Thursday, July 30, 2009

Awesome Things from My Childhood: The Wayside School Books

I've been in a nostalgic mood lately, so I thought I'd look back on one of my favorite book series as a little kid: the Wayside School books. Written by Louis Sachar (who later went on to write Holes), these stories offered a lot of humor and surrealism that made them stand out over the normally lame children's books.

Of course the best book of the series was the original, Sideways Stories From Wayside School. Here we are first introduced to the school that was built 30 stories high with one room on each story thanks to an error by the builder. The school was also known for mysteriously not having a 19th floor, because the builder accidentally put the 20th floor right over the 18th.

The stories focus on the group of students on the 30th floor and their various teachers. Nearly all of the stories in this book are so absurd that they make Alice in Wonderland look like a lucid and realistic tale. Most of them were humorous, but some were legitimately scary (the story of Ms. Gorf being turned into an apple and eaten by the janitor immediately comes to mind).

Some of the best stories in this book also include morals or lessons learned by the students included in all the surrealism. While Bebe Gunn churns out an insane amount of art in each class period, it is her sidekick Calvin whose one drawing ends up being the best. Class bully Terrence gets punished for stealing balls at recess by being kicked over a fence. The three Erics are often judged solely by their names and not by their actual character. All of these stories were interesting and funny, but also contained lessons that a kid could subconsciously understand.

For me, the most memorable character is easily Sammy. He comes into the class smelling bad and wearing many raincoats, and after insulting the class the teacher removes his raincoats one at a time, until he is revealed to be a dead rat. It makes no sense, is profoundly disturbing, and also really awesome because of that (far more interesting than reading about a fuzzy caterpillar that eats fruit).

With these books, Sachar was easily able to introduce young children to advanced ideas like surrealism, while also having productive messages hidden in the stories. They were a great way for weird kids like me to unleash their imaginations and learn to think creatively. These are the types of things that should be in every elementary school classroom, instead of boring books that knock kids over the head with morals and values or have no imagination to them.

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