Sometimes I’ll suggest a book to my son that I’m sure will be a hit. But for some reason, it just doesn’t land the way I thought it would. I don’t often make a second attempt, since there are so many options for great reading. But something told me to give today’s title another shot. Perhaps because my son’s tastes have changed a lot over the past 6 months. Or maybe it’s because we already owned the complete series. Hard to say! =)
Whatever the reason, we decided to revisit the Wayside School series by Louis Sachar and within two weeks, we’re already reading the third book in the collection. I knew that if deployed at just the right time, Sachar’s silly tales of the children in Mrs. Jewls’s class would captivate my son’s interest. If you’re a regular reader of this site, you’ll probably notice that the last book I reviewed (Holes) was also written by Sachar. This was a total coincidence but an enjoyable one, nonetheless.
The Wayside School series consists of four books, with the first, Sideways Stories From Wayside School having been published in 1978. The most recent addition, Wayside School Beneath the Cloud of Doom was released in 2020. Despite the decades separating them, the series follows the lives of the same 30 children who attend school on the 30th story of a building that was built on its side, rather than flat on the ground like any other ‘normal’ elementary school. They climb 30 flights of stairs to start the day, then go back down them for recess and lunch, then climb them again afterwards, then tromp back down at the end of the day… every day!
But that’s hardly the strangest thing about life at Wayside School. For the most part, these are normal children living average lives. It’s just that things get a little silly from time to time. Such as in the very first chapter, when you get your first clue that there may be a strange undercurrent running through the school. You see, prior to being taught by Mrs. Jewls, the children had a teacher named Mrs. Gorf. She was a mean and wicked woman who threatened to turn the children into apples if they misbehaved. Let’s be clear that this was no idle threat. Mrs. Gorf actually has the ability to wiggle her ears and turn people into apples! And let the record show that while Mrs. Gorf doesn’t particularly care for children, she LOVES apples.
But when she turns the entire class into fruit, the children find a way to fight back, culminating in Mrs. Gorf herself being transformed into an apple and ultimately eaten by a fellow teacher! That’s just the first 6 pages of the book and the very tip of the strange iceberg that is life at Wayside School.
After the unexpected and unsolved departure of Mrs. Gorf, Mrs. Jewls becomes the children’s new teacher. She’s far nicer and actually wants to teach the children new and exciting things. But even so, she has her own way of handling misbehavior. If a student misbehaves more than three times before noon, they are sent home early on the kindergarten bus. And while one of the students, Todd, is generally a good kid, he just can’t seem to stay off that bus. Even when he saves the entire class from being robbed by masked gunmen, he still gets sent home early for whispering his relief to a classmate!
Miss Mush is the school’s lunch lady, though it’s debatable whether she actually succeeds in feeding any of the children. Throughout the book, she only seem to have Mushroom Surprise on offer. No one ever eats it, therefore it’s always available. It is said that she can both undercook and burn the same dish. But she means well and the children like her. She even helps save the day from a dastardly substitute but you’ll have to wait until the third book to enjoy that story.
Miss Zarves teaches on the 19th floor. But there is no 19th floor and there’s no Miss Zarves either.
Louis the yard teacher is a character that Sachar actually based on himself. While attending UC Berkeley, Sachar took a position at an elementary school for college credit, watching over the kids during recess. Over time, he got to know the children and became a trusted adult to them. The fictional Louis fills a similar role to the students of Wayside School. He helps them resolve disputes, plays games and distributes playground gear while offering a steady dose of reliability in an often chaotic environment.
The Wayside School series is a lot of fun to read together, especially if you really embrace the silliness with funny voices and over the top enthusiasm. But it would also be an excellent choice for independent readers. The chapters are short (often about 6 pages each) and because each book is chock a block full of funny stories, kids will have no probably staying engaged and entertained. No matter which approach you take, I hope you’ll enjoy the time spent within the walls of the wondrously wacky Wayside School!