2-in-1 Review: Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key & Joey Pigza Loses Control by Jack Gantos

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Title: Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key

Author: Jack Gantos

Series: Joey Pigza (#1)

Genre: Realistic Middle-Grade Fiction

Number of Pages: 160

Rating: A-

Recommended?: Yes

This is one of those books I meant to read as a kid but that I didn’t end up getting to until I was an adult. Luckily for me, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key is surprisingly complex and a great read for people of any age. The first book in Jack Gantos’ critically acclaimed series introduces the eponymous Joey, a young boy with severe ADHD who was raised by his abusive grandmother. After years of absence his mom shows up but she doesn’t know how to be a mother, let alone successfully parent a boy who’s out-of-control behavior puts his own well-being and the safety of others at risk. Even though I would not want to be Joey’s mom or teacher I couldn’t help really feeling for him. He is a well-realized and likable character and even though I’ve never met somebody who’s hyperactivity and impulse control problems are nearly at Joey Pigza level the book does an excellent job of putting you inside the character’s head. This book is darker than you might expect for the age level but for me the takeaway felt positive, with Joey trying to take responsibility for his actions and change his life when the odds feel dramatically against him.

Note: This didn’t really fit anywhere in the review, but I just wanted to comment on my displeasure that it’s hard to find some of the later books in the series that have the sublime Brian Selznick illustrations on the front, instead of the hideous modern art-like images you see on some editions.

jack gantos - joey pigza - Signed - AbeBooks

Title: Joey Pigza Loses Control

Author: Jack Gantos

Series: Joey Pigza (#2)

Genre: Realistic Middle-Grade Fiction

Number of Pages: 208

Rating: A

Recommended?: Yes

Wow, poor Joey Pigza has got to have one of the most dysfunctional families in all of middle grade fiction. This sequel picks up shortly after the ending of the first book, where Joey finally found a treatment that kept his severe ADHD in check. However, his life doesn’t stay peaceful for long when he goes to stay with his dad, a deadbeat alcoholic who claims to have gotten his act together. Despite the presence of his awful grandmother, Joey enjoys his dad’s company at first until his dad starts showing his true colors and the newly chilled-out Joey has to make some big decisions for himself or risk going back to square one. This is a worthy sequel and I liked how Joey’s character stays true to the original even though his behavior has become more low-key. I also enjoyed seeing the development of Joey’s mom and how she’s become much more a parent to him than she was in the first book.

Overview: Joey Pigza is a great character and I really like how Jack Gantos is willing to explore some darker themes with these stories while still offering hope to his well-intentioned young protagonist. The adult characters are also unusually well-developed for middle grade books.