Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key Summary

Jack Gantos

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key

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Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key Summary

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Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key is a children’s novel by Jack Gantos. It’s the first book in the Joey Pigza series. It was published by Harper in 1998 and centers around a young boy and his struggles with ADHD. The book won the California Young Readers Medal for Middle School/Junior High in 2002 and was nominated for various other accolades. Gantos is praised for his sharp characterization and humor.

The protagonist is Joey Pigza. He’s a young boy who’s always getting into trouble at school. His teachers don’t know how to handle his erratic and odd behaviour. Joey knows he’s not like other children, which frustrates him because he doesn’t know how to behave like them. He doesn’t think he’s a bad boy and he doesn’t understand why his actions often have negative consequences. He gets angry because he’s very intelligent but has no discipline.

Joey knows he has something called attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. This isn’t ever spelled out in the book, but the diagnosis is heavily implied. He takes medicine for it, but he never has enough, and it doesn’t last all day. He’s particularly badly behaved in his afternoon classes at school, and his teachers don’t look forward to having him there. This makes things worse for Joey, because he can’t behave himself no matter how hard he tries.

Joey had a difficult upbringing. His father left years ago, and his mother is an alcoholic. He lives with his grandmother who also has ADHD, which is not an ideal combination for him. His grandmother doesn’t try to help him understand his condition better—instead, she’s mentally and physically abusive. Joey doesn’t feel like he can catch a break anywhere.

One of Joey’s favourite things to do is swallow a key on a piece of string so he can pull it back out again. However, one day he forgets to attach the string to the key, and he swallows it completely. He doesn’t know how to get it out now. To make matters worse, this is his house key, so he can’t get home. This is only one example of the ways he misbehaves, and in most cases, he only hurts himself.

However, sometimes he hurts other students which alarms the teachers. They don’t know what to do with him other than put him in a special education class for a couple of hours a day. No one tries to educate themselves on what could be wrong with him—he’s just a problem they want to ignore. This only makes Joey feel worse and his behaviour deteriorates.

He accidentally injures another student while he’s running with scissors in the classroom, which he knows he’s not supposed to do. The teachers don’t want him in their classes anymore and they arrange for him to attend a special education school. This means Joey must leave everything and everyone familiar behind, but he might at least get a proper education.

When he gets to the new school, the staff have training to deal with pupils like him who suffer from ADHD. He gets assigned a caseworker and they try to get him the right medication for his needs. Joey starts relaxing because they don’t treat him like a bad child—they know he can’t help how he behaves. He also meets other children with special needs which makes him feel less alone.

While he’s at the school, he talks more about his homelife. Although the teachers know a bad homelife doesn’t cause ADHD, they also know it doesn’t help him control it. He’s upset because of how his grandmother treats him, and when his mother comes back, this makes things worse. He’s still worried there might be something more serious wrong with him that medication can’t fix, and the teachers want to reassure him that’s not the case.

Still, they need to get him tested in case he has other health problems causing the erratic behavior. A brain scan comes back normal and he’s in the clear. The doctors tell him the medication he’s currently taking simply isn’t the right kind for him, which doesn’t make him bad. It just means he needs different treatment.

Under better medical supervision, Joey starts new medication which he can take throughout the day. It’s a slow release medication, instead of the pills he takes which only last a few hours in the morning. Joey feels better because he feels more in control of his condition, even if it can’t be cured. He knows he’ll never be completely the same as other children, but this doesn’t bother him anymore.

Joey also understands that his grandmother is an example of someone who never got the proper care and treatment for her ADHD. He knows he’s a smart kid and he’s capable of achieving great things in his life. He just needs more help than others, but he understands now that this isn’t a bad thing. The novel ends on hopeful note.