• Happy birthday Diane Goode (When I Was Young in the Mountains), Elizabeth Winthrop (The Castle in the Attic), and Holly Meade (Hush! A Thai Lullaby, On The Farm).
  • It’s the birth date of William H. Armstrong (1911-1999), Sounder, and John Steptoe (1950-1989), Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.
  • In 1716 the first lighthouse in what will become the United States was lit in Boston Harbor. Read Birdie’s Lighthouse by Deborah Hopkins, illustrated by Kimberly Bulcken Root, and The Lighthouse Cat by Sue Stainton, illustrated by Anne Mortimer.
  • Composer George Handel completed The Messiah in 1741. Read Handel, Who Knew What He Liked by M. T. Anderson.
  • In the British Isles it is Nutting Day and time to pick hazelnuts. Read Nuts to You! by Lois Ehlert.

September has been designated Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Month to educate everyone about effective treatments for the disease. In 1998 Jack Gantos published a book called Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key that not only became a National Book Award finalist but also goes a long way in educating young readers about ADHD. Joey Pigza is an endearing and sympathetic protagonist who is also both distracted and hyperactive. As he tells us in the first paragraph, “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. But there is no doubt about it. I’m wired.”

Joey has had some rough times: His alcoholic father has abandoned him and he has been raised by his grandmother. When his mother returns, things don’t really get better for him. He can’t sit still. He can’t pay attention. He always says the wrong thing. He just says, and does, whatever comes to his mind. His medication doesn’t seem to work at certain times of the day. He swallows his house key; he hurts his finger when he sticks it into the pencil sharpener. Eventually Joey causes a serious accident for another student. Throughout all of these events, Gantos keeps the story moving along at record speed, as Joey processes what happens in his own first-person voice.

So, Joey gets sent off to a special educational center, where they send him to the hospital to scan his brain, do a lot of psychological analysis, and adjust his medication. And finally readers cheer as, much more in control, Joey goes back to his own school. It’s impossible not to root for him. He’s basically a good kid who always does the wrong thing. He’s funny and dear and enraging all at the same time. But because he’s ADHD, he can’t help himself—until he gets the help he needs.

Jack Gantos began his career with a series of books about a badly behaved cat, Rotten Ralph. His own autobiography, A Hole in My Life, tells about Gantos’s scrapes with the law as a young man. In fact, no one describes rowdy, out of control boys better than Jack. But Joey Pigza may well be his finest creation. For this character, Jack blended elements of his friends, kids he saw in school visits, and, of course, Jack himself as a boy.

Joey’s adventures continue in Joey Pigza Loses Control, What Would Joey Pigza Do? and I Am Not Joey Pigza. If you know young readers ages eight through twelve who want to understand ADHD—or who just want to laugh a lot about a badly behaved boy—share these books with them.

Here’s a passage from Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key:

I had a funny sound in my head, kind of a hissing like when the TV station goes off the air at night and there is nothing but static, but really loud static and no words at all and getting louder like tires speeding down a wet road and coming right at me. My eyes felt so swollen with the flood of energy inside my throbbing head that I could only see the tops of my cheeks and a smudge where my nose fit on and a bigger blur beyond that. I took a deep breath and the air gushed into my lungs and lifted me up and suddenly I was running and crashing through the stalks of the cornfield. I had my arms stuck out like the wings of a plane, and the long curved leaves sliced me up but I didn’t feel the string.



Originally posted September 14, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: ADHD, Award Winning, Humor, National Book Award, School, Special Needs
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key


  1. Sydnee says:

    I couldn’t wait for this post! Joey Pigza has been one of my favorite books since I read it. I think it really changes one’s perspective on hyperactive students, Joey’s good intentions and honesty make him so lovable (even when he accidentally hurts that poor girl’s nose). I’ll always stick up for Joeys out there!

  2. Barbara Somervill says:

    Anita, could you do us budding librarians a favor? When you post a book like this, could you say 2-4 other titles of similar tone. For example, if a student likes Junie B. Jones, she’ll probably like Amber Brown or Clementine. That would be such a help! Thanks.

  3. This is one of the genius books for middle readers. Gantos really allows the reader to get inside Joey Pigza’s head, so we can truly understand what he is going through. And Gantos creates one of the greatest catchphrases for kids – whenever he is confronted or questioned by an adult he replies “Can I get back to you on that?”

  4. Tamson says:

    I read this quite a while ago, but I think I still recall the scene quoted here. As I recall it was during a school trip right? And there was pie involved? I can’t say that I know what it feels like to have one of those frantic adhd moments, but, having witnessed kids with this disorder, it certainly looks like Gantos writes it.

  5. The scene where Joey swallows the key makes for a great read-aloud when I book talk this title to middle grade readers. I get a lot of laughs when I stand on a chair in the middle of the library and yell, “Mrs. Maxy, I ate my key!” Joey’s such a loveable underdog of a character, and I think it’s because, even if they can’t identify with Joey personally, most kids know someone like Joey. I’m so glad you featured this book today!

  6. Anita says:

    Krystel: I like the detail of you standing on the chair and yelling! Thanks for sharing this trick.

  7. Brandie Mayes says:

    I actually met Jack Gantos and his family years ago when they came into a shop I was working at in Portland. They were a lovely family, very hip actually, and I went right out and read his books after meeting him. Thanks for sharing this book!

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