Thursday, April 26

Sideways Stories from Wayside School

by Louis Sachar
Harper Trophy 1978

They got it wrong when they built Wayside School. It was supposed to be one story tall and thirty rooms wide, but instead it's one room wide and thirty stories tall. Sorry about that, say the builders. It's a weird building (with a lot of playground as a result) that has a lot of strange stories attached. And with that we're off on 30 short stories (one for each of the building's floor, though they all concern the occupants in the class on the top floor) of all the strange goings on at Wayside School.

It's taken me a while to get to reading this book because it seems beyond review. Just shy of being 30 years old the book has obviously proven itself over time with kids, and given its age I'm sure there is a generation bringing this book home to read whose parents read it when it was still a new book. But I missed it, being that I was in high school working on my AP English when it was initially released.

Each of these incredibly short interconnected stories usually focuses on one individual and is made up of complete nonsense. Their first teacher turns students into apples when they misbehave until she herself is turned into an apple and eaten by the playground supervisor. One boy becomes class president and is responsible for turning on and off the lights but loses his position one day when he is late for school and finds the class working in the dark because no one else knew how to turn on the lights. Utter absurdity, pure entertainment.

This is one of those books that flies under the radar with parents, one of those books kids read and like and the parents just go "They really liked those wayside books" but never read themselves. Having transitioned from series books like Mary Pope Osborne's Magic Tree House or Jon Scieszka's Time Warp Trio parents my just write off the Wayside books as more gobble-em-up stories, books aimed at a very hungry readership that reinforce reading without challenging them either in content or vocabulary. I'd like to suggest that there might be another reason kids are drawn to these stories, something beyond the familiarity factor.

A little over a year ago I caught my girls working on a secret project in a notebook. Caught is a relative word here, they only hid it from me when I casually went to check on why they were being so quiet. The notebook, it turned out, was a collection of individual stories about various "characters" in their school, friends whose names were changed only slightly in order to distance themselves from being accused of making fun of their classmates. I smiled, remembering how me and some friends had made a similar collection of stories when we were their age, sharing them in secret on the playground or at lunch.

I don't remember the source of inspiration for the character studies we made back then, and I can't be certain that the Wayside Stories were the inspiration for my girls, but the timing makes it plausible that the two are connected. Even if it's a coincidence there appears to be something deeply rooted in the exercise of children inventing nonsensical stories once they have a feel for the telling of stories. The freedom of being able to write whatever you want, coupled by the excitement of actually inventing stories is just too irresistible. The appeal of a book that does the same thing probably equally so.

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