Thursday, July 2, 2009

Sideways Stories from Wayside School Books

Children have a certain knack for appreciating the bizarre and unusual. While adults are quick to question and doubt, children have always embraced the silliness with open arms. That's probably why looking back fondly at the oddball books and cartoons that used to entertain us often reveals them to be totally and completely insane.

The Wayside School series by Louis Sachar is a prime example of this type of endearing strangeness. While our adult selves may wonder what sort of drugs he was taking and where we can get some, our inner (well, at the time, outer) children lapped up his unending creativity and originality. To kids, things don't need to make sense. Not everything requires a logical explanation. Things can be zany, wacky, madcap, and other corny adjectives as well.

Wayside School was certainly a place all its own. Built sideways, the school mistakenly ended up with 30 floors with one classroom each rather than one floor with 30 classrooms. There is, however, no 19th story. In Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Chapter 19 reads: "19. Miss Zarves---There is no Miss Zarves. There is no nineteenth story. Sorry."

In the introduction to Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Sachar helpfully offers:

"It has been said that these stories are strange and s
illy. That is probably true. However, when I told stories about you to the children at Wayside, they thought you were strange and silly. That is probably also true."

As a child, I was fully sold after reading that introduction. In my book (yet to be published, nowhere near the towering fame of Wayside School), Louis Sachar was a brilliant author. He truly tapped in to the way kids think, and threw it back at any adults that may be reading along with tongue-in-cheek humor that could be enjoyed by readers of all ages. The overall message was, yes, these stories are completely absurd, but we're all strange in our own ways. Silliness should be celebrated, not repressed. After all, that's what makes kids kids. Otherwise they'd be adults, who we all know to be terribly dull and boring.

The first installment of the Wayside School books was published in 1978, meaning an expansive 11 years passed between release of the first and second books*. For condensation (in time, not moisture) and relevance's sake, let's delve into the 1989 title Wayside School is Falling Down. As the book is made of 30 loosely interconnected chapter, I have chosen a few to share with you today. I've even thrown in a handy "moral of the story" to enhance the story's applicability to you today:

Chapter 1: A Package for Mrs. Jewls

Thank heaven for kindly, sweet-faced Mrs. Jewls who replaced the tyrannical Mrs. Gorf in the original Sideways Stories. Mrs. Gorf had a penchant for zapping children into apples, so pretty much anyone below the meanness threshold of fascist dictator would have been welcomed graciously. Sure, Mrs. Jewls thought they were all monkeys for awhile, but overall she meant pretty well. For an inane fictional character, that is.

In "A Package for Mrs. Jewls", Louis the yard teacher claims to be Mrs. Jewls and accepts a package on her behalf. It should probably be noted that that Sachar neatly inserted himself into the stories, basing the Louis character on his own experiences as a playground teacher. Anyway, so this amalgam of the real and fictional Louises takes special care with the package as it is marked with numerous warnings of fragility. After lugging the enormous box up thirty flights of stairs, Louis breathlessly opens the box to reveal a shiny new computer.

The kids whine and resist, saying that the computer will speed up their learning and make more work for them. Mrs. Jewls objects, saying the computer will help them learn. She proceeds to push the computer out the window. After it smashes violently to the ground, she announces "That's Gravity!"

Moral of the story: If you're having a rough day at work, perhaps your office-mates would enjoy a good lesson in gravity. After you've read your daily installment of Children of the 90s, of course.

The real Louis (author Louise Sachar), who we can only assume has never carried a computer up 30 flights of stairs. Image via

2. Mark Miller

Benjamin Nushmutt is a new student joining the wacky thirtieth floor class. Without provocation or just cause, Mrs. Jewls incorrectly introduces Benjamin as Mark Miller. Too timid to correct a teacher, Benjamin/Mark lets it slide. Unfortunately, by the time Benjamin musters the courage he is afraid she'll think him strange for not pointing out the mistake sooner. Benjamin adjusts to being called Mark and assumes the Mark Miller persona. Later in the book his efforts to come clean about his real name are acutely thwarted, though we do eventually meet the real Mark Miller.

Moral of the story: When you tire of your current personality, feel free to try another on for size. Particularly if you have a last name with the non-musical garblings of Nushmutt.

3. A Bad Case of the Sillies/A Wonderful Teacher

In these two stories, Allison (the only seemingly normal child at Wayside) mysteriously finds herself on the nonexistent nineteenth floor, home of Mrs. Zarves' classroom. Mrs. Zarves even-crazier students consist of Virginia (a 30-something who has never heard of a bathroom), teenage Nick, Ray Gunn (Bebe's made-up little brother), a cow, and the real Mark Miller. Unluckily for Mark Miller, everyone inexplicably keeps calling him Benjamin Nushmutt.

Moral of the story: If Seinfeld can have Bizarro Jerry, Benjamin Nushmutt can certainly have his Mark Miller. You may now freely assume that you too have a perfect opposite/evil twin somewhere out there.

