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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 4: Grasshopper Jungle vs The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza


Grasshopper Jungle
by Andrew Smith
Dutton Books/Penguin
The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza
by Jack Gantos

As seems to be the tradition with Battle of the Books, I’ve been tasked to pit two books against one another that have almost nothing in common, so please bear with me as I try to sort this out.

Let’s start with Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle. Austin is an awkward teen who wins the attention of Shann, the girl of his dreams, after his best friend Robby teaches him how to dance. But what really gets Shann to notice him is their shared love for Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War. Let’s stop right there for a minute because this also happens to be the book that changed my life. Andrew Smith, I am in.

I love the way Shann, Robby and Austin interact in the first several chapters. I love their banter and obvious affection for one another. I also love the wonderful twist Smith puts on the love triangle theme. Here’s how it works: Robby and Austin are best friends. Robby is in love with Austin. Austin loves Shann, but also loves Robby, maybe as more than a friend. They pretty much all love each other but can’t figure out how to make that work (although Austin has plenty of threesome fantasies).

After Robby and Austin share a kiss, Austin tries to understand his feelings:

“Do you think I’m queer, Rob?” I asked.

“I don’t care if you’re queer,” Robby said. “Queer is just a word. Like orange. I know who you are. There’s no one word for that.” (page 120)

Yes! I was so excited for Smith to explore the spectrum of love and sexuality and our insistence on labeling ourselves. At least, that’s where I thought this was headed, but suddenly all hell breaks loose. A scientific experiment kept contained for years is suddenly unleashed and a small army of “Unstoppable Soldiers” in the form of giant praying mantises begins to ravage the town.

Whoa. Despite the green cover with the mysterious antennae, I did not see that coming.

What follows is a lot of bug sex, human sex, masturbation, and people getting eaten alive. What began as a love triangle becomes, on the surface anyway, a Kafkaesque apocalyptic thriller. Underneath this crazy storyline, however, is something far deeper. Austin’s brother has become suicidal after a terrible injury in Afghanistan. The homophobic religious leader of their school turns out to be gay. In a heartbreaking scene at a gay bar, Robby confirms he has a depressing future if he stays in the community. Austin tries to talk to his dad about his confusion over his feelings towards Robby and his dad shuts the conversation down. Both boys’ mothers cope with daily life by checking out on Xanax. And Austin continues to wonder what his feelings for Robby and Shann make him, and whether there’s a label for that. I’m so glad Smith didn’t fully drop these pieces after all, because it’s these side stories that are the heart and heart-wrenching part of the book. As the praying mantises kill the townspeople one by one, we get a glimpse of the sad lives that poignantly reflect what’s wrong in “Anytown, USA.”

In the end, *SPOILER ALERT* we leave a small handful of survivors (including Robby, Shann and Austin) in an underground bunker while the ugly world above is devoured. The friendship/love triangle remains as confusing as it was when we began. We don’t know how many millions of people have been killed. We don’t know what Austin and Robby get up to on their occasional excursions outside the bunker, though we do know Shann doesn’t approve. And we don’t know how this entire crazy event has changed any of them.

There’s a powerful moment toward the end of the book when Robby tells Austin he’s selfish. Austin seems to agree, but never seems to get how not to be. At one point he wonders if his family is still alive and ponders if he’ll ever see them again, but in the next sentence, he thinks about his balls. Later, when he goes on a post-apocalyptic excursion with Robby, Austin quietly hopes there are no other survivors.

It’s hard to leave a book whose protagonist hasn’t reached the moment of enlightenment you were hoping for (especially when it comes to how he views women, but that’s for another discussion). At one point, Austin notes:

I began to consider the fact that maybe history is actually the great destroyer of free will. After all, if what we blindly believe about history is true – the old cliché admonishing us to learn how not to repeat the same shit over and over again – then why do the same shitty things keep happening and happening and happening? (Pages 305-306)

It’s a good question, but ironically he’s so self-absorbed in his own problems he’s incapable of entertaining the idea that he could do something to stop the cycle.

At the chaotic end of The Chocolate War, the lights go out on the whole terrible mess the school has created. But there’s still hope somehow because the mess was exposed. There’s a sense that through that, the characters will never be the same. But in this case, the characters seem doomed to stay exactly as they are, trapped in the world that shaped and then abandoned them.

