1998

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key

By Jack Gantos

Current & Digital Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Reading Level: Ages 10 & Up

Gary D. Schmidt writes:

The classical formula suggests that the test of a great book is its ability to teach and to delight, and certainly, with Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, we have a novel that delights.  Beginning with the brilliant opening sentence, readers are gripped: “At school they say I’m wired bad, or wired mad, or wired sad, or wired glad, depending on my mood and what teacher has ended up with me.” Right there, in that one sentence, is the whole world that Joey Pigza has to live with. Right there. Between that sentence and the complementary final sentence—“Then I went over to the bookshelf and picked out a book, and since no one was in the Big Quiet Chair I climbed up and sat down and began to read”—we have surprise and mayhem and vaudevillian comedy and a kid readers root for because he has so much to overcome yet in his goodheartedness we sense something we see only rarely outside of a novel and which we yearn for desperately.

But, in all that delight, this is a novel that teaches—or, since that word sounds almost pejorative here, a novel that brings us to new understanding.

Joey Pigza struggles mightily with an attention deficit disorder that is almost overwhelming, and one of the brilliancies of this novel is its ability to bring us inside a character to help us to experience, and therefore understand, what that might feel like:

And as I spoke I could feel my heart just picking up speed so I closed my
eyes and sat on my hands because sometimes that helps settle me down
like I’m in my own straitjacket… She knew I could never get to the why
of anything. I could never get my mind to gather exactly what I wanted to
say, and I could never find the trail to the bottom of what I meant. There
were so many other trails that wandered off along the way, and me with
them… [S]omeday all that asking me “why?” is going to wear my brain
down so that it is as smooth as a boiled egg and I’ll just sit in Mrs.
Howard’s big chair all my life like the coma kids and that word why will
float through me from ear to ear like a warm breeze.

If your heart does not break to this, you don’t have one. Here is a smart, imaginative kid, keenly aware of his disabilities, able to visualize his struggles, frustrated, terrified about the way those struggles might end—and for much of the novel, surrounded by those who, if they could, would abandon him, and some who would do him active hurt—his mother, his father, his grandmother, some of the teachers, some of the students. 

To say that we cheer when he finally finds the kind and gentle Special Ed is an understatement.

But I think we cheer even more for Joey Pigza, who has found all sorts of coping mechanisms to survive, beginning with the one that so many kids who are different develop: becoming the class clown. His “Can I get back to you on that?” is frustrating to his teachers but hilarious to the other students. His antics in class regale: He can swallow a key and pull it back out, a skill that has a grotesquely fascinating quality to it. But it is his innocently upbeat voice that brings our cheers, because despite the family life that has been so destructive, despite the fact that he begins to understand that his condition was not inevitable but preventable, despite the abandonment, he retains a belief that he’s a good kid in a good world. 

And he’s right about the first part.

Not the second.

The joy of the novel is that it almost seems as if his own belief leads him to a place where there is, finally, goodness.

And what does he find there?  Let’s go back to the opening and closing sentences and think about their poetry. “I’m wired bad, or wired mad, or wired sad, or wired glad,” may sound poetic to the reader—because it is: it is perfect iambic meter. The repetition of the word “wired” follows the powerful rhythm of the sentence, so that the rhythm of the word together with the repetition of the short /a/ creates a kind of inevitable predictability. Joey Pigza’s life is trapped within its own quick and inexorable rhythms.  But now, the final sentence again: “Then I went over to the bookshelf and picked out a book, and since no one was in the Big Quiet Chair I climbed up and sat down and began to read.” The manic, inevitable quick rhythm is gone, replaced with quieter and more complex structures that are less predictable and more slowly paced. Even the dominant vowel sounds that are so quick and driving in the first sentence are replaced by vowels of longer duration—as in over, book, down, read—slowing down the reader’s pace in the same way that Joey himself has been slowed down.

That is amazing stuff from a writer.

Joey, by the end of the book, finds some peace, and contentment, and acceptance, and a slower more comprehensible pace for his life. The sounds of his own sentences reveal this to us.

Gantos captures the back-and-forth world of a kid who senses his out-of-controlness with his own earnest hope that he is not a bad kid—as he has probably been often told. Some horrible things happen here, but his voice prevents a descent into that horror. He swallows his key, and pulls it back up, and swallows it again, but he moves past it. He sticks his finger into the pencil sharpener, but it is an accident—sort of—and he moves past it. Kids from the neighborhood tie him up like a dog, but he moves past it quickly, and without a voice of malice. He understands that his mother’s alcoholism may very well have had an effect on his own life, but he moves past it quickly, without anger. He knows that his grandmother has abandoned him—and both his parents—but he accepts his mother, worries about his grandmother, and desperately tried to see his father with a telescope located far above the streets of Philadelphia.

Not a bad kid at all.

The union of a light voice with awful things is both Joey’s defense and his glory as a character, particularly in his extraordinary scene with Maria. In this, Gantos takes one of the most clichéd of clichéd ideas—you should not run with scissors—and creates a moment that is both hysterically funny and horribly grotesque. Joey runs with his teacher’s scissors and trips over his rabbit slippers, slicing off the very tip of Maria’s nose.   

[Y]ou should have seen the blood. It was like a pipe had burst. Blood just
poured onto the floor from the cut end of her nose and she stood there
shaking with her eyes wide open like she stuck her finger in the electric
socket. I bent over and picked up the end of her nose, which now looked
like the tiny end piece of a sliced banana. Then I stood up and pressed it
back in place but the blood sprayed out in a circle like a shower nozzle. 
Oh, it was awful. Her mouth was wide open and no more sounds came
out and I looked into her eyes and there was so much fear trapped in them
I went instantly out of my mind, worse than Maria even… And I was
shrieking “I’m sorry!  I’m sorry!” as I tried to pat, pat the little nose piece
back in place like it would stick…

The scene, with its blood and fear, is horrifying; the action is vaudeville, with the desperate attempt to put back the end of Maria’s nose; the telling is that of an innocent, a kid who immediately turns to visual comparisons to understand what has happened.

And what follows says much about Joey. He breaks his mother’s iron rule—he must not leave the house—to go to Maria’s house and apologize. What he meets, perhaps understandably, is the adult frustration and anger that has followed him all his life, though heightened by a parent’s outrage. Maria’s father chases him away.

“Get out of here,” he said.
“It was an accident,” I replied. “I’m not a bad kid.”
“I don’t care if you are the Baby Jesus,” he said. 

This break, like so many breaks in the novel, is never healed; Maria is taken out of Joey’s school, and Joey himself is removed to another institution—where he meets Special Ed.

And here, too, we see one of the greatnesses of this novel: its hardnosed (no pun intended) honesty. Bad things do happen in the world, and they are not always healed.  Sometimes bad things abide, and the most we can do is to learn to cope with them.

By the end of the novel, Joey Pigza has found the medical help he needs—but there is still his mother’s alcoholism and her troubled parenting. He has found some closeness to other kids—but he will leave these kids and go back to a school where he will face all the baggage of his past.  His father is still gone.  His grandmother is still gone.

And his disease abides. 

But as readers, we sense that this kid, this survivor, this character who is so insightful about himself, this character who is so focused on his own inner spiritual life—“I’m not a bad kid”—will cope, and perhaps even flourish. That the book ends with the serene image of Joey sitting in a chair, reading a book, seems to assure us of this.

Gary D. Schmidt is a professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was a National Book Award Young People’s Literature Finalist in 2011 for Okay for Now. He received both a Newbery Honor and a Printz Honor for Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and a Newbery Honor for The Wednesday Wars. He lives with his family on a 150-year-old farm in Alto, Michigan, where he splits wood, plants gardens, writes, and feeds the wild cats that drop by.

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YPL Finalists That Year:

  • Ann Cameron for The Secret Life of Amanda K. Woods
  • Jack Gantos for Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key
  • Anita Lobel for No Pretty Pictures: A Child of War
  • Richard Peck for A Long Way from Chicago: A Novel in Stories

YPL Winner That Year: Louis Sachar for Holes

Judges That Year: Karla Kuskin Bell, Victor Martinez, Liz Rosenberg, Spencer Shaw, Suzanne Fisher Staples

The Year in Literature: Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse won the Newbery Medal.

More Information: Jack Gantos got the idea for his title character, Joey Pigza, when he was giving a speech at a school in Pennsylvania. “This kid was sitting in the front row (teachers tend to put the really active kids in the front) spinning around on the seat of his chair. He was really smart and having a blast. I would start to tell a joke, and he would figure out the punch line and say it before I could. He was finishing my sentences! He was having fun, but then he changed. He became quite worried. ‘Teacher, teacher!’ he called out. ‘I forgot to take my medication!’ She pointed to the door and out he ran. I could hear him slapping every locker as he ran down the hall to the nurse's office.” When he got home, Gantos started writing a description of the boy and was so taken with him that he switched to writing in first person and the novel grew from there.

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