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Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key | Class #3, 2016

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 described in the book completely 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. Elizabeth Dorr says:

    The first chapter of Joey Pigza clearly sets the stage for readers to understand a bit about Joey’s personality, his ADHD, and how he gets himself into trouble. The syntax mimics Joey’s manic steam of consciousness with rambling sentences, lots of commas, and quick transitions between seemingly unrelated ideas or actions. As a literary device I find this quite intriguing and fun. However, I wonder about students who are still somewhat new readers making those same connections or even being able to muddle through the long sentences and follow along with Joey.

  2. Anthony Capone says:

    I really enjoyed this book because it has so much to offer. Each of the characters in the book reacts to Joey’s antics in a very different way, but it remains clear that all of the adults in his life genuinely care about him. Mr. Gantos writes in a way that elucidates Joey’s perspective on the events that happen around him, giving students an opportunity to make personal connections and discuss their own opinions of Joey’s actions and the adults’ responses. I liked the realness of the book and think it is something that allows students in a similar living situation, whether or not they have ADHD, to connect with the text on a deeper level. Some of the conversations that Joey has with his mother, like the one when he is waiting on the porch for her to get back from work and the one they have while on the bus to Pittsburgh, do not water down the reality of how it is to be a part of a family that has been dysfunctional but is trying to improve. I can see kids being very engaged in reading this book.

  3. Erin King says:

    I just finished reading the book a few minutes ago, and I’m really glad that it’s on our syllabus. I loved the writing style of the book and how authentic Joey was. It was enlightening to hear about an experience with ADHD from the child’s view. As an upper elementary teacher, I have encountered many children with ADHD who have gone through similar experiences as Joey, but it was hard for me to truly understand what they were going through. Joey’s narration in the story enhanced my own understanding of what it’s like to be a child with ADHD, and there were certain moments in the book that broke my heart. For example, when Joey is excited about trying the shoofly pie on the field trip but is then denied a slice because he doesn’t need any more sugar made me feel angry for Joey. He is a normal kid who wants a slice of the intriguing pie on the field trip, but he gets treated differently because of his disorder. This book would be valuable for all teachers to read to get a sense of what some of their students are going through. Of course everyone has different personal experiences, but Joey’s story would provide valuable insight into the struggles some students face and could increase empathy for these children.

  4. Montserrat Cubillos says:

    I agree with Anthony when he states that the book does not “water down” any realities. In fact, I was impressed of how often Joey’s narration was deep and sad. It pained me to read how Joey’s grandmother would have him wait for his mother by the window. Even if students are not able to completely grasp every situation, they will probably relate easily to Joey’s open and sincere perspective. Gantos does a great job at providing enough clues for an adult to infer a big picture while also giving enough descriptions for a student to follow the story without getting lost. I love how the author treats us with respect by not spelling things out for us.

  5. Mariel Perlow says:

    Having had the experience of reading this book now before and after teaching a special education classroom, I am amazed at how different my reading experience was. The first read, during my undergraduate elementary education major, I was so frustrated at Joey and the adults in his life for the wild, reckless behavior. Now, having had the experience of knowing and teaching students withe good hearts who made choices unsafe for themselves or others, I most appreciate Jack Gantos for representing students who feel like no one understands, and who often feel like school is not for them. The book could open up some valuable conversations about emotions, self-regulation and intentions, for readers of all ages.

  6. Caroline Holkeboer says:

    I loved reading this book! Like others, I felt that Jack Gantos gave us a wonderful window into Joey’s perspective as young boy with ADHD. As I was reading, I found myself becoming frustrated with many of the adults in the story, but like Anthony, I was also struck by how each adult figure showed they did truly did care about Joey’s success. Overall, I think that this book is very relatable for students, even for those who don’t have ADHD, and would be a great independent book or even whole class read aloud in the upper elementary grades. I’m definitely adding it to my collection!