4. Mush

Miss Mush is Wayside's school cook, whose most popular dish ("nothing") is in such high demand that she is always running out of it. She prepares her signature Mushroom Surprise, though no one knows exactly what the surprise is. The only person who ever eats Mushroom Surprise is Louis. Ron mans up and takes a bite, only to find that the surprise is that you immediately fall in love with the first person you see. Surprise! It's his teacher.

Moral of the story: If you ever are dining out and happen to run into JTT or Britney Spear circa 1999, feel free to dish out the Mushroom Surprise. You won't regret it. Unless, of course, it turns out to be Britney circa 2008. Then you're pretty SOL.

Who says reading for enjoyment can't be educational? The next time you hear someone make a statement like that, simply take a page from the Wayside books and call them a mugworm griblick. That'll show 'em.

*The series also includes the equally humorous 1995
Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger, which is totally worthy of a full-scale examination that I don't have the time or space to provide.

*Oh, and they recently made a Wayside TV series that I'm sure if I watched, my imagination would automatically shrivel, die, and retreat. Hence it will not be covered in this post

Ooh! Read some Wayside Stories online with Google Books!

Sideways Stories

Wayside School is Falling Down

Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger


Fidgeting Gidget said...

MMM Mushroom surprise!

ashley-cita said...

What?? There's a third book!? I know what I'm doing on my lunchbreak... and it's not eating mushroom surprise.

Anonymous said...

Loved, LOVED these books. Thank you for this!

Jay Ferris said...

It was this book that planted the seed for my pigtail-pulling fetish.

SarahBeth said...

Aw, I have absolutely the BEST memories of the Wayside School series! I should really go back and read them; probably great for a laugh as an adult. I love continuing to re-live my childhood through your blog!!

Frank said...

I remember reading these in elementary school and thinking, "Well, this is stupid" at the time. I guess I wasn't as appreciative of the bizarre and unusual as most kids...

CTB said...

I had to have read these books hundreds of times. This is great! Yet another great flashback. Thanks!

Mrs EyeCanSee said...

I LOVED these books! They were the first "big kid" books I remember reading faithfully! Thanks for the post, I had totally forgotten about them.

Shanna Suburbia said...

I remember meticulously going through the entire Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School book and solving everything. It was quite enjoyable!

Ali said...

These books were THE BEST. I am so glad you wrote about them!

Kristen said...

I read the first book to my third, fourth, and fifth graders in library this year they loved it!
I have never read the second or third books though.

Andhari said...

I'm so lame, I don't know this. :( Is it any good?

Alex said...

I loved these and Bailey School Kids books.

Anonymous said...

I was just thinking of these books two days ago! They were the best. I loved Allison and the three Erics. Promise you'll do another post on them? And also the Magic School Bus series - classic!

(Also, you have got to write about JTT stat!)

bibberly said...

Although I wasn't too fond of these, I LOVED the Sideways Arithmetic books. Those were pure genius.

Sadako said...

These were so fun! And I loved that Louis Sachar put himself in them, too.

OhMyLaughter said...

Man I might have to check one of these out from the Local Lib. Def. read them all in Elementary School. They were fab!

nikki said...

Absolutely adore Sachar. I'm trying to find 13 Ways to Sink a Sub for my own blog. It's proving tough to find!

Okie said...

I missed these as a kid (granted, I'm more a 'child' of the 80s than the 90s, so that may be why) but found them this past year and have been reading them with my kids and we love them.

So much fun.

Anonymous said...

I still read these books in my classroom and have tons of fun activities we do about them. They are kids classics for sure.

Mrs. Schmidt said...

I am a 3rd grade teacher and I read these books to my students every year and they always love them. It is great that each chapter is about a different character so if I miss a couple of days of reading, the kids don't have to try to remember what the story was about.

Cory said...

One of my early teachers (I can't remember which one) used to read these books to us, and we all loved them. I remember the Allison/19th floor/Mrs. Zarves storyline freaking the crap out of me back in the day while I simultaneously wanted to know more about this alternate world.

Also, I remember in one of the later books (actually it may have been this one...I don't remember) Mrs. Jewls had a baby, and the students got an evil teacher with a third ear (she was so evil she nearly murdered Mrs. Jewls's baby! Gasp!). I remember that she, too, freaked me out...there must be something wrong with me.

Anonymous said...

I loved these books and I especially delighted in the fact that I was the only one I knew who could read the upside down chapter, well, upside down. I didn't understand why my classmates kept flipping the book upside down I just kept reading. That and the backwards chapter were great for keeping kids attention.

Sabrina said...

I seriously believed I could change my name by spinning around in circles 100 times with the person who's name I wanted to trade with.. needless to say, I was dizzy though my childhood and madly in love with these books and as an adult, I believe they might need a second go over, to catch that tongue in cheek!

Digg This!