Switching gears, and I mean BIG gears here, lets talk about Joey.

Confession: I am the biggest fan of the Joey Pigza books I’ve ever met. I have read them all numerous times either to myself or to my son and they get better with each read: richer, more thoughtful, and more bitingly humorous.

In The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza, I was a bit shocked at the deeper, darker tone in Joey’s voice right from the beginning. “It’s bad to fear your parents,” Joey narrates. “It’s worse to fear yourself.” (page 7). Gone is the manic narration so prominent in Jack Gantos’s other books in the series. Here, we have what feels like a deflated Joey. A Joey who seems to have finally run out of whatever wild juice he was running on in his younger years. His reflections on life are sad and wistful: “Believe me, it feels a lot better to return to a place you love than to leave a place you love.” (page 23)

The story begins with Joey living with his mom, baby brother, and two Chihuahuas. His dad has deserted them again and this mom is suffering from postpartum depression. Joey goes to school for one day before his mom decides to check herself into the hospital, leaving Joey to stay home and care for his baby brother. (It’s interesting that we don’t learn how old Joey is at this point, or what grade he’s in, though he notes he’s repeating a grade.) When his mom tells him she’s afraid she’ll do to the baby what she did to him, Joey notes: “My shoulders dropped and I could feel something in me break and give up because I knew there was a part of me that was ruined.” (Page 47)

This book is by far the darkest of the Joey books, but in the end, the most satisfyingly hopeful. Joey realizes that the only one who can save Joey is Joey, and he does so using his tender heart. It’s Joey who confronts his parents and forces them to take responsibility for themselves. Joey who helps his best friend see her true worth (and oh, what a beautiful scene that is!). Joey who saves his little brother time and again. Joey who keeps the house together while his mother is away. This Joey isn’t the Joey we fell in love with when he swallowed the key. Instead, we fall in love with this sad, defeated Joey as he slowly unlocks his true potential and gathers hope again.

So how do we battle these two extremely different books against one another? As Joey would say, can I get back to you on that?


Oh well, I tried.

It’s a personal preference, what each reader wants from a book. Both offered much to love, laugh over and think about, so this is a hard choice! What it comes down to for me, I guess, is how far I, the reader, have traveled from beginning to end. I traveled a tough road with Austin and Joey, but Austin’s path flat-lined, showing little hope for growth or change (a bold statement from Smith, for sure), while Joey’s rose and fell and rose again in a satisfying, hopeful way. At one point Joey says, “Peek into my future—but watch out you don’t get poked in the eye.” (Page 30) For Joey, I’d take that risk. For Austin, well, can I get back to you on that?

So the winner is…

The Key that Swallowed Joey Pigza

— Jo Knowles

Now, this is an upset, but Joey and friends are perfectly capable of a surprise. The interesting thing about this matchup, in which I loved both books, is that Smith and Gantos come to very different conclusions about what could be the “end of the world” for “different” people in Anytown, America. Although Joey Pigza is more hopeful, for me, Grasshopper Jungle’s sheer energy and craziness might put it over the top. So I’m not sure whether I agree with Knowles in her ultimate, well-considered decision, but I don’t think these books have “almost nothing in common.” Instead, they tackle the “misfit” question. Joey does begin to grow up and heal his family, while still staying lovingly crazy. The book may be dark, but it’s funny, smart, and endearing, fully deserving of moving on to the next round. Austin, on the other hand, won’t – or can’t – stop the cycle, and that’s where those crazy preying mantises come in. But even in wondering at his teenage, bisexual identity, and accepting it (even if it requires 300 pages of yes, entertaining gore, balls jokes, and history), he’s doing something. (Neither can you discount Austin’s clever social criticism of a pretty darn ludicrous world, which just happens to be depopulated.) But also, I’ll respectfully disagree with my fellow kid commentator: Austin is not a normal teenage boy, but a very normally unique boy dealing with things teenagers normally deal with, like sexuality.

