There is no 19th story. There is no Miss Zarves.
September 7, 2017 4:14 AM   Subscribe

Jia Tolentino on Louis Sachar and his kids books: "It’s high-concept, slightly menacing world-building—Shel Silverstein with hints of Barthelme and Borges. In one chapter of “Sideways Stories,” the children swap names and lose the ability to tell one another apart. In another, a new kid turns out to be a dead rat wearing a dozen raincoats. A ball is tossed up and doesn’t come down; three bald men with briefcases materialize out of the air."
posted by ChuraChura (45 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
 
My kid hasn't read these yet and they sound like just the kind of thing he likes. Thanks for posting.
posted by gerstle at 4:24 AM on September 7 [1 favorite]


I am reading Sideways Stories to my class right now! It's a personal favorite. The dark undertones are what make it for me - they round out the otherwise silly humor.
posted by mai at 4:35 AM on September 7 [4 favorites]


As an adult I read Holes and found it fascinating. A rather complex web of subplots that all end up tying together perfectly. The movie was good, too.
posted by zardoz at 4:40 AM on September 7 [3 favorites]


At some point in early elementary school (the exact grade is lost to me now) our teacher read us one chapter a day from Sideways Stories. I loved it so much and wanted to know what would happen so badly that I got my own copy and read ahead.

In middle school, I was asked to read a chapter of one of my favorite books to an elementary school class as part of a program to foster a love of reading ('cause everyone knew I was a bookworm), and I picked Sideways Stories -- partially because I loved it, and partially because it's perfect read-aloud material. Guess what the teacher of the class was reading to the class, one chapter a day? Yep. I picked a chapter they hadn't already heard.

I think I still have my old copy upstairs somewhere. It's tattered and worn and well-loved.
posted by anthy at 4:53 AM on September 7 [12 favorites]


At some point in early elementary school (the exact grade is lost to me now) our teacher read us one chapter a day from Sideways Stories.

!!!!! My 1st grade teacher did the same thing! We were kinda bummed when we got to Chapter 19 - very short reading that day!

I also loved his "teen" book The Boy Who Lost His Face when I got to it in middle school.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:11 AM on September 7 [4 favorites]


I used to pick this as my first read-aloud of the year when I was teaching. Short chapters, silliness...it was always a great intro to a new school year.
posted by bookmammal at 5:49 AM on September 7 [1 favorite]


In one chapter of “Sideways Stories,” the children swap names and lose the ability to tell one another apart

We did that on our work slack once and it is a day that should live in infamy.
posted by tofu_crouton at 6:05 AM on September 7 [15 favorites]


As a kid, I was in a book club where I got a book in the mail every month (IT WAS GREAT). One month, the book was Sideways Stories from Wayside School. I think I was around eight years old. I sat down on the couch and powered through it, laughing almost hysterically. When I got to the chapter about, I think his name was Sammy, the new student who was really a rat in a smelly raincoat trying to sneak into Miss Jewel's class YET AGAIN, I laughed so hard I cried and my mother sent me to my room for being annoying. She let me take the book though, so it was fine. Heh.

I read Holes as an adult. I remember getting to the end when all the plot details come together and just being like, "...Oh. OH. WOW." It's some good storytelling. Louis Sachar is pretty great.
posted by Aquifer at 6:18 AM on September 7 [6 favorites]


I loved the Wayside School books when I was a kid. I didn't realize they were by the same author as Holes. I've never read Holes, despite hearing about how great it is. I shall have to correct this oversight.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:31 AM on September 7 [5 favorites]


The first book I read by him is still my favorite: There's a boy in the girls bathroom. I wasn't a troubled kid like Bradley, but I related to his creating a world with his animal figures; and I longed for a counselor like Carla. Someone who didn't give up. I cried so hard at the end of the book. Man, what a good book (with such a click-baity title).
posted by Elly Vortex at 6:33 AM on September 7 [13 favorites]


Loved reading those books to my kids! These new kid who turned out to be a rat was one of our favorites!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 6:47 AM on September 7 [2 favorites]


To the stack of Sachar's triumphs, I would add Someday Angeline and Dogs Don't Tell Jokes, two very different novels about standing out as a child.
posted by 4th number at 7:33 AM on September 7 [2 favorites]


SSFWS and its sequels are great, and so is Holes. Holes in particular does a wonderful job of explaining the prison-industrial system and how it starts early.
posted by infinitewindow at 7:37 AM on September 7 [5 favorites]


I want to double up on the love for There's A Boy In The Girl's Bathroom. It really struck me, when I read it as a child. I didn't have identical problems to the protagonist, but it was a depiction of a boy having emotional troubles that spoke to me in a way very few books had, at that point.

I think that, in general, one of my favorite things about Sachar's books is a very particular sort of empathy that he has for the way some kids think.
posted by bluemilker at 7:53 AM on September 7 [6 favorites]


So do these stories have like a Roald Dahl vibe going then?
posted by oceanjesse at 7:56 AM on September 7


They're...sweeter than Roald Dahl. Much as I love him, parts of his books are nightmarish. Louis Sachar books always seemed to me to be real life with just a little bit off.
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:04 AM on September 7 [12 favorites]


Yeah. In hindsight as an adult, Dahl's books were dark. Sachar had none of that.

