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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

Lolly Robinson is a freelance designer and consultant with degrees in studio art and children’s literature. She is the former creative director for The Horn Book, Inc., and has taught 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 blogged for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.


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Ken Hagberg

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.

Posted : Apr 07, 2016 08:47

Jack Gantos

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

Posted : Apr 07, 2016 07:01

John Travis

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.

Posted : Apr 07, 2016 12:21

Jennifer Wu

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.

Posted : Apr 06, 2016 11:37

Jason Brown

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!

Posted : Apr 06, 2016 02:55

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