Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key


Jack Gantos

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Joey Pigza is wired, really wired. His doctors call it ADD, or Attention Deficit Disorder. Joey just knows that it's hard for him to control himself. He doesn't mean to get in trouble: He just wondered how the pencil sharpener worked and didn't think before he stuck his finger in.And he knew he shouldn't run with scissors, but he didn't mean to cut his classmate's nose.

And then there was the incident with his house key. [Read the following passage from pp. 31-32 in the hardback edition:] "I was messing with my house key, and before long I had it in my mouth and I was playing a game. I was trying to train myself to swallow the key so I could slowly pull it back up form inside my belly, up my throat and into my mouth, like I was fishing for bottom feeders. It hurt to do it because sometimes the key got caught sideways down my throat, but when it did that I just gave the string a tug and straightened it out. The only other problem was that every now and again it made me gag so hard I almost threw up.

Since I was doing it after lunch, I thought it would be especially colorful because bits and pieces of food would stick to the key and around the string and I'd suck them off and reswallow them. Mrs. Maxy [Joey's teacher] must have turned around but I never saw her. I was still fishing and wondering if I could pull my liver up, or my kidney, or some organ we had studied in science when suddenly Mrs. Maxy swooped down on me. With one hand she yanked the string out of my mouth, which really hurt because the key was about halfway down my throat. Then with her other hand she took her sharp 'teacher only' pointy scissors and cut the string off the key and put the key in my T-shirt pocket. 'Keep your mind on your work,' she said."

So Joey really tries hard to concentrate, but before you know it, he's playing with the key again. [Read the following passage from pp. 32-33 in the hardback edition:] "I plucked the key out of my shirt pocket and popped it into my mouth. I stick my tongue out so Seth Justman could see the key from his desk in the next row. "What'll you give me if I swallow this?" I whispered. 'A buck,' he said. This will be a fast buck, I thought. So I worked up my mouth full of saliva and swallowed hard and the key scraped down my throat a little sideways. But I did it. All the way down! I opened my mouth to show Seth and he was pretty amazed and dug into his pocket and gave me a buck. Then I reached for my chin to pull the string but I only felt my lips, and suddenly I remembered there was no string and I hopped straight up onto my desk screaming, 'Mrs. Maxy, I ate my key!'"

Now you can see why the book is called Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. It might sound funny to us, but it's not funny for Joey. His teacher says that if his behavior doesn't improve, he'll get sent to a special school. Can Joey behave? And how does he get rid of the key in his stomach? Find out for yourself when you read Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key.

Discussion questions

  1. Do you know anyone who acts like Joey or do you ever feel like Joey? What is it like being around them? What does it feel like?
  2. How do the teachers at school try to help Joey?
  3. Is there something "wrong" with Joey? What is it?
  4. Is Joey a "bad" kid? What would make people say that about him? What would you say to convince them otherwise?
  5. How are Grandma and Joey alike?
  6. Joey often gets in trouble at school, but in what ways does he help out?
  7. Special guest Mrs. Cole comes to Joey's school to speak to the talented and gifted students about the phrase "character counts." What does that mean? How does it apply to Joey?
  8. Who does Joey have to confide in?
  9. How do you think Joey feels about his mom returning?
  10. Why might Joey's Grandma have tricked him about his mom calling on the phone and walking by the house? (pg. 124)
  11. How is Joey able to manage his problem?
  12. Do you have hope for Joey at the end?

If you liked this book try

  • Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick
  • Just Juice by Karen Hesse
  • Kissing Doorknobs by Terry Spencer Hesser
  • My Louisiana Sky by Kimberly Willis Holt


Vegetables and dip or fruit; non-sugar snacks. Talk about why sugar snacks are not ideal.

Created in part with funds granted by the Oregon State Library under the Library Services and Technology Act, administered by the Oregon State Library.