'Sideways Stories from Wayside School:' A Grown-up Look at Louis Sachar's Classic Silly Stories

Louis Sachar's silly series was a bundle of laughs, but going back to Wayside School as an adult makes you appreciate them even more.

Sideways Stories from Wayside School, the first of Sachar's series centered on the school, was first published in 1978. It introduced the school, which was accidentally built 30 stories high, with one classroom on each story, rather than one story, with 30 classrooms. Mrs. Jewls and her class are on the 30th story — though there is no 19th. Wayside School is Falling Down is Sachar's follow-up, didn't come out until 1989, and the third book, Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger, was released in 1995. 

What's so great about the series?

When we were children, there were no other books like the Wayside School books. The silliness, the dozens of main characters, the mysteries — it was a whole new way of reading books, at least for me. The absurdity, such as how the students only knew how to add letters, not numbers, plays with kids' minds and teaches your brain to think in new ways, if you wanted to figure out the jokes.
Joe counted the books. 'A thousand, a million, three. Three, Mrs. Jewls.' 'Correct,' said Mrs. Jewls. 'Can I go to recess now?' Joe asked. 'No,' said Mrs. Jewls. 

As a kid, I was used to books with a distinct "hero" or "heroine," but in the Wayside school book, it was never quite clear, though if I had to choose one now, it would be Louis the Yard Teacher, who just happens to be named after the author.

While the hero wasn't clear, the Wayside school books had first-class villains that were so fun to cheer against. There's Mr. Kidswatter, the school principal who hates children; Mrs. Gorf, who taught class on the 30th story before Mrs. Jewls, turned children into apples and haunted the students in their potato salad and on the monkey bars after she, as an apple, was eaten by Louis; Mrs. Drazil, a substitute teacher who keeps a blue notebook of things she holds grudges on; and of course, Miss Zarves, who doesn't teach class on the 19th floor because there is no 19th floor.
She hated children the most. Every time she passed a playground, she heard them laughing and having fun. So she became a substitute teacher.

Why do we still love Wayside School?

The stories of Wayside School stick with you in weird ways. 

When I do laundry and I'm folding socks, I still, to this day, sing Mrs. Jewls' student Mac's sock song.

I got one sock! Lookin' for the other
One sock! Lookin' for its brother.
When I find that sock I'll tell you what I'll do,
I'll put it on my foot, and I'll stick it in my shoe. 

As an adult, I can also appreciate the series' utter absurdity, not just for the laughs, but for Sachar's talent. That is one author that gets kids. He gives children the books they want, rather than the books adults think they want. Sachar also prepares children's brains to read more mature novels full of absurdity (more on that later) and watch shows like Arrested Development.

But even aside from Sachar's immense talent for the absurd, the Wayside school stories are chock full of heart, that rings out even more clearly as an adult. When one of the students won't stop smiling, everyone keeps asking her why she's so happy, and she says, "You need a reason to be sad. You don't need a reason to be happy."

You need a reason to be sad. You don't need a reason to be happy.

And when a student has a crush on Dana, it's described in a perfectly silly, but truly sweet way.

Dana had four beautiful eyes. She wore glasses. But her eyes were so beautiful that the glasses only made her prettier. With two eyes she was pretty. With four eyes she was beautiful. With six eyes she would have been even more beautiful. And if she had a hundred eyes, all over her face and her arms and her feet, why, she would have been the most beautiful creature in the world.

Another thing you recognize looking back as a grown-up, is Sachar's subtle (at times) criticism of the way schools are run. And it's possible I'm projecting this onto him, but it certainly feels true when you're reading. Even the quotes about the principal and substitute teachers who hate kids would be enough, but when you look at how Mrs. Zarves teachers her (nonexistent) class, she gives them 11 hours of busy work and 2-minute beaks, but keeps them happy by always giving them As. Sure feels like a critique.

Maybe above all, I still love it because I like to believe there are people out there that just really, really want a tattoo of a potato. You do you, Calvin!

    If you liked Wayside School books, you might like...

    1. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

    Yes, Catch-22. This classic, satirical novel about the absurdity of war is one of those books Sachar is teaching kids how to read. Joseph Heller's fictional story of Captain John Yossarian's time U.S. Army Air Forces is a critique of bureaucracy, perhaps in line with Sachar's critique of school systems. 

    2.  Where'd You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple

    Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette is, on the surface, a story about 15-year-old Bee's search for her notorious mother Bernadette. But in Bernadette's personal emails and correspondence, readers can easily see a genius behind them, and maybe Bee and Bernadette are just running around in an absurd world.

    3. Save the Enemy by Arin Greenwood

    Arin Greenwood's mystery novel follows two kids as they search for their kidnapped father, and it's at its best when the world around them slowly devolves into the absurd. It's laugh-out-loud funny often, mostly at just how strange it is.


    Images: Harper Trophy; Giphy (3)

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