Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Book Review - Joey Pigza Loses Control by Jack Gantos

4 Out of 5 Stars for Joey Pigza Loses Control by Jack Gantos

My nephews (7 & 9) and my niece (12) all really enjoyed reading this book with me - Three thumbs up from the peanut gallery.

Ever had a day when you just couldn't sit still?  When your thoughts ran through your head (and then straight out of your mouth) in one long, fast-flowing stream of consciousness?  Ever made a bad decision because you weren't thinking, or you didn't think it all the way through?  Ever have adults (or anyone else for that matter) tell you to "settle down" and give you THE LOOK?

Joey Pigza, the eleven-year-old hero of Jack Gantos's middle-grade series, has that day every day.  Times ten.  Plus infinity.

Joey has ADD - not just your garden variety ADD either, really severe ADD-ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).  Gantos first introduced readers to Joey in his National Book Award finalist, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, and now he brings a slightly more in control Joey back to us in this Newbery Honor winning sequel.

Joey and his trembling mass of canine insecurity, Pablo, are visiting his ex-alcoholic father and chain-smoking grandmother for the summer.  Joey finally has his ADD somewhat under control with the help of medicinal patches, and his mother warns him to keep up with the patches - no matter what.  We get the sense that Joey's long-suffering mother is reluctant to let Joey stay with his ne'er-do-well father and sarcastic grandmother, but allows it only because she believes it's important for Joey to form a positive relationship with his dad.

Watching Joey with his father is like watching Joey's future, if he hadn't had a patient mother and better life through chemistry.  We can tell that Joey's father, a self-described dreamer, has battled alcoholism, unemployment, and a lack of control in his life.  But he loves Joey, so we want to like him.  His grandmother, on the other hand, is a caustic, rude, selfish woman, seemingly without a sympathetic bone in her oxygen-mask-sucking body.  By the end of the book, while our initial suspicions about these two have played out predictably, we're shown that it's not all black and white.  Every down-trodden dreamer is not a hero in disguise, and every chain-smoking harpy is not a complete villain.

I won't regale you with all of the antics that Joey ends up in, because that would ruin the book.  Suffice it to say that Pablo ends up in some cringe-inducing predicaments (including a stint locked in the glove box of the car), Grandma's regular means of conveyance is a grocery-cart with a couch cushion at the bottom, Joey turns out to be an absolute ace at pitching baseball, and Joey's dad decides that Joey's medicine isn't manly and that Joey can do without it.

Chaos definitely ensues.

I love these books.  Gantos tells his stories in Joey's irrepressible, startlingly self-aware voice, and the story would be depressing any other way.  Without Joey's eyes and heart as a filter, we would find many of the situations and other characters maudlin and shocking.  But because Joey sees the best in any situation, and tries to find the best in others, despite their shortcomings, we are forced to do the same.  Don't get me wrong, some of these situations are ones that make the hair on the back of my "responsible adult" neck stand straight up.  Joey is able to navigate them honestly, even when he's "wired", finding some measure of self-control within himself.  We, as readers, get to appreciate how he's growing up, learning about the fallibility of adults, and finding inner strength - sometimes just enough courage to ask for help.

My one criticism of the book has to do with the predictability of the character arcs.  From the very first chapter, we know that Joey's dad will let him down, and his grandmother will eventually pave the way to get rid of Joey.  That sense of impending doom hangs over the reader like a cloud until it actually does happen, making the bumps in the road along the way not as surprising.  I felt like the readers would have been better served by having more confidence in Joey's dad and grandma in the beginning, so that their eventual spiral out of control would be more jaw-dropping.

Overall, a quick read and fun ride!  Hilarious and shocking situations throughout.  Pick up the first book, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, to get an idea of where Joey's ride began.

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