  7. Joanna Craig says:

    I had not read this book before reading it for this class, but I felt similarly to Mariel in regards to how I look back now on the students I taught who had ADHD or other sensory processing disorders. I too remember feeling extremely frustrated with these students’ behaviors, and wondering why they could not just pull it together and stay seated in class. However, I felt that Jack Gantos did an incredible job making Joey behave and speak like a real child, and I became sympathetic towards how he was feeling throughout the book. I particularly appreciated his anecdote about “good” days, and how Joey is able to identify the difference between how he feels on those good days, and how he feels the rest of the days. It gave me a better understanding of how even young students in a classroom may be cognizant of the way that they are acting, despite being unable to change or control their behaviors.

  8. Yumeng Fang says:

    I read this book with such mixed feelings. I found myself constantly switching amongst the perspectives of Joey, his classmates, the teacher, nurse, doctors and his mom – and their extensions in real life. I was brought into my own recollection of the naughty kids around me when I was young, and imagined the what I would do now as I continue to be trained to care for children’s social emotional development and disorders. It reminds of many themes that we have been learning scientifically, such as the importance of family relationships in kids’ emotional development, and the interplay between temperament and environment. In addition, reading through the book made me sympathetic to Joey, and I began to have growing capacity to see things from a “problem” kid’s perspective. But at the same time, I was reminded that this is a fictional children’s book, not an autobiography – so I wondered how authentic should I regard the narrations as one that reflects the experiences of children like Joey in real life? At any rate, I realize this book is not only a children’s book, but one that is suitable for adults to read – adults who want to understand children.

  9. Carla Cevallos says:

    My reading experience with “Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key” was a very weird mixture of enjoyment, compassion, and pain. I found Joey’s ingenious voice funny and smart, but I also couldn’t help to feel touched by his desperate circumstances and his resignation while facing them. As a special education teacher, I share the opinion of several of the people who have commented that the book made them think about ADHD from a very different perspective, one that gives a much more real and intimate view of the child’s world. However, I think that I couldn’t help to read the book through that lens, and I can’t entirely imagine how the story feels like in a child’s mind. I think that as a child I might have felt really frustrated with Joey Pigza’s behavior. This might very well be the author’s intent (to make the children experience a little bit of frustration, since it must be really frustrating to live in a world that understands you so little), but I’m just curious about what are children’s reactions and if they like or enjoy the book.

  10. Allison Bishop says:

    Having taught mixed groups of students, some with regular cognitive abilities and some struggling with ADHD and other issues, I am so excited to see that Gantos’ Joey Pigza is portrayed as a good kid trying his best. It’s so easy to overlook that many kids do want to learn, do want to succeed, and lump them in with ‘bad kids’ — even knowing that it’s easy and looking out for my own stereotypes, I know that I’ve struggled with it in every classroom I’ve been in. I am left wanting more – more Joey Pigza, but also more books dealing with children (in all their guises) in such a loving, accepting, hopeful way.

  11. Annie Kleiman says:

    While Lolly makes the point that the real target audience of the book is Joey’s contemporaries, I almost think that adults – specifically teachers – are in a better position to appreciate all of its nuance and details. I agree with Elizabeth in wondering if the long sentences might be confusing for less experienced readers, although I personally enjoyed the style very much. I could almost hear Joey’s voice as I read the words, like he was sitting in front of me telling me all about his crazy day.

  12. Jason Brown says:

    I’m still getting over the fact that this book was written primarily for children! I could not believe all of the adult “problems” that occurred throughout the book. While I don’t think anything was too inappropriate for an upper elementary student, I just don’t know how much they could grasp some of these concepts. Yes, my 5th graders knew about ADHD and taking pills for it, but did they know why? Would they understand that maybe someone acts different because their mother drank while pregnant?
    I guess for my mature readers and those who experienced a lot of hardship in their lives, this book would have been very appealing. But because most of my class was reading at extremely low levels, I would find this themes too complex for them.
    On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed it! As others have mentioned above, it is certainly a good read for teachers to gain more insight about some of the struggles are kids are going through. I’m excited to read others in the series!

