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Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos

30 Jul

I wasn’t prepared for how incredibly sad this book would make me. I’d read several reviews that indicated that it was intense at times, as well as funny, but I didn’t anticipate the extent to which it would disturb me.  I listened to the audio version read by the author, which didn’t help matters. Jack Gantos did a great job of making me believe that Joey was a real kid with very real ADHD. It alternately made me laugh out loud…and then caught me by surprise and ripped my heart out.

There were hysterically funny moments in Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. Mostly, though, I felt sad and horrified while listening to Joey’s thoughts. He wanted so much to make good choices, but his mind and his body was so far outside of his own control that he was unable to restrain himself from being impulsive. He’d been abandoned and neglected and abused and been made to feel stupid and bad.  Even when Joey had great intentions and was trying so hard to follow through, he managed to keep getting into more and more trouble. If it had been a movie, I think I would have had to cover my eyes to keep from seeing what was going to happen next.  I could see exactly where the story was going to go and I had no way to yell: “Stop! Don’t do it!”

There were times when Joey looked awfully familiar. I’ve had students like Joey. They are difficult and frustrating and exasperating—and I’ve loved them. I felt an affinity with his teachers who keep trying to help Joey. I felt sad when they failed, and hopeful when Joey got on a new medication that seemed to be helping him, despite his crazy, dysfunctional family. I felt compassion for his mother, who despite her own problems wanted the best for Joey and was willing to make her own changes to help him.

Although it made me sad, I highly recommend this book to parents, teachers and kids.  Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key is the first book in a trilogy which includes Joey Pigza Loses Control and What would Joey Do? I’ve put them on my “to read” list, but I may need to steel myself for them—and buy more Kleenex.  I highly recommend the unabridged audio version read by the author, who is not only a gifted author but also a terrific reader.

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key is a Newbery Honor Book and is recommended for ages 9-12 (though sensitive kids may need adult guidance and support.) It is published by Harper Collins.