Also, is this where I can throw in a good word for The Phantom Tollbooth?
posted by schmod at 8:09 AM on September 7 [16 favorites]


Another one whose elementary school teacher read us a chapter of Wayside School every day, and who bought the book early on in order to read ahead.

For whatever reason the chapter that stuck in my brain was the one where they were all excited to get a computer for the classroom and all the things they could learn from it and everything and at the end once it's all ready to go the teacher drops it out the window to teach them about gravity.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:11 AM on September 7 [5 favorites]


three bald men with briefcases materialize out of the air.

Wayside School is where I first encountered the term "attaché." The word still carries a connotation of mystery for me.
posted by Iridic at 8:17 AM on September 7 [9 favorites]


Wayside School is a place where reality is but a veneer of normalcy on a universe governed by fundamentally unknowable and capricious forces, but the forces in question just play harmless pranks on everybody.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:21 AM on September 7 [15 favorites]


OMG, this thread just reminded me - after devouring the Wayside School books in 3rd grade (my teacher, too, read us a chapter a day from the original, then I tracked down the others because I couldn't get enough), someone in my life (my parents?) found a secondhand copy of Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School and it blew. my. mind. This is math? You mean math isn't just the endless grinding tedium of multiplying two three-digit numbers together by hand, forever?

I recall the problems getting fairly difficult (/8 year old me getting impatient and frustrated) that I would sometimes just flip to the solution; even then I ended up learning a lot about how to think, because the answers were accompanied by a detailed, cheerful description of how to get there. Apparently there was a second volume (More Sideways Arithmetic...) published - maybe I should track a copy down...
posted by btfreek at 8:24 AM on September 7 [10 favorites]


They're...sweeter than Roald Dahl. Much as I love him, parts of his books are nightmarish. Louis Sachar books always seemed to me to be real life with just a little bit off.

Yep. Also, in Dahl's works -- it's been a long time since I read them, but I remember the viewpoint character (the kid) and maybe a few supporting adults being pretty normal, as a sort of foil for all the eccentric, cruel people around them and for the weird world. The main kids were even in some cases kinda angelically good -- like that one scene where Charlie and his grandpa used the fizzy lifting drink when they weren't supposed to, and that was, like, the most disobedient thing Charlie did in the book.

In Sachar's Sideways Stories, the world is weird, and everyone's also kinda equally weird, in a just slightly off sorta way. If you think someone isn't...no, wait a bit, believe me that they're just as eccentric as everyone else. You just haven't gotten to the chapter where you've found that out.
posted by anthy at 8:34 AM on September 7 [7 favorites]


The wayside books are why I still legitimately want a potato tattooed on my ankle.
posted by namewithoutwords at 8:35 AM on September 7 [20 favorites]


Wait, the first Wayside book came out in 1978? That's at least ten years earlier than I would have guessed. (Though it makes sense that the book is a rough contemporary of Lizard Music and The Westing Game.)
posted by Iridic at 8:47 AM on September 7 [1 favorite]


STAR BRINGING YORBEL
posted by dephlogisticated at 8:58 AM on September 7 [8 favorites]


Stop bringing purple?
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 9:12 AM on September 7 [4 favorites]


These threads make me think we need to compile a "Metafilter reading list for strange children" - I have only ever heard books like wayside and animorphs mentioned in internet weirdo gathering spots, but I'm sure some of today's kids out there would appreciate knowing about them/getting them as gifts from a cool aunt.
posted by 100kb at 9:28 AM on September 7 [15 favorites]


Yeah, I think Sideways Arithmetic is a big part of why I majored in math.
posted by eruonna at 9:43 AM on September 7 [4 favorites]


I had completely forgotten how weird these books were. This article reminded me of the potato tattoo story in one of the books, which I hadn't thought of in years and is still the only example of normalizing tattoos that I can think of in children's lit.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 9:53 AM on September 7 [1 favorite]


Also had the elementary chapter a day experience, and was pleasantly amazed at how much I still enjoyed them rereading as an adult. Favorite chapter was when Mrs. Jewels made an ice cream flavor for each student, but no one could taste their own flavor, as it just tasted like what they're always tasting.
posted by timdiggerm at 10:01 AM on September 7 [5 favorites]


I love Holes. It came out when I was a child, and although it never said the words "institutional racism" and "prison industrial complex" in the book, it constantly kept gnawing at me for years how deeply unjust it all was, and why Zero went to the detention camp. It wasn't until I went to college and learned about all of that that I went back and reread it, and my jaw dropped. It is a very beautiful and elegant book and a very fine example of writing with a strong but understated moral core, that really taught me to be skeptical of abusive authority. It's all been very healthy attitudes for me to carry in my life.
posted by yueliang at 10:03 AM on September 7 [13 favorites]


That was a lovely nugget of a profile. I too adore Wayside School and Holes. I read to my daughter a ton, but few newer books matched the classics I'd grown up with, I tended to ignore anything released after my own childhood. Louis Sachar was a huge exception. His books are so inventive and weird and satisfying. Yet easy to eat up. They are perfectly designed, yes, like a Rubics cube.
posted by latkes at 10:23 AM on September 7 [2 favorites]


After that thread a few weeks ago about forgotten children's books, I started to remember all kinds of books I had loved, and this was one I couldn't remember beyond a weird story, a tall building and a boy who loved to pull pigtails. Glad to have found it again!

