Sunday, November 27, 2011

Control Freak--a review of JOEY PIGZA LOSES CONTROL by Jack Gantos

Joey Pigza’s life is far from “normal.” But, then again, what is normal? His single mom, who supports herself and Joey on a beautician’s income, is stressed herself, even more so when Joey’s ex-con father has decided he’s gotten himself back on track and wants Joey to stay with him for the summer. Enter Joey’s grandmother, an oxygen-dependent chain smoker, who doesn’t really enjoy taking care of her hyperactive grandson or mangy Chihuahua Pablo. Joey is nervous about his summer with his father, and he has a right to be. Joey’s alcoholic father tries to fix his own mistakes by inflicting his unachieved dreams on Joey, including becoming a superstar pitcher. When Joey’s dad decides to ditch his nicotine patch, he forces Joey to give up his Ritalin patch…the only thing that had been keeping Joey from inflicting hyperactive harm to himself and others. Can Joey stand up for himself?

Through his adept characterization of Joey, Gantos has given us a realistic and unapologetic glimpse into the “normal” struggle of a hyperactive kid from a broken family who is trying his best to be good, without much help from the adults in his life. Joey’s antics are funny, when he pretends to be a mannequin in a fancy department store, yet heartbreaking at the same time, when the reader realizes that Joey does this because he has been abandoned by the adults in his life and is wandering the streets of Pittsburg alone and unmedicated for the day. The thing is, every educator knows a kid like Joey. They are scrappy, unkempt, usually friendless because of their behavior, and, at best, dreaded by some teachers.  Yet, somehow these kids find a spot in the hearts of those who root for the underdog. Being an underdog seems to be Gantos’ theme, for everyone in the book is an underdog. Joey’s mother, his father, his grandmother, and Joey all struggle. The reader wants them all to win, but not everyone in Joey’s life does. That’s precisely what makes this book realistic. In real life, not everyone wins, even if you hope they do. Some people don’t change. Life experience has lots of lessons, and not all of them are nice. Gantos doesn’t give us a storybook ending for Joey because real life doesn’t consist of storybook endings. But there is laughter, and there is hope. And that’s all we get sometimes.

Awards and Reviews
Newbery Medal Honor Book, 2001
ALA Notable Book, 2001

“Readers will be drawn in immediately to the boy’s gripping first-person narrative and be pulled pell-mell through episodes that are at once hilarious, harrowing, and ultimately heartening as Joey grows to understand himself and the people around him.”—Starr LaTronica, School Library Journal (September 2000)

“Gantos lifts this account of a kid with a lot of problems well above the stock problem novel: Joey’s view of the world is compelling regardless of what he’s dealing with, and it’s realistic in both its perceptions and their limitations.”—Deborah Stevenson, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (September 2000)

“Gantos’ skillful pacing, sly humor, and in-depth characterization make it a truly memorable read.”—Susan Dove Lempke, Starred Review, Booklist (September 1, 2000)

Classroom Extensions
One of my favorite suggestions is a Board Game Activity. The start would be Joey’s dad’s house and the finish would be his mom’s house, because throughout the story, all he wants to do is be home with his mother. The pawns could be Joey, his mother, his father, his grandma, and Pablo. The students would roll the die and move accordingly. Landing on a square, they would draw a card. Some of the cards will have questions about the book, which if they get it right they advance two spaces. If they get it wrong, they stay where they are. Other cards will state something that happened to Joey either good or bad. For example, one of the cards might say, Joey’s dad throws away his medicine, go back five spaces, or Joey pitches a perfect game, go forward four spaces.

Another activity suggested at this site is to have the students make postcards from Joey to his mother. These two suggestions may not exactly be new approaches, but they both work very well for this book and the website gives good examples for each.

Keifer, M.J. (2005). “Classroom Activities for Joey Pigza Loses Control.”  Accessed November 27, 2011, from

Scholastic offers an excellent language arts lesson plan for the book which addresses student understanding of conflict in the novel through personal reflection, class discussion, and poetry writing.  Suggestions for other books about family issues are also given. 

Gold, Lauren (n.d.). “Joey Pigza Loses Control Teaching Plan.” Accessed November 24, 2011, from

Books on Tape offers a free Listening Library Guide, which offers ways to enhance a listener’s experience with the book on audio.  Struggling readers may be able to identify with Joey and his struggles due to the causes of reading difficulties.  Listening to the book may be a perfect way for such students to get into "reading" the novel.

Vital Stats

Gantos, Jack. (2000). Joey Pigza Loses Control. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

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