Sunday, July 3, 2011

Joey Pigza

I just finished reading Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, which my 11-year-old daughter was pressing me to read. It's the first in a series about a boy with ADHD (plus family issues). It was also a National Book Award finalist in 1999, and one of the later books was a Newbery Honor book in 2001.

Joey begins the book in a regular classroom, but has trouble sitting still and focusing, and keeps getting into trouble when he can't stop himself from acting on whatever his thoughts lead him to. For instance, after his teacher puts him to work sharpening pencils for the class (which seems like a good strategy on her part) he injures himself by trying to sharpen his fingernail in the pencil sharpener.

Joey ends up going to the special ed room part-time, for help with sitting still and focusing (not for anything academic). But when he injures a classmate in his regular classroom, he is suspended from school and sent to a special ed counseling center day program for six weeks.

Meanwhile, Joey has recently been reunited with his mother. His grandmother had been raising him, in a chaotic and abusive manner. His mother seems to have mostly pulled herself together, and is trying to do the right things for Joey.

Joey does get help from the counseling center. They change his medication from pills to a new patch that gives him a constant stream of medication, and it seems to work better than his previous medication. The counselor talks about helping Joey change the way he makes decisions, too, and I was eager to see what they would do with this, but nothing really happened there (at least not on the page). Joey ends up going back to his regular school, although they start him off in the special ed room again.

This book, while well-written, left me feeling sad. You see, I work in a school. I'm on the adult end of this story. Joey's the kind of kid I often really don't enjoy working with, because I feel helpless around them. Gantos' descriptions of Joey bear this out -- Joey apparently can't help what he does. He transitions from sharpening pencils to sharpening popsicle sticks to sharpening his finger without really thinking about it. The only thing that seems to help is medication.

The teachers in the story don't always make good choices. But sometimes it's hard to see how to really help kids like Joey. Sometimes none of the strategies in your toolbox work.

My 11-year-old, on the other hand, doesn't have my biases or adult point of view. She enjoys the Joey Pigza books because they're about a kid her own age, and she can relate to that. And while she doesn't have ADHD, she knows kids who do, and as she just told me "why shouldn't there be books about them? There are books about every other kind of kid."

I wonder whether these books are helpful for kids with ADHD? Do kids with ADHD read them, or care about them? Maybe Joey Pigza can help by letting them know that they're not the only ones? And I suppose if typical kids read the Joey Pigza books, it might help them to be more understanding of classmates with ADHD.

I was really struck by the difference between my reaction to this book and my reaction to Mockingbird, which is about a child with Asperger's syndrome. Children with Asperger's can also be difficult to deal with in school -- but when I read Mockingbird, I was delighted by its accurate depiction of Asperger's syndrome, and even though it deals with difficult subjects, it didn't leave me feeling sad.

Anyone else read one or both of these books? Care to comment?