Thursday, November 6, 2014

2015 Contenders: The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza, by Jack Gantos

In the fifth -- and, according to the book's own dust jacket, the final -- installment of the Joey Pigza series, Joey is facing his most difficult set of circumstances yet. His mother is in the hospital, and so Joey suddenly finds himself as the sole caretaker for his baby brother, Carter Junior. Joey will need to control himself, take care of his brother, and deal with the lurking threat of his father -- who, depending on how you think of it, is either far too absent or nowhere near absent enough.

This is the second Gantos book that we've looked at this year, and it shares some notable similarities with the other title, Rotten Ralph's Rotten Family. Both are entries in long-running series, and both push their series into a darker, more painful place than it had previously gone.

It's not as if the Joey Pigza books have been sweetness and light, but The Key that Swallowed Joey Pigza still hits new levels of grimness for the world of Gantos's "wired" hero. Olivia, Joey's blind quasi-girlfriend, makes a reappearance, and gets a gut-wrenching monologue about her interior landscape, a black world dominated by an unopenable black box. The descriptions of Joey's house, with its piles of rotting food and dead roaches, are positively nauseating. Similarly, Joey's dad, who is constantly lurking in the shadows, his face scarred to unrecognizability by botched plastic surgery, seems imported from a slasher film. You could describe Key as a horror comedy, but, to me at least, the comedy seemed to be sublimated to the horror. Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein this ain't.

That's not to say that Key isn't firmly a middle-grade novel. It has an upbeat resolution, and although the book raises large questions, it doesn't lose itself in them. At 154 pages, it's lean and (relatively) straightforward. This isn't a case of a series moving from J to YA halfway through, in the manner of Harry Potter, and I don't think there's any question of it being eligible for the Newbery.

Will it win? I think it's an exceptional book -- Joey's narration may well be the strongest and most consistent voice in any children's title published this year -- but I still have my doubts. Gantos has won the Newbery before, of course, and taken an honor for another of the Pigza books (Joey Pigza Loses Control, 2001 Honor), but the Newbery has only been awarded to a title this far into a series once (when The High King, also the fifth in its series, took the 1969 medal). I think there are eligible books this year that would be easier to build consensus around, though that's a really tough thing to predict without actually being on the committee. However, in my personal opinion, Key is challenging but rewarding, and one of the very best titles of the year. I'd love to see it on Newbery Day.

Published in September by Farrar Straus Giroux


  1. So glad you appreciated this one. I thought it fabulous (see my starred Horn Book review). I too would love to see it honored.

    1. I'm likewise glad that you enjoyed this one too! I hope the strong professional reviews are a harbinger of things to come.