A couple of Christmases ago, my wife and I bought the entire Wayside School collection for my nephew. Last Christmas I went up to the bedroom at my parents’ house where my nephews sleep when they stay over, and I found the collection, still unopened, on the shelf. What’s the point in children if you can’t impose your tastes on them? I tried to reintroduce it, but BattleBots, Dinotrucks, and Forged in Fire won the day.
I firmly believe that as soon as any elementary school child reads Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar, it will immediately become one of his or her favorite books. I bought it to re-read prior to writing this article, and at 38-years-old it still held my attention, and I breezed through it in the course of a few subway rides. If you haven’t been exposed to it, the book is composed of 30 chapters, just as Wayside School is composed of 30 stories (you see, instead of a one story school with 30 classrooms, the builders of Wayside school goofed and built one classroom per story). Each chapter is about one of the occupants of the 30th floor except for the final one, in which Louis the yard teacher’s story is told.
If the book somehow escaped your attention as a child, I hope that the preceding paragraphs and the following coverage of some of Wayside School’s more memorable occupants inspires you to check it out and buy it for a nephew who won’t read it.
This overview couldn’t have started with anybody but Sammy. Okay, I suppose it could have started with one of the other 29 people, Ms. Literal, but it didn’t. It starts with Sammy because anybody with the slightest exposure to this book remembers Sammy. Sammy was a dick. Sammy was a smelly dick who wore a heavy raincoat coat entirely inappropriate for a classroom. Naturally Mrs. Jewls removed it, revealing yet another raincoat, then another, and another, naturally concluding as these things always do with a now coat-less, dead rat. Because Sammy was a dead rat, trying to sneak into Mrs. Jewls’s classroom. It’s a real problem. If you never attended a public school you wouldn’t understand.
The previous entry mentioned Mrs. Jewls. Mrs. Jewls is the teacher on the 30th floor, but she wasn’t the original teacher. That honorific belonged to Mrs. Gorf. Mrs. Gorf was not a nice woman, and unfortunately for her students, sometimes people are both mean and they happen to have the ability to turn children into apples. This is not a combination you want to encounter if you’re an elementary school student and you can avoid it. Because once Mrs. Gorf started zapping kids into apples, she looked for any old reason to do it, until every kid was an apple. Now this is where something truly strange occurred. All of those apples managed to overpower Mrs. Gorf because everybody knows that a mean teacher with the ability to turn children into apples’s greatest weakness is a group of children who are already apples. The kids get her to change them back into kids, and then pull a Medusa on her when she tries to change them again, resulting in a Mrs Gorf apple, which Louis promptly eats, unknowingly committing manslaughter. Louis Sachar is an experienced children’s book writer, so he knows how important it is to squeeze in some murder/cannibalism in the first chapter.
Mrs. Gorf reappears in Stephen’s story, chapter 29, because it’s the Friday before Halloween, and everybody knows that the Friday before Halloween possesses special powers, being the day when Halloween is celebrated in class, and vengeful spirits associated with the classroom can return, only to be thwarted by little boys who were the only ones to dress up because it isn’t actually Halloween.
The Three Erics
Despite having a very common name bestowed upon me by my parents, I was lucky not to share a classroom with another John during elementary school. The Brians and the Ryans in my class were not so fortunate, and the Erics in Wayside school were truly out of luck. Not only did they have to share a chapter in the book, all were labeled with the same characteristics whether or not those attributes applied. Skinny Eric was considered to be fat because the other Erics were fat, nice Eric was labeled as mean, and athletic Eric received the nickname butterfingers. The Erics that did display those characteristics only did so because they were thrust into them as a result of a different mislabeling. The entire story is a tale of children’s personalities being products of their environments, and is sort of a neat little treatise on bullying and stereotyping. When each Eric set foot in a classroom containing two other Erics he never stood a chance.
There are three things you need to know about Maurecia: 1) Maurecia liked ice cream, 2) everybody liked Maurecia, and 3) Maurecia didn’t like anything, because she was tired of ice cream. There’s one thing you need to know about Mrs. Jewls: She’s had the insane ability to make ice cream that was flavored with the essence of the children in the class. The chapter is about Maurecia eating the child flavored ice cream and consequently liking that child, but I feel like Sachar should have spent a touch more time exploring how it was that Mrs. Jewls could produce student flavored ice cream. That feels like an important issue that he skirted altogether. All we know is that she “worked all night.” Doing what? Is she a witch? A metaphysician? Deal with Satan? Relative of Ben and/or Jerry? Sure, it led Maurecia to like things again, but at what cost we will never know.
There is no Miss Zarves. There is no fifth anecdote. Sorry.
What do you think? Were you a Sideways Stories fan? Which chapters were your favorites? Let us know below or on Twitter.