A good author has the ability to piss off their fans. Pissing off fans is a delicate art, though. On the one hand, if you can emotionally engage your readers to the point where they are so invested in your characters that they consider them to be real people then you know you’re a pretty darn good writer. On the other hand, you always run the risk of losing those same fans if they feel you’re being needlessly cruel to the fictional people they’ve grown to know and love. I Am Not Joey Pigza walks this tightrope and I’ve heard strong opinions about it from all quarters. Some people are furious with what Gantos has done to Joey in this book. Other people just see it as a continuation of the stories they’ve already grown to know and love. To my own mind, this is one of those books where kids will read the story on one level and adults on another. William Faulkner once said of writing to, “Kill your darlings”. Well nobody dies in this book, but Gantos definitely puts his hero, and his readers’ emotions through the wringer. The result is probably one of the smartest little ole books about the nature of forgiveness I’ve read in a very long time.
Joey’s been doing pretty well for a while now. He’s taking his meds for his ADD regularly. His mom has been happy and he likes his newest teacher at school. Heck, things would be perfect if it weren’t for his no good father Carter Pigza. One day Carter arrives at Joey’s front door with some crazy news. He’s won the lottery, has changed his name to Carter Heinz, and now he wants Joey and his mom to join him in his newest moneymaking scheme. Suddenly the boy is ripped out of his happy existence into “Carter’s” nutty world. Joey is renamed Freddy Heinz and all the progress he’s made is put to the test. At the heart of this story, however, is Carter’s search for Joey’s forgiveness and Joey’s struggle to figure out what it means to forgive someone who is truly repentant and, at the same time, truly dangerous to be around.
Adults read this book and what they see is a kid suffering abuse. A child yanked out of the educational system just when he was doing well. Who comes this close to spending his days getting hit by a paint gun for money. But because we’re reading all this through the filter of Joey’s mind, a lot of this stuff sounds great to your average kid. Who wouldn’t want to get to stay home from school making crazy concoctions in the kitchen? The reason that this book doesn’t read like a long lengthy tract of negligence is because Joey’s voice is so doggone upbeat. He has a vague sense that things aren’t going well, but like the kids who will be reading this book he’s clearer on the specifics than the overall picture. If you want a children’s book that mires itself in depression, there are plenty out there to chose from. How much harder and rarer it is to find the same thing done with a cheery spring in its step.
I think the important thing about this book is that it makes it clear that forgiveness is different from stupidity. You can forgive someone and remember what they put you through. Forgiveness is not the same as memory loss. Casting aside preconceptions garnered in the past books and the fact that an adult will read this book on a different level than a child, this is undoubtedly one of the strongest titles of the year. “I Am Not Joey Pigza” may have been a gamble, but I’m certainly going to hope that it’s one that pays off in the end.