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Interview with Author Jack Gantos

By: Jack Gantos

Jack Gantos

In your book, "Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key," Joey, a young boy with ADHD, looks "... Calm on the outside… But inside my body I felt like a big bottle of warm Coke when you drop it in the grocery store and it begins to fizz out the top like a bomb about to blow." Many children and adults with ADHD can relate to this description. How did you do your research for this book? Why ADHD? Do you know someone like Joey?

When I was growing up I knew a lot of boys like Joey. I went to ten different schools and because I was never in one place very long I didn't make a core group of friends. So when I arrived at a new school I was always a bit of a drifter, and ended up on the social fringes of the school community. And out there on the fringe were a lot of "Joeys" because for various reasons they had difficulties maintaining friendships.

Well, I liked these kids. They were frisky, but smart and funny and clever, and I never thought of them as the "bad" kids-- I rather saw them like myself -- a kid who didn't fit in very well. Also, because I lived in a lot of neighborhoods, I met a lot of kids. There were always a few that were "very active" -- perhaps too active. But again, I liked these kids because they were smart, and didn't appear to have any dull moments in their lives. So, I knew a lot of kids like Joey, but I did not have any "medical" or "social" terms to define them. Simply, to me, they were very active.

After I began to write book for children I was invited to speak at schools. And it was while I was speaking to children that I began to notice my old "active" friends. It seemed to me that the teachers always put them in the front row -- thinking of course that the closer they were to the speaker (me) the longer they would pay attention. (This sometimes works, sometimes not). Well, I was in a school in Lancaster, PA, when a child the front row who was sitting at his desk was swinging wildly around in circle while he answered all the questions I asked -- he finished all my sentence -- and he was having a great time. But suddenly he went from having fun to looking very worried and he yelled out to his teacher -- "Teacher, teacher, I forgot to take my meds." She just pointed to the classroom door and that kid shot out of his seat and ran the hall slapping the lockers all the way to the nurses office. He caught my attention that night, I took out my journal (which I always have) and began to write about that moment, because when he ran down the hall it seemed my heart went down there with him.

For a week or so I wrote about that kid, and imagined his life. And then I realized I wanted to write his story. So I did research on ADHD, spoke with teachers about it, and doctors and then I put all the research aside and write "Joey's" story. It was very important right from the beginning that I wrote about a real kid -- and not just about a "problem" or "condition" -- and I knew I couldn't make him a real kid that I wouldn't continue to write the book because I am not the kind of writer who just wants to write about a topic. I write about characters -- interesting characters like Joey who deserve to be defined by his positive human qualities, rather than be defined by an abbreviate (ADHD) of his problems.

Joey responds to every question with, "Can I get back to you on that?" This response often frustrates the adults around him. What does his answer represent?

First, I think it is a punch line linked more to humor than theme. And beyond that, for Joey, it also means he doesn't have an answer to their questions. He doesn't plan, or know why he does what he does and so he has no explanations for his behavior. Thus, he suspends their questions with, "Can I get back to you on that?" This can be especially frustrating to teachers because they are always looking for answers -- that is the nature of their profession.

When Joey says this time after time it seems intentional, as if he is being disrespectful and the more he says it, the more personal the teachers take it and so the frustration escalates into a crisis.

Both "Joey" books offer a realistic and sometimes startling descriptions about Joey's family life. For example, Joey's mother and father both have drinking problems and difficult lives. Why did you decide on this environment for Joey?

Good question. I think his environment is very challenging. One of the arguments regarding ADHD is that some people feel "active" children are really just kids that have rough home lives and their behavior is just a symptom of that dysfunction at home. And though Joey's home life does exacerbate his ADHD problems, it is important to separate the two issues and examine how they affect each other.

In Joey's case, despite a very difficult home life, he also has a very clear disability. Once his mother returns and helps to stabilize his home life, he actually appears to be more out of control because of the contrast between his ADHD and a stabilized home. Just because his mother has returned, doesn't mean Joey will settle down, which points out that Joey has his own specific problem -- ADHD. Yes, it would have been easy to quickly achieve the contrast between ADHD and a stable home life if Joey had come from a middle class, "normal" family. But part of the job of literature is to dramatize an issue, and to find fresh ways to examine a subject. So I made his home life a bit more difficult, and his family a bit more idiosyncratic, but despite the challenges of his environment, the is simply a young boy trying hard to understand who he is, what his problems are, and how to become a definition of his best qualities rather than just be a shell of his worst qualities.

In your book, "Joey Pigza Loses Control," Joey is now on medication to help him with his ADHD and he is relieved when the medication starts to work. Medication can be a sensitive topic for parents and educators. Do other factors in Joey's environment need to be addressed?

In Joey's situation, medication is a positive tool for him. But he only receives the proper medication once he has had a thorough diagnosis. A lot of "active" children are to quickly labeled ADHD without a proper diagnosis, and I understand a parent's concern about giving their children medication if it is not necessary which is why of variety of family issues, school issues, environmental issues, and medical issues must be taken into account before medication is prescribed.

Also, it is important to recognize that the medication is not a "magic" solution for children with ADHD. Often ADHD runs in a family and so the entire family needs to be involved with finding a solution. Medication is just one piece of the solution.

In your book, "Joey Pigza Loses Control", he visits his father, who is has not been involve in Joey's life. What did Joey learn from his visit?

I think Joey learned that his father loves him very much, but that where Joey has put a lot of effort into recognizing and resolving his own problems, the father has not put the effort into resolving his own issues. Because of this, Joey can see what might have become to himself if he had not worked so hard to solve his own issues. Joey also learns that he has to make decisions that are positive for himself. It is painful for him to run away from his father, but he also knows he is running to a solution for himself.

Joey's mother surprises the reader with her strength. After being absent from his life for a while, she turns out to be Joey's number one advocate. What advice would you offer her character?

What advice might I have for Fran Pigza? I think she has achieved a great deal with returning home, helping Joey, helping herself, keeping a stable environment for the family -- but I also think she has had a rough road in the past, and her past behavior has not been fully examined. She is trying hard to improve Joey's life, and her own life, but I fear that she has never addressed the root causes of her earlier behavior -- and this is capable of making the same mistakes in the future. I would advise Mrs. Pigza to get some personal help.

Write to Jack Gantos c/o: Kate R. Kubert Publicity Manager Books for Young Readers Farrar, Straus and Giroux 19 Union Square West New York, NY 10003

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