Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Wayside School stories

Sideways Stories from Wayside School
and Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger
by Louis Sachar
Recommended Ages: 10+

I read these two books together, kind of as a unit. The first one introduces a school that was built sideways by mistake, so instead of thirty classrooms in a row all on one level, it has thirty stories each with one room (minus the 19th story, which doesn't exist). The book itself mirrors that structure, with a series of very short tales introducing the kids in the classroom at the very top of the building.

At first, their teacher is the evil Mrs. Gorf, who hates children and uses any provocation to turn them into apples. After she and her spells come undone, they get Mrs. Jewls, a more ordinary teacher (mostly nice, but sometimes a little mad) and the school year progresses with only the ordinary sort of oddness that you would expect of a sideways school. There's a student who turns out to be a dead rat wrapped inside an endless series of coats. There's a girl who sleeps through everything. There's a boy who can't resist pulling the pigtails of the girl in front of him. There's a boy who can only read upside down, and another boy who can only get the right answers in math by doing the work wrong. There's a kid who proves to be a good class president but no one notices. There's a girl who can draw pictures really fast. There's also a helpful yard teacher (who monitors the playground) and a school cook (who makes awful food).

Later, in one of the original book's sequels, the kids go through a series of substitute teachers while Mrs. Jewls is out on maternity leave. We meet one who can suck children's voices up his nose, leaving them speechless while he can use their voices for unspeakable ends. There's a mean old lady who never forgives, or forgets, the students who left assignments incomplete. And there's a young woman who secretly has a third ear on top of her head, enabling her to listen in on her students' thoughts – a talent she uses to spread unhappiness. Meantime, we also meet the school principal, Mr. Kidswatter, who is full of helpful advice like staying to the right while going up the stairs and to the left while going down. Not to mention the school counselor, who uses hypnosis to help kids – but also to play mean little tricks.

These two books reveal multitudes of quirks about the students and staff of an off-kilter school. Some of the stories are touching. Many of them are laugh-out-loud funny. A couple of them are intricate puzzles – such as the one where all the kids bring pets to class, and Mrs. Jewls makes a chart of their species and names. There are stories that will bring back an older reader's memories of school assignments, like having to write poems; science experiments, like testing the laws of gravity; and class discussions, like whether Santa Claus exists or not. The stories make fun of adults, but don't spare the kids – including the funny way they give each other nicknames, their occasional (and sometimes persistent) attitude problems, and that time you came to school on Saturday by mistake. It's adorable nonsense, and (I think) should be a hit in any classroom from, say, grade 2 to grade 6.

Sideways Stories is the first, and A Little Stranger the fifth, of about six "Wayside School" books by the author of the Newbery Medal-winning Holes and its two companion books. The other books in this series are Wayside School Is Falling Down, Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School, More Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School and Wayside School Beneath the Cloud of Doom. Sachar's titles for kids also include Someday, Angeline and its sequel Dogs Don't Tell Jokes (the latter has also been published as a play), eight Marvin Redpost books starting with Kidnapped at Birth?, and the standalone titles Johnny's in the Basement, There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom, Sixth Grade Secrets, The Boy Who Lost His Face, The Cardturner and Fuzzy Mud.

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