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Round 1, Match 4: Grasshopper Jungle vs The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza
JUDGE – JO KNOWLES
by Andrew Smith
|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
THE WINNER OF ROUND 1 MATCH 4:
THE KEY THAT SWALLOWED JOEY PIGZA
About Battle Commander
The Battle Commander is the nom de guerre for children’s literature enthusiasts Monica Edinger and Roxanne Hsu Feldman, fourth grade teacher and middle school librarian at the Dalton School in New York City and Jonathan Hunt, the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. All three have served on the Newbery Committee as well as other book selection and award committees. They are also published authors of books, articles, and reviews in publications such as the New York Times, School Library Journal, and the Horn Book Magazine. You can find Monica at educating alice and on twitter as @medinger. Roxanne is at Fairrosa Cyber Library and on twitter as @fairrosa. Jonathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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