Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key
by Jack Gantos
Recommended Age: 10+
Here is the first of two touching stories about a wonderful boy who is "wired wrong" inside. One of them was a Newbery Honor Book, the other a runner-up for the National Book Award, and they both deserve your attention.
Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key comes first. Here's a little boy in about fifth grade, who has a problem with hyperactivity combined with a tendency to make bad decisions, though he is basically a nice boy. His grandma and his father were the same way before him, and his mean old grandma is the one who raises him until fifth grade, because his father ran out and his mother went after him, hoping to straighten him out. Turns out the mother and father did a lot of drinking, then the mother decided to clean up her act and go back to the little boy she had left behind. One day she turns up, and the kid doesn't even recognize her. She takes control of the family and the chaos of their household, finally Grandma gets ticked off and leaves, and then the story really gets started.
It's basically about the relationship that develops between this little boy who has never had the help he needs, or a positive family life, and the mother who suddenly finds herself raising him alone after having nothing to do with him for years. It's also about how Joey hits rock bottom, ADHD-wise, and begins to turn his life around with the help of the right medication.
It's too bad that things had to get so bad for him before the danger signals were noticed and he got the treatment he needed. Among the outrageous things Joey Pigza does, he swallows his house key on a dare, walks on the high beams of an Amish barn during a school field trip and then jumps onto a bale of hay, sharpens his finger in a pencil sharpener, and (last but not least) cuts off a little girl's nose while running with scissors. Ouch! This last doozie lands him a 6-week suspension in a special-ed center, a lot of medical tests, and a crisis between Joey and his mother who is still figuring out how to be a mom. For all Joey's misdeeds, you always love him and you never laugh at him. It is a very warm-hearted (though sometimes scary) story about a character with a heart of gold and a "head full of bees."
The sequel is Joey Pigza Loses Control. Look out for it.
Joey Pigza Loses Control
by Jack Gantos
Recommended Age: 10+
This is the sequel to Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, the continuing story of an extremely hyperactive but basically good little boy, whose family does more to screw him up than anything else.
Joey's father, Carter Pigza, also has behavior problems (not to mention drinking problems). But Carter has cleaned himself up and sued for visitation rights. Mom decides to take the easy way out (and maybe a vacation from Joey), and she lets Carter have him for six weeks during the summer. This means spending most of his day with, you guessed it, Grandma, who has the patent on messed up mental wiring AND a bad case of emphysema.
Accompanied by his Chihuahua-Dachshund named Pablo, Joey goes to Pittsburgh hoping to find out that his father, whom he has never met, loves him as much as he already loves his father. Unfortunately, Carter does not turn out to be a healthy influence. As Carter spirals ever deeper into a drinking binge and loses control of his nasty temper, he also talks motor-mouth and doesn't listen to his son, and gets all kinds of crazy ill-conceived ideas like, worst of all, flushing all of Joey's meds down the toilet because he feels they're a crutch his son can do without.
Well, he's wrong. And what it leads to, at the championship little-league game where Joey is supposed to continue a winning streak as pitcher, is a total meltdown and the point where it becomes clear that Joey's father cannot be part of his life.
The books are both very good, and if you get the same edition I got, you can put the front covers of both books side by side and between them, get a look at Joey Pigza's face (which is split between the two covers). Boy, will your heart go out to Joey! A terrific character!
UPDATE: Since I reviewed these books, two more have been published in this series: What Would Joey Do? and I Am Not Joey Pigza.