Joey Pigza Loses Control by Jack Gantos

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“I wanted him to stop telling me who I was when I knew better. He wanted me to be something I wasn’t, and I wanted him to be something he wasn’t. We were so far apart. And yet, even though I knew he was wrong, he was my dad, and I wanted him to be right. More than anything, I wanted him to have all the answers” (Gantos 2011, p. 94).

The more I read children’s literature, the more I find myself surprised at the depth and complexity of it. While it’s true that there are many books (including many of the books I read as a child) that amount to literary junk food, there are so many children’s books that tackle issues even adult stories can’t really handle properly. Joey Pigza Loses Control is one such book. While I’m usually more of a fan of fantasy and science fiction, I really appreciate a story that handles real-world issues in a realistic, humorous manner, and this book handled a number of serious issues very efficiently.

Joey Pigza is a young boy suffering from ADHD, who has just been given medicine (in the form of a daily patch on his arm) that allows him to feel “normal.” Joey is excited because, for the first time, he will be visiting with his dad for six weeks of the summer. Despite being told that it will likely never happen, Joey can’t help but hope that this trip will mend his family, bringing his parents back together again. At first, Joey’s dad seems just like him: “wired,” optimistic, and full of enthusiasm for the future. He quickly learns, however, that all is not as rosy as it seems, and that his dad has many problems of his own that need to be worked out before he’s ready to parent anyone.

The quote that struck me the most from this book can be found about halfway through the story, when Joey is pretending to be a mannequin in a shopping mall. As he’s having his fun, a nice, motherly woman catches him in the act, giving him a strange look when she finds out what he’s doing:

“She gave me a strange look when I said ‘normal,’ like the last thing in the world I was was ‘normal.’ Oh well, I thought, maybe it’s not a good idea to be too normal. It didn’t sound like much fun if it only made you afraid to do the stuff you really wanted to do” (Gantos 2011, p. 110).

Though this is only a work of fiction, I found myself really connecting to Joey’s desire to be “normal.” I’ve suffered from anxiety for most of my life, and even as an adult I find myself wishing that I was “normal,” and that “normal” things (like driving and dating) didn’t cause me to shut down with panic and fear. Like Joey, I also fear what might happen if I were to stop taking the medication that helps me feel more normal, and that I’ll quickly slip back into the “old me” if I’m not careful, too afraid to leave the house and get things done. If a 24 year old woman can connect to this fictional boy, I can’t imagine how his struggles relate to actual children who might be reading this book.

One thing I’ve never dealt with is divorce, though many children out there have had to go through the changes that accompany parents who have chosen to separate. I felt for Joey as he struggled to connect with his dad, wanting him to be proud of him and form a bond that they’d never shared before. This becomes even harder when Joey’s dad turns to alcohol, becoming a different person entirely when he’s intoxicated. These are very serious issues, but issues that children in the real world often have to face. Joey’s story shows children that, while you can’t always fix the messes in your life, there is always hope for a brighter future. Joey has a mother who loves him deeply, medication that helps him feel better, and a dog (Pablo) who serves as his best friend. Even without his dad, Joey lives a good life, and when things don’t quite work out the way we planned, his story shows children that there are always blessings to be had in life.

This book also shows, like the above quote implies, that adults don’t always have the answers. Sometimes, they’re every bit as lost as children, and this is important for children to understand. At the end of the day, we’re all human, and we all have flaws and lapses in judgment that lead to sticky situations; I think it helps children to see that nobody is perfect, not even those we look up to most.

It has always been my belief that children’s stories shouldn’t shy away from tough issues, as they allow children going through these experiences to feel as if they have a friend (fictional or otherwise) coping with the same struggles. For children who aren’t facing the same issues, stories like this introduce them to some of the world’s injustice in a safe, controlled manner, one that allows them to wonder about these experiences and ask questions.

This is easily the type of book that could spark a classroom discussion about divorce, alcoholism, and ADHD, all tough topics that many children are having to deal with in reality. I’ve heard criticism that it treats these topics too lightly, but I think humor is sometimes the best medicine when it comes to the topics that are the most heart-breaking. Sometimes, it just helps to laugh about the dark parts of life, even when we don’t always feel like it. I also think that the addition of humor allows children to feel comfortable reading until the end; if it was dark and depressing all the way through, it wouldn’t give anyone much incentive to keep reading. The humor shows children that it’s okay to be happy and enjoy yourself sometimes, even when the things you’re going through don’t seem at all funny. Life isn’t just light or dark; it’s a messy combination of both, and I think this book captures both sides of the coin in a meaningful way.

When I have time, I’d love to read the rest of the series; I think Joey is a wonderful character, and his story is filled with a lot of heart and realism. This book proves that the right story can really warm me up to genres that I haven’t explored much previously!

Reference:

Gantos, J. (2011). Joey Pigza loses control. New York: Square Fish.

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