Jack Gantos

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key

  • 43-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 15 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a college professor with a Master's degree in English Literature
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Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 43-page guide for “Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key” by Jack Gantos includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 15 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Importance of Resilience and The Family Repercussions, and Recovery, From Alcohol Abuse.

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, a children’s novel appropriate for children aged 10 years and older, was written by Jack Gantos. The book was initially published in 1998 by Square Fish, a trademark of Macmillan Publishing Group; the work was a National Book Award Finalist, an American Library Association notable children’s book, and the School Library Journal’s book of the year. The novel’s 10-year-old protagonist, Joey Pigza, deals with an unnamed hyperactive disorder, abandonment, and academic problems before finding some stability after his mother’s return. This summary is based on the 1998 paperback edition.

Plot Summary

Joey Pigza voices this first-person narrative. He is about 10 years old and is challenged by his own erratic, impulsive behavior. It is inferred that Joey may suffer from ADHD and associated disorders; however, the author never gives a diagnosis. The boy lives with his paternal grandmother, who appears to suffer from a form of mood disorder and has often administered inappropriate punishments to Joey. His own parents absconded when Joey was in kindergarten. Conflicts ensue when his mother eventually returns to care for him and attempts to impose rules and order upon the household; Joey’s grandmother, who notes that being “wired” is a family trait shared by herself, Joey’s father and the young boy, leaves to reside with her son. The reader eventually learns that both of Joey’s parents have abused alcohol, and his mother drank during her pregnancy.

Joey is innately good-hearted, yet he falls prey to his own impulsivity and inability to remain focused. His mother, Fran, has him evaluated and medicated at a local clinic, but the prescribed medication is ineffective in the afternoon, when its effects wear off. Joey sustains accidents such as injuring his finger when he attempts to sharpen his nail in the class pencil sharpener. He experiences a reaction to ingesting a sugary dessert that launches him into a manic state that results in his climbing the rafters of a barn and injuring his ankle when jumping down. Finally, he inadvertently injures a classmate when they collide while he is running with scissors; the tip of her nose is clipped off as a result. Joey is suspended and transferred to a Special Education Center, but this proves to be to his advantage. He receives a more effective medication coupled with behavioral therapy and counseling. While the author is careful never to imply that Joey is entirely “cured,” the book ends on a positive note, and the reader realizes that the boy has the opportunity to enjoy a much-improved quality of life.

Author Jack Gantos notes that some of his childhood friends were “wild, out of control, fun, smart and slightly insane.” His inspiration for the Joey Pigza character was a young boy in a class that Gantos visited. The student fidgeted uncontrollably before running out of the class, having realized that he had forgotten to take his medication.

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