Old Series: the newest installment in this series comes 25 years(!) after the last, and 44(!!!) years since the first
A mild content warning for some old school “humor” around kids being fat which didn’t age the best but is also not used in a bullying way
Sideways Stories from Wayside School
In advance of reading the new(!) fourth installment in this delightful series, I thought I’d re-read the original three in rapid succession.
I have fond memories of these books and their particular brand of absurdism. Sachar is, of course, an award winning writer many times over. Holes might be his most famous work, but it never grabbed me the way the stories of Wayside School (build, by accident, with 30 classrooms stacked on top of one another instead of side by side) did.
To try and be more succinct with why I liked it so much: this might have been one of the first books I read with a real fourth-wall-breaking style? Something about how Sachar-as/through-Louis talks directly to you, the reader, makes you feel like you’re reading something very clever and grown up. Concepts like satire, pastiche, reductio ad absurdum would have meant nothing to me when I was first reading this book, but by the end of these books I definitely knew what they were. Sachar also rewarded you as a reader for remembering little details from previous chapters (or even previous books). One of the most memorable characters–Mrs. Gorf, the worst teacher floor 30 has ever had–appears only in the very beginning of this book (without much introduction) and yet casts a very very long shadow.
While re-reading these books I did find some of the nostalgic magic missing from this first entry, and I think the books do pick up and get better with each (original) entry.
Wayside School is Falling Down
This book (and/or the next one) definitely marks the highlight of this series for me, namely because we are introduced to Miss Zarves, the teacher on the 19th floor, in a way that doesn’t ruin the mystique and hilarity of the story. There is no 19th story, because when Wayside school was build the builder went straight from 18 to 20. There is no Miss Zarves, because there is no 19th story.
Allison might end up in Miss Zarves’ class, but there is no Miss Zarves, and Calvin definitely delivered the note to her because there was no note and no Miss Zarves. Get it?
I cannot even fathom the pitch to the editor for this series of books. It’s definitely a very kid brand of humor, although it’s not particular gross out or juvenile. A decent chunk of the humor involves ruminations on the nature of kids and how they do things that drive adults nuts, but somehow kids always seem to be in on the joke.
Wayside School Gets A Little Stranger
On second thought, I think this is my second favorite set of stories from Wayside School. It took poor Louis-who-is-actually-Sachar 243 days to rid the 30 stories of Wayside School of the cows that had shown up after Mrs. Jewl accidentally rang her cowbell and summoned them during a storm, because as you know cows do not like going down stairs. He’s still convinced that he can hear a stray moo every so often.
There is a cow in Miss Zarves’ classroom, though there is no 19th story and there is no Miss Zarves.
I actually get a strong vibe of Magic School Bus and Ms (now Dr!) Frizzle when I read these books. I imagine what the good doctor might think if confronted with Wayside School, and I have come to the conclusion that she would lean in and make the best of it. Mrs. Jewls might not be the most, uh, competent of teachers (her lesson plans are…all over the place, to put it mildly) but she clearly cares about her students and encourages them in all their quirky little ways.
These books made you feel like school was a place that could be a little weird without being wrong. After all, there are terrible schools with only one floor–like your school.
Wayside School Beneath the Cloud of Doom
I’ll say this: Sachar’s Cloud of Doom was conceived and written much before the real life Cloud of Doom that hung over all our heads this past thousand years. So while it might be a bit mean, at the end of the day I liked this book slightly less than I did the prior two installments because I come to Wayside to be confronted with the extremes of human behavior in a funny light. Everyone’s in a bad mood because of a Cloud of Doom that makes them grumpy? You don’t even need to stretch very hard to make that one fit.
Everyone is back for this class reunion, with nary a modern convention in sight. The time is still a vague undefined late 70s(?) ish time when cell phones and after school extracurriculars are the stuff of science fiction. The only conceit to more modern ideas comes from the Ultimate Test, a standardized testing-type exam that all of Mrs. Jewls’ students have to pass or they’ll go back to Kindergarten (what grade are they in, by the way? Seems like third but I genuinely couldn’t tell you).
It was lovely to go back to Wayside, and I’m so very glad that Sachar can remember and recount more tales from this wonderous school. All that’s left for me is to try and find a version of the earlier books with the original illustrations that I remember from when I was a kid, although I will note that it’s great to see a broad spectrum of races represented in the kids in Mrs. Jewls’ class. It made me realize how much of my childhood literary mind pictures was white, especially when I compare to my literary mind pictures of today which try their hardest to diversify any book I read.