– Kid Commentator RGN

I liked both books. However, I liked Grasshopper Jungle more. Grasshopper Jungle was a typical, teenage, apocalyptic novel on the surface, but it had some subtle themes that teens deal with, even if they were faced in an extreme way in the novel. It dealt with sexuality with an urgency that was pushed by the end of the world. It doesn’t take the path normally walked upon, a profoundly knowledgeable and mature teenager; it instead shows a normal teenage boy faced with something he’s really not ready for. The Key that Swallowed Joey Pigza, on the other hand, was a jarring twist from the previous books. And that’s the problem for me. The preceding Joey Pigza books were aptly described by Knowles: fun, relatable, and borderline happy-go-lucky. They were nothing compared to this story. But to get to this story, you have to trudge through the four books before it. If you don’t, Joey’s drastic change doesn’t get through. One of the appealing aspects of Grasshopper Jungle’s ending is the same reason that Knowles wrote it off: that it shows another realistic depiction of life. Not the whole giant insects taking over the world thing, but the fact that sometimes life does just flatline. Sometimes there is no hope. Joey may have come to terms with himself while Austin may not have fully gotten there, but books have a different attractiveness to them, and they both teach valuable lessons.

– Kid Commentator NS




  1. We’ve reached the easy part of the battle for me-I did not like Grasshopper Jungle for the exact reasons that Jo Knowles states, while I enjoyed the heck out of Joey Pigza. And I’ve never read the other Joey Pigza books (I really want to now, though), so I don’t really agree that you have to trudge through the other books to appreciate what happens to Joey in this one.

  2. Oh, I am glad. I didn’t read either book but as I read Jo’s comments, I so hoped that Joey would win. Of course, now I REALLY need to read Grasshopper Jungle because the plot sounds CRAZY!! And I know I will read The Key that Swallowed Joey Pigza

  3. Writing as myself and not part of the Battle Commander: The same day this match result came out was the day when author Andrew Smith shut down his twitter and facebook accounts due to vicious attacks on him as a person based on interpretations of his words in an interview. I wonder how BoB followers feel about this blow-up. I wrote a short response on Fairrosa Cyber Library, too.

  4. Of my 95 gamers, only 7 have not gotten a single prediction correct. And I’m one of those seven. Grasshopper Jungle has been a popular choice in our library, while Joey Pigza has been called “the pig book” by most of the kids. I think it has checked out once. The part of this March Madness that delves into the minds of these authors is one the most attractive parts to me. Running the prediction game in my library makes students think about books in a different way, and that is a good thing. Of my 95 gamers, 39 have read at least one of the books on this fabulous list. We have been on Spring Break all this week, and I expect that list of successful readers to increase with classes on Monday. Of my 95 gamers, I have 3 who have gotten all four matches right so far. I’ll have at least 1, and maybe 2 who are correct on Monday. Can’t wait to see.

  5. I have enough trouble handling regular sized bugs, let alone scifi huge bugs. I won’t be reading Grasshopper Jungle. However, if I felt physically better, I’d try it just as a reaction to the hate the poor author is apparently getting. I hope he can open up his accounts again some day. Can you briefly explain what he said on that interview? I have loved the Pigza titles I’ve read and I will read this one…some day when my to read mountain shrinks at least a bit.

    • I have a short summary post on this at my blog: for anyone who has not followed the controversy or who has not read Grasshopper Jungle. Grasshopper Jungle is one of the best books I have read this year. Andrew Smith is a wordsmith, a very philosophical writer, and is able to connect with the teenagers on a strong emotional and psychological level. I have high school students who could not stop admiring his work — I often think of him as the Kurt Vonnegut of the early 2000s.

  6. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

    Thanks for the tip about the controversy, Roxanne. I was completely oblivious. I’ll check it out now.

    I will say that both of these authors write with an unfettered mania that is kind of interesting to read. Strap yourselves in readers, they both seem to say, you’re in for a ride!

  7. The verdict isn’t much of a surprise. It feels like Jo Knowles just didn’t like Grasshopper Jungle and she did like Joey. She even went into the (what, fourth?) book in the series knowing that she loved Joey, whereas she knew nothing of Grasshopper Jungle. Personally, I didn’t like Joey as much. I’ve only read this book and not any of the others in the series, so I suppose watching Joey grow might have had more of an impact, but Joey didn’t hit as close to home as Austin. I’m a fan of the more depressing endings, so there was something satisfying about Austin’s ending, too. Just a side note: great commentary from RGN and NS!

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