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What Would Joey Do?    by Jack Gantos order for
What Would Joey Do?
by Jack Gantos
Order:  USA  Can
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2002 (2002)
Hardcover, Audio

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

One page into this book and I already regretted missing the earlier episodes in the series. In Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, the wired young protagonist struggled to control his hyperactive condition, and in Joey Pigza Loses Control, he struggled to deal with his estranged, and just as jumpy, dad. The style of What Would Joey Do? reminded me most of a modern Roald Dahl.

For calling Joey's family dysfunctional is a great enormous understatement. The young narrator, barely managing a severe case of ADHD, is the closest to normal that members of his family get, aside from the dog Pablo. Joey's dad buzzes around Lancaster, Pennsylvania on his motorbike, harassing his estranged wife, whose responses are equally out of control, to the dismay of her new boyfriend. Then there's the dognapping episode. As Joey's grandma says 'You can't depend on people who can't run their own lives to tell you what to do.'

Then there's Grandma, lurking with her oxygen tank and cigarettes behind a plastic shower curtain in a corner of the living room, getting paper cuts on her tongue from her job stuffing junk mail in envelopes (don't ask me why, just read the book). She's mean and tough and dying; she knows it and bugs Joey to make a friend before she coughs her last, saying 'As long as you can make friends, you'll be fine in the world.'

Unfortunately, Joey's choices are limited. His mom has pulled him out of school and arranged for him to be homeschooled along with a blind girl as mean as his grandma. Olivia Lapp likes to make him cry. Her mom greets Joey every day with the question 'WWJD?' (What would Jesus do?) and journals his answers. Joey copes with parents preoccupied with hostility and the imminent death of the one who understands him best by turning himself into 'Mr. Helpful' and engaging in a whirlwind of peripatetically helpful activities all over town. Along the way he finds out what Olivia hates, and she tells him why he's been blind.

Despite his being an 'unrelenting force', all the stuffing gets knocked out of Joey after a disaster of a Thanksgiving dinner. He wakes up with a 'big, quivering, nervous zero' inside his chest and wonders who he might be 'if I didn't have the nutty family I had'. And he finally figures out What Would Joey Do? It's a brilliant, engrossing tale, which like Dahl's stories, appeal across a broad age range.

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