There’s an amazing moment toward the beginning of Jack Gantos’s Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. Joey injures his finger during school, and is taken by his teacher to see the nurse. She fixes him up, and then lets him know that, because of the damage, his fingernail will probably fall off. But not to worry, she’s quick to add – another will grow back.
But Joey’s not worried. He’s too busy wondering whether there’s a fingernail fairy. He asks the nurse, explaining, “’Cause if there is I’ll put it under my pillow and get a dollar.” The scene ends a moment later, after the following:
[The nurse] smiled at me, glanced up at Mrs. Maxy, and nodded like they both knew something about me I didn’t know. People were always giving each other secret looks around me. But I didn’t care. I had private thoughts of my own that I didn’t share with them, so it made us even.
Joey certainly does have private thoughts of his own. He’s got a big, rich private world of his own. He is misunderstood by kids and adults alike, and these misunderstandings often lead to Joey’s being mistreated. In Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, one of Gantos’s goals is to open Joey’s private world up to us readers, to show us that he’s not just a “hyperactive” kid, that he can’t be simplified down to a diagnosis, that his troubles can’t be “fixed” with a prescription.
Gantos succeeds. He opens Joey up to us – or, to put it another way, makes it impossible for us not to open ourselves up to Joey – by carefully constructing scenes, filling his novel with many more amazing moments like the one mentioned above. But Gantos is at work on the smaller scale, too. Every expertly built sentence offers another glimpse into Joey’s heart and mind.
The passage below comes right after Joey, having been disruptive in class, is sent out into the hall for a kind of timeout. Pay attention to how Gantos gets us into Joey. And it’s not just the run-on sentences or lack of punctuation, though of course those help. It’s the missing words. And the way the moments build and bump into each other, crashing together like accordion-ing train cars. It’s the way we’re made to follow that mini-Superball as it bounces from spot to spot, just as we’re made to follow Joey’s thoughts, which bounce around just as wonkily as the ball. It’s the way Joey first turns into a cat, and then, by the end of the passage, becomes a cartoon character himself, his shoes cartoonishly flying off his feet as Mrs. Maxy puts an abrupt halt to his spinning.
Thanks to Gantos’s delicate, finely tuned prose, no matter where Joey is, no matter what he’s doing, we never leave him behind. From beginning to end, the first sentence to the last, we can’t help but get to know him better, and better still. And as long as we’re paying attention, as long as we’re doing even a half-decent job reading, we’ll close Gantos’s novel knowing that Joey, and so many other kids like him, have inner lives that are in fact just as rich and complicated as our own.
From Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, by Jack Gantos (p. 4-5)
So I went and stood in the hall for about a second until I remembered the mini-Superball in my pocket and started to bounce it off the lockers and ceiling and after Mrs. Deebs in the next class stuck her head out her door and yelled, “Hey, cut the racket,” like she was yelling at a stray cat, I remembered something I wanted to try. I had seen the Tasmanian Devil on TV whirling around like a top so I unbuckled my belt and pulled on the end really hard, as if I was trying to start a lawn mower. But that didn’t get me spinning very fast. So I took out my high-top shoelaces and tied them together and then to the belt and wrapped it all around my waist. Then I grabbed one end and yanked on it and sort of got myself spinning. I kept doing it until I got better and better and before long I was bouncing off the lockers because I was dizzy too. Then I gave myself one more really good pull on the belt and because I was already dizzy I got going really fast and began to snort and grunt like the Tasmanian Devil until Mrs. Maxy came out and clamped her hands down on my shoulders. She stopped me so fast I spun right out of my shoes and they went shooting up the hall.