotes are more about children making fun of adults but I feel that there’s some overlap regarding creating negative adult characters.

    “Children find ways of making fun of the bigness, power, and prerogatives of the grown-ups whom they envy. There is another imposing aspect of adults, which is often oppressive and fearful to children, namely their moral authority; and here too children seek relief through mockery. They seize with delight on opportunities to show that the grown-ups are not infallibly good.”
    -Martha Wolfenstein, “Children’s Humor: A Psychological Analysis”

    “I generally write for children between the ages of seven and nine. At these ages, children are only semicivilized. They are in the process of becoming civilized, and the people who are doing the civilizing are the adults around them, specifically their parents and their teachers. Because of this, children are inclined, at least subconsciously, to regard grown-ups as the enemy. I see this as natural, and I often work it into my children’s books. That’s why the grown-ups in my books are sometimes silly or grotesque. I like to poke fun at grown-ups, especially the pretentious ones and the grouchy ones.”
    -Roald Dahl

  11. Marina Chan says:

    This book really opened the world of a kid’s struggle with ADHD and his attempts to understand himself and be understood. The author did a great job holding the voice of Joey through dialogue and reflections that come from a child’s viewpoint. Through Joey’s voice, I became sympathetic about his experiences. I agree with Robin that the diversity of adults portrayed in the story is refreshing – some supportive, some not so supportive, lends a realistic picture of society today and the challenges children with learning differences face. This would be a great book for teachers to broaden their knowledge on the topic, though I have mixed feelings about bringing this book into the classroom, perhaps selecting certain scenes as a prompt for students to engage with and respond to.

  12. Long Phan says:

    I agree with much of what’s already been said. As an adult, I was disappointed by the behavior and actions of Joey’s mom and grandma (eg. mixing amaretto “medicine” drinks and shoving Joey into the fridge), but I also felt sorry for them. I could also relate to the frustration of Joey’s teachers who felt that he was out of control and disrespectful. His teachers seemed to be giving him a lot of chances, and in some ways were the only adult figures in his life. As a student, I remember growing up with a lot of students with ADHD, but we didn’t have a name for it. I just assumed they had difficult home lives and were just misbehaving. This book gave me a window into the personal struggle of someone with ADHD, which was nicely complemented by the writing structure and style. The author made me feel like I was a visitor in Joey’s mind and keeping up with the frenetic pace of his thoughts and observations was tiring!

  13. Shannon Moran says:

    The first Jack Gantos book I read was Hole in My Life that was geared towards young adult and teenage readers. Reading Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key was a dramatically different experience. As an adult reader and a teacher, I related more to Mrs. Maxy who was trying to maintain order in her classroom. This book made me empathize with students of mine who may suffer from ADHD. It’s rare to get a glimpse into their perspectives on misbehavior in the classroom. It also made me think about the outside factors and adults influencing student achievement. I, like many others, cringed at Joey’s antics in the classroom with pencil sharpeners and sharp scissors. However, as a young child, I think these antics would be incredibly humorous. Additionally, every child struggles with adults and teachers who just don’t understand them. This book could help to foster a greater appreciation for students in the classroom who have learning disabilities; it could also be used as the source for discussions about classroom expectations and self-monitoring skills. Not only is this book and its protagonist Joey thoroughly engaging, I think the themes in this text could be used for greater instructional value.

  14. Nell O'Donnell says:

    First off, while I didn’t enjoy this book at first, Joey ended up really growing on me. As I think about some of the issues that have come up in our small group investigation of who should tell the stories, it seems so clear to me just how valuable it would be for a child (with or without ADHD) who was constantly getting in to trouble to have reminders that he (or she) can still be a good person, even if s/he is often sent to the principal’s office, accidentally hurts someone else, comes from a less than perfect home, etc.

  15. I think it’s interesting how many people are commenting on the negative adult figures in this book. Although they certainly did some negative things, I think it’s important that books written for children (especially when told from the perspective of an actual child!) are realistic and can help kids relate to their own experiences. This is what will help them gain a love for reading. Joey has ADHD and in reality, children who have this disorder are often misunderstood by adults and other children, and therefore, may not always be treated with the utmost respect by authority. It is important that literature be relatable, not always showing what a perfect world would look like, and therefore I applaud the author.

  16. Alexandra Fish says:

    The writing style of this book was very intriguing. Jack Gantos writes in a way that kids sometimes talk – pouring out thoughts and emotions all at once. LIke others have mentioned, this would be a great book for a classroom read aloud. Joey’s inner dialogue makes for excellent classroom discussions, as well as modeling of expression and fluency while reading. I think that the most powerful element of this book is the first person perspective Jack uses to tell Joey’s story. Not only will this approach help student readers relate to Joey’s triumphs and struggles; it can also help teachers and parents understand challenging behaviors from the child’s point of view.

  17. Sarah Thompson says:

    Hi Andrea! I find the link you make to your brother’s experience really interesting. I would be curious to know HIS response to a book like this one–specifically if as an adult, the descriptions of Joey’s experiences resonate with him.

  18. Lauren Adams says:

    Though this first Joey Pigza book was published over 15 years ago, it is as relevant now as ever. The CDC reports that 5% of children in the U.S. are diagnosed with ADHD, but there are higher estimates in community samples and parent-reported diagnoses. ( Last week Newton South High School (Newton, MA) produced Lisa Loomer’s darkly funny play Distracted (the Off-Broadway production starred Cynthia Nixon) about a mother’s quest for the right diagnosis (does HER child really have ADHD?) and treatments (to medicate or not to medicate?) and the elusive happy teacher, happy family, happy child. The topic clearly resonated with all members of this this suburban high school audience–parents, teachers, and students alike. Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key is still a topical, empathy-building, discussion-provoking first-hand perspective of life with ADHD… AND a fresh, engaging read–try reading a page of Joey’s run-on stream-of-consciousness aloud in one breath!

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