Now I need to figure out the one about the boy who gets a mysterious old chemistry set from an old lady and the one about a boy who gets a filling that let's him hear weird radio signals. I guess the late 70s/early 80s was a great time for weird and unbound YA fiction.
posted by lubujackson at 11:10 AM on September 7 [1 favorite]


These were so wonderful. I'm loving the comparison with Roald Dahl; the weird internal logic of Sachar's world was a fascinating counterpoint to Dahl's giggling insanity.
posted by aspersioncast at 11:11 AM on September 7


the one about the boy who gets a mysterious old chemistry set from an old lady and the one about a boy who gets a filling that let's him hear weird radio signals.

Scott Corbett's The Lemonade Trick and Daniel Pinkwater's Fat Men From Space, respectively.
posted by Iridic at 11:15 AM on September 7 [13 favorites]


I was also a math major, and I still think about Sideways Arithmetic.

My favorite memory is a problem about the Wayside School lunch lady, Miss Mush. She's not actually a terrible cook, it turns out, she just gets bad results when cooking for so many people. If she were to only cook one meal, it would be the most delicious thing in the world; the problem is, it would smell so good, then everyone would want to eat it.

So, it becomes an optimization problem: how many meals should Miss Mush make, such that they smell just good enough that exactly that number of people will want to eat it?

It's a fun optimization problem! For kids! I love it.
posted by Zephyrial at 11:57 AM on September 7 [9 favorites]


I love Louis Sachar so much.

I re-read There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom last year or the year before, when one of my kids found it, and it was briefly again my favorite book. I got goose bumps just now reading that Sachar married a guidance counselor named Carla.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 12:14 PM on September 7 [4 favorites]


Oh man the Miss Mush optimization problem! This thread is such a weird flood of half-remembered stuff coming back to me!
posted by Navelgazer at 12:45 PM on September 7 [4 favorites]


Adding Sideways Arithmetic caused me to find another beloved series My Teacher is an Alien . There were all sorts of these weird books I devoured as a kid. And the old cover was way better than the current edition.
posted by Hermeowne Grangepurr at 12:50 PM on September 7 [5 favorites]


re: holes/prison industrial system...

i have an incarcerated family member who calls his group counselor mr. pendanski.
posted by j_curiouser at 3:02 PM on September 7 [4 favorites]


I loved the wayside school books as a kid, but still love and regularly read/solve the wayside math books. I got my daughter hooked too and they're fun to solve together. (As long as you don't write the solution in the book, it's easy enough to forget what it was.) Also worth reading the answers, as there is more snarky commentary there. And yes, if you've done one book, track down the other. They're worth it.
posted by Margalo Epps at 4:55 PM on September 7 [2 favorites]


SO MANY FEELS. Thanks for posting this, ChuraChura!

I go back to There's a Boy in the Girl's Bathroom every 4 or 5 years and it kills me every time. There are a handful of grownup authors with the combination of empathy and writing ability to pull off these kinds of kids' books.

One of the things I loved about the Wayside School books was the way Sachar kept playing around with ideas and turning concepts...well, sideways. One of the chapters of Sideways Stories--Jenny's, I think--was written backwards. The last sentence was the first sentence, and the first was the last, and so forth. It was confusing as hell, and didn't announce itself (if memory serves, the "first" sentence was "It was purple.") so it was weird and frustrating at first until you got the joke, and THEN once you got it, it was delightful and strange and unfamiliar, and you got to have the thrill of discovery and figuring it out on your own, and could go back to read it from back to front in order to follow the actual narrative (which featured the theme of things being out of order, of course).

As an adult, when I read a particularly compelling novel (which doesn't happen very often!) I feel all warm and goopy and giddy, and I think the first time in my life a book made me feel that way was when I first picked up a Louis Sachar book.
posted by duffell at 6:04 AM on September 8 [6 favorites]


Correction: The "It Was Purple" story was apparently from Wayside School is Falling Down. LINK
posted by duffell at 6:28 AM on September 8


In one chapter of “Sideways Stories,” the children swap names and lose the ability to tell one another apart

We did that on our work slack once and it is a day that should live in infamy.


We also did that once. It was awesome until I realized I couldn't see my message history indexed in search anymore, and I needed that to go back through and track my time. And there were some other integrations we have that rely on our having our usual usernames that didn't work as well. So then I switched back. It was fun for a while! I guess it was a lot like the story.
posted by limeonaire at 11:23 AM on September 8


In one chapter of “Sideways Stories,” the children swap names and lose the ability to tell one another apart

No one should ever swap names. - Mark Miller
posted by Benjamin Nushmutt at 8:43 PM on September 8 [3 favorites]


« Older The stars turn, and the time presents itself   |   Some people are stuck with what they want and... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments