Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key – ADD/ADHD

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, written by Jack Gantos as a YA book for kids 10 yrs. and older.   This is the first in a series of four books about a boy who is a handful.  Brilliantly written from Joey’s viewpoint, Gantos captures with great authenticity Joey’s out-of-control world with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).   Joey opens the story commenting,  “At school they say I’m wired bad, or wired mad, or wired sad, or wired glad, depending on my mood.”  Although he takes “dud” medications in the morning, by lunch time they wear off.   Joey feels like there is little he can do to keep himself from bouncing out of his chair.  This leads to big trouble and a lot of time outs.

Gantos takes you on a roller coaster of a journey inside the mind,  feelings and actions of Joey, who is reared in a dysfunctional family.   Joey’s intentions are good, but he ends up swallowing his house key,  disrupts his class daily,  ruins a field trip, hurts himself when he sticks his finger in an electric pencil sharpener, and accidentally injures a classmate.   He is sent to a special-education program where he is evaluated.   This book is both heartbreaking  and humorous, as Joey attempts to hold his world together.  It certainly is a page turner.  You can’t help but love Joey and want to cheer for him as he tries to gain control over his world.  Gantos has a gift of getting into the core of his characters.  His book won the National Books Awards and are in their second and third printings.  I highly recommend this book for any child with ADD or ADHD, parents and teachers.  A great discussion book to use in a classroom.

Joey Pigza Loses Control, the second in a series by Jack Gantos for kids around the 5th grade.   I found myself so invested in the first book, I had to find out what happened to Joey.   Joey’s medications are finally administered by a patch, and we find him beginning to find his way.  He is more  self-confident, respectful,  focused, thinks before acting and feels better about himself.  Until, his father appears on the scene and wants Joey to spend the summer with him.  Mom isn’t happy, but decides that Joey needs to get to know his father.   Dad is a baseball coach, and Joey turns out to be an outstanding pitcher.  What Joey soon discovers is that his father  is more wired and out of control than he is.   His father feels that Joey needs to deal with his hyperactivity like a man, and takes away his patches.

Once again, Gantos takes the reader through another page turning book, and Joey’s journey becomes more interesting and complicated.   Joey begins to  feel himself spin out of control without his medication.   His hyperactive father wants Joey to be manly about handling himself, so he takes him on a reckless course of bungee jumping and teaching him to drive a car, when he can’t see over the dashboard.  However, Joey has learned some  tools to keep everything together for as long as he possibly can.   Will Joey succumb, or make the right decisions for himself?

It is very tempting to review all four books, but I don’t want to give away Joey’s remarkable journey.  There is a third and a fourth book in the series:  What Would Joey Do  and I Am Not Joey Pigza.

Information for Parents:  Some studies estimate that 1.7 percent of children have ADHD, while others claim the number may be closer to 26 percent.   The Journal of the American Medical Association says that ADHD ” is among the most common neurodevelopmental disorder in children.”   Boys are affected three times as often as girls.  Sometimes ADHD is accompanied with a learning disability.  There are organizations available to help both children and adults with ADHD.  They focus on possible causes, symptoms, treatment, support and coaching.    CHADD is an excellent resource.

About Patricia Tiltonhttps://childrensbooksheal.wordpress.comI want "Children's Books Heal" to be a resource for parents, grandparents, teachers and school counselors. My goal is to share books on a wide range of topics that have a healing impact on children who are facing challenges in their lives. If you are looking for good books on grief, autism, visual and hearing impairments, special needs, diversity, bullying, military families and social justice issues, you've come to the right place. I also share books that encourage art, imagination and creativity. I am always searching for those special gems to share with you. If you have a suggestion, please let me know.

9 thoughts on “Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key – ADD/ADHD

  1. Thankyou for another interesting post Pat.

    Joey while knows he is wired all wrong, seems to have an acute understanding of his situation, and I notice by the second book he has a better perspective on how to have a handle on things, especially his ADHD. Gantos sounds like an exceptional writer, the way he has you drawn in eager to read the next.
    Interesting name “Joey Pigza”.


    • Glad you enjoyed the review. I read three of the four books, because I couldn’t put them down. The family dynamics get pretty crazy and Joey has to contend with parents who just don’t have it together. The fourth book is a little dark, and Joey has to make some important decisions. Gantos is an outstanding writer. Joey is an extreme case, but these books certainly would be helpful to a child with ADHD. And, I love it that the story is told from the protagonist’s viewpoint.


  2. What an excellent way to “get into the head” of someone with ADHD, through books written from the point of view of the ADHD protagonist. These books that you’re uncovering are real gems, Pat!

    Your review of the first two certainly makes me want to read the entire series (and makes me want to check if Bev has encountered them). It sounds as if they’d be helpful for the parent(s) of an ADHD child as well — would they work as a conversation starter between parents and kid? or perhaps would they work for classmates of an ADHD kid, so that the others could perhaps understand better what their classmate was dealing with?


    • Thank you Beth. The books would go a long way in helping a child with ADHD. They are also good books for discussion with parents and siblings. They could be a classroom read with discussion. They were endorsed by the School Library Association. Jack Gantos is an exceptional writer. If I were writing YA, I would certainly check out his style. Lots of action. He is also the autho of Rotten RaIph series. I checked out his website and there is a video of Gantos discussing all of his rejections before becoming a published author. He’s good because he has perfected his craft during that time. I am going to finish the series — I’m hooked.


  3. Hi Pat, the way you describe the skill with which Gantos gets inside Joey’s ADHD mentality makes me wonder if he struggled with that as a kid. I know we have his autobiography in the library, and he had a hard childhood/early adulthood. It also sounds like a very effective portrayal of dysfunctional family life.

    I was wondering if it is because the fourth book is dark, as you put it, that you feel these tip into YA rather than middle grade?

    I have read the Rotten Ralph series and loved those. This Joey series also sounds like a must for a school library.


    • Joanna, there is a video that is a must see on his website. He talks about how he started writing — his sister’s diary. Yes, Gantos has woven a lot of his own family experiences into his novels. The portrayal of Joey’s family is extreme. I wondered if he had ADHD, but he said he spent a lot of time around kids with ADHD. Although, I have spent a lot of time around ADHD, I would not be able to get into how the child’s mind works — so it makes me wonder. The books are meant for kids over the age of 10. The first two had some humor in them and I thought about how much they reminded me of the early innocence and magical quality of the Harry Potter books. Then each book showed a little more darkness. This could be why they are listed as YA novels. However, early covers on the hardback books are very childlike. The second through fourth books were released again last Friday. And Joey Swallowed the Key will be released in the more modern format July 5. I almost used the original covers, but decided to go with the newer versions. I loved these books, and they certainly entertained me while spending many hours with my daughter the last two weeks.


  4. I have to read this book as my summer reading assignment and one of my questions that I have to answer is what is the climax of the story and the setting of the story. Is the climax of the story when Joey hurts Maria and get suspended or something else? And as for the setting I have no idea of what to put. PLEASE HELP!!!


    • Sofiya,
      This is one of my favorite book series. I hope you read one or two more. The setting of the story has to do with where the story takes place. In Joey’s case, it takes place in his home and at school. He lives with his grandmother, who is abusive at times, because his parents split. Joey’s mother returns to take care of Joey and sends Grandma home. Joey has ADD/ADHD, and in his words calls himself “wired.” He claims his “dud” medications don’t work very long, and by lunch time he is getting into big trouble. You are right, the climax is the dramatic point where things get about as bad as they can for Joey when he accidentaly snips off Maria’s nose. As a result he’s sent to a special education school where he is evaluated and doctors put him on the right dosage of medications. This is a good thing for Joey, because he begins to become calmer, think before he acts and gains better control over his life.

      Good luck,


  5. Pingback: The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza | Children's Books Heal

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