Multi-award winning US author Jack Gantos made a rare visit to the UK recently to talk about his books, including Newbery Medal winner Dead End in Norvelt, and the ground-breaking Joey Pigza series. Geraldine Brennan interviewed him for Books for Keeps.
Joey Pigza, the little boy with ADHD yearning to be a child who fits in, is 18 years old in fictional terms. The series of five books since Joey Pigza Swallows the Key in 1998 has grown at a slow and measured rate by normal publishing standards. With each title, Joey succeeds a little more in his ambition not to be defined by his condition while the adults in his life place increasingly insuperable obstacles in his way.
Joey has aged only a few chronological years in the series but each book sees him make leaps towards greater understanding of his condition, with the child reader’s awareness also increasing, although not always at the same rate. The knockabout comedy of Joey’s scrapes tends to be the initial appeal to younger readers, as Jack Gantos recognises.
The Joey books are only part of his vast output of books for children of all ages including a darkly comic thriller for teenagers about taxidermy, The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs, and his Newbery Medal winning alternative local history, Dead End in Norvelt. His first books, the Rotten Ralph picture book readers, are hugely popular in the US and he has a hotline to the funny bones of the elementary school children that make up Joey’s world.
‘At first, children love the comedy of the primary action: Joey puts his finger in the pencil sharpener, goes running with scissors and cuts off Maria’s nose tip, swallows the key and poops it out,’ he says on a recent visit to the UK to celebrate Joey’s curtain call. ‘Joey does something stupid, the adults go mad, everyone laughs.
‘Children have a natural magnetic tendency to run to the action but when you get them to talk about what’s behind it they know what’s going on, that there’s grey areas. When you say to them, “Let’s talk about Joey’s relationship with his parents,” you can see it’s getting sticky for them because a lot of those children have been disappointed by their parents and they recognise aspects of Joey in themselves. Soon they start feeling sorry for Joey as well as Maria.
‘I point out or children realise for themselves that 50 per cent of each book is concerned with the inside of Joey, what he’s thinking and feeling, and we have to know this about him to understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. But it’s what he’s doing that people remember about him. His condition stops him showing the best and deepest parts of himself.’
Meanwhile, Joey’s family circumstances become progressively darker in each book, with the backdrop of prejudice against “welfare” families in the US. Whether his parents are together or not, they consistently place Joey in the role of being his own parent. The effect, as Gantos explains, is ‘a sense that there are two gears going around in the same car.
‘There’s an arc to each book where something goes wrong for Joey and he has to sort it out. Then there’s a gear for his father, another for his mother and another for his grandmother and you never know which gear is going to be broken and create another hurdle for Joey and bring his progress grinding to a halt.
‘So in each book there is also a monumental problem to solve that has been instigated by an adult in his family. He’s living in an upside down world where he is not able to be the child.
‘You can see this really clearly in I Am Not Joey Pigza, in which Joey’s father decides to change the family’s name and make them reinvent themselves as a new family that has no problems. Joey knows that this is a crazy idea but he feels a responsibility to make it work.
‘Then there’s an arc that reaches across the books about how this family is going to survive in the long term.’
Joey faces his most monumental problems yet in The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza. This final story opens with everything going well for him: his latest ‘meds’ work most of the time and his astute teacher has cast him as the Oracle of Delphi in a class project on the Greeks, which means he is satisfying his natural (often doomed) impulse to be super-helpful and is for once being taken seriously by his classmates.
But at home he faces the greatest challenges yet: his mother has self-hospitalised with post-natal depression, he has to leave school to care for his baby brother and his support system is more fragile than ever. The kind pizza delivery man is the only nurturing adult in sight although his stroppy blind friend, Olivia, first encountered in What Would Joey Pigza Do? proves to be his salvation as he searches for his missing father.
‘Also, as this book wraps up the whole span of the Joey universe, I wanted to leave us asking if he can now cope with what life throws at him,’ says Jack Gantos. ‘How do we feel about leaving him to face whatever comes next? I think better than we would have done previously.’
Geraldine Brennan is a journalist specialising in children’s books and education, regularly reviews for the Observer and has judged several literary awards.
The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza, Corgi Yearling £6.99
Dead End in Norvelt, Corgi Yearling, 978-0440870043, £7.99
Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, Corgi Yearling, 978-0440870715, £6.99