  13. Jennifer Wu says:

    This books has so much to offer– both to adults and children. I think children can learn to empathize for Joey… of gaining new perspectives about their peers (as mentioned from the interview) but can also really relate to Joey (even if they do not have ADD or ADHD): I think all kids can remember times when they felt they were unfarily punished… and how deeply that hurt them in that very moment… because they didn’t mean to. And that’s almost everyday for Joey, who means wells but can’t make the right decisions. And that, I felt, was a very important perspective; not blaming him but not pitying him… of acknowledging his good intentions but also demanding that he take ownership of his decisions and choices. That there are certain things out of his control, yes, but that there are also things that ARE within his control… and learning to balance that his ADHD is a part of him but also not all of him. That, to me, was extremely powerful… and can be powerful for both adults and children a-like.

  14. John Travis says:

    I appreciate the comments of some of the other readers and I have never been an elementary or middle school literacy teacher, but I am left wondering about some of the recent comments related to what kids can or cannot understand in literature. As I read the book I certainly saw the various topics that are certainly “adult” in nature (alcoholism, poverty, abandonment, mental illness, etc) and that were veiled in inferences throughout the text. However, is it the purpose of a book in a classroom setting for a child to “get” everything upon a first read? First, there are many kids who “get” alcoholism, poverty and abandonment far better than I ever will. That some of the topics or themes are veiled in inferences given that Joey narrates the story might actually be a rich way to have a classroom discussion about challenging topics that push students for rigorous reading and mining textual inferences. That the book can be a rich reading experience for an adult only solidifies that feeling for me.

  15. Hello everyone: First off, I’m not ‘snooping’ even though I am a bit of a snoop (part of being a writer). Lolly had given me the green light to jump in on the comment page. First, I read each comment very thoroughly and have come away with such a fresh perception of the book–and a confirmation that the vitality of the book is still robust within the reader. I wrote it in 1997 while sitting in a garage in our little adobe house in Albuquerque. The moment of inspiration for the book came from a boy in a classroom in Lancaster, PA. He was a real kid. And as I was addressing his class he was spinning around in his chair and shouting out the endings to my sentences as if he could read my mind–and then he became nervous and shouted out, “Teacher! Teacher! I forgot to take my meds!” I’ll never forget that, and how he shot down the hall, punching the lockers as he went.
    Since the books publication I have probably received thousands of letters from kids who have read the book–and parents and teachers. The depth of empathy for Joey is so positive it can lift my sense of humanity on the worst days. The young readers often tell me about a kid in their class, like Joey, who is driving them nuts–but after reading the book they will give the kid a second chance. I admire that generous spirit. On the other hand all the ‘Joeys’ write me–and often a letter begins with, “How did you know I felt that way?”. They have found a voice in a book which is their own. And when I visit schools kids come up to me and flat out tell me, “I’m on meds. I’ll be okay during the presentation.” And they are such great kids–all of them.
    I didn’t know the book would resonate this deeply and for this long, but it still is read in classrooms across the country–and is popular overseas (where ‘weaknesses’ such as Joey’s are not much discussed, or tolerated).
    I did add his family situation into the mix. I did so with intent so that the reader must question, and sort through the ADHD behavior, and behavior which may resemble ADHD but is the result of a very iffy and unstable homelife. Or both, as is the case with Joey. As the other volumes reveal–the family itself is a major contributor to Joey’s instability. And yet, he has his strengths: his great empathy, his great heart, his great determination to do good, and to survive.
    I won’t labor you any longer, but just to say that I thank you for reading the book because I know (and this is true for the writer) that through the reading of the text we all grow more sensitive to the needs of the characters–especially the young ones–because there is a Joey or two in every classroom, or so it seems.
    All Best, Jack

  16. Ken Hagberg says:

    Well I’m a little late with this post, but I also get to reflect on the book after reading the author’s comment which is awesome. I had never read this book before, but wish I had picked it up before teaching special education a few years back. I was really taken aback by how real and genuine I found Joey’s experience to be. I do believe that many, if not all, of the students that I taught during that time would have had a very difficult time getting through this book if assigned for independent reading. I do think that this book would be absolutely perfect to work through as a class though as so many different paths to learning are presented. Jack’s perspective on writing about Joey and his family also provided much deeper context to the book.

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