Sideways Stories: Still Fun (Mostly)

Sideways Stories from Wayside School

I read Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories from Wayside School for the first time in the early 1990s, towards the end of my elementary school years. Two decades later, I remembered the humorous collection of short stories about a school built with one classroom on top of the other well enough to recommend it to my daughters. We were on a road trip, during which one child moaned about boredom and another suffered from car sickness, while all three complained about how long it was taking us to get to our destination.

With several hours left until we could say “YES” to the universally irritating question, “Are we there yet?,” Mr. A.M.B. downloaded the audiobook version of Sideways Stories from Wayside School. The humorous stories have a dark element to them, like many fairy tales do, but my children loved it. They listened to each story quietly, interrupting the peace only with their laughter.

Sideways Stories from Wayside School was originally published in 1978, a time when we were far less politically correct than we are today. Listening to the audiobook with my children, I joined in the laughter, but I also cringed on occasion, such as when a little girl threatens to kiss another child against his will, when a child physically assaults a teacher, and, most problematically, when robbers bring guns into the school. They don’t end up hurting anyone, but even a brief reference to guns in school just isn’t funny in our post-Columbine educational environment.

Columbine (1999) certainly wasn’t the first school shooting in the United States, but that tragic event reduced our sense of safety and resulted in a slew of security measures that made schools feel more like prisons. In just a few days, we will observe the two-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Massacre, in which twenty children (who were the same age as my twins are now) and six adults were killed. As Mother Jones investigated recently, finding that “fatal gun attacks at schools and on college campuses remain a fixture of American life,” there has been a school shooting in the United States every five weeks, on average, since Sandy Hook.

The world is a different place now than it was in 1978, for better and for worse, making some small parts of Sachar’s book feel inappropriate today. That said, I would never stop my children from reading/listening to it again. Rather, it’s become part of a gentle discussion we’re having with them about safety at school. I learned that the mention of guns in the book reminded one of my daughters about a safety drill that she described as “very scary.”

Still, Sideways Stories from Wayside School and its sequel, Wayside School Is Falling Down (1989), are actually now among my twins’ favorite books.** While I continue to cringe at parts, there is also so much to love about these stories. Even the chapter with the robbers ends with one of them declaring, “Maybe I’ll give up being a criminal and become a scientist,” after a child teaches him an important lesson: that knowledge is worth more than money. It’s too bad there’s a reference to guns in the school. It isn’t necessary.

*There is also a third book, Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger (1995). We own a paperback copy of it, but haven’t read it yet.

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m-and-s-birthday-2014**My twins are 7-years-old today. I wanted to blog about one of their favorite books to commemorate their birthday, but this post took a darker turn than I had originally intended. See also, They Aren’t Babies Anymore (And I Wish They Still Were).

20 thoughts on “Sideways Stories: Still Fun (Mostly)

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  5. I wish them a wonderful birthday. They are really growing up. I think even though things have changed, growing up when things were less politically correct there was less of the violence than today. Now the criminals don’t fear consequence like when I was younger. Kids did not do the things they do today, like the shootings. I could never remember a book from elementary school. I even have trouble remembering those from college in the 90’s.

    1. Thanks, Donna! My girls had a wonderful birthday.

      I think we’ve always had a violent society, a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately because of the anniversary of Sandy Hook and also the more recent events in Ferguson and elsewhere. Sadly, some groups have had to fear more violence than others because of their racial/ethnic background or their beliefs (this is when I think of Emmett Till and Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, among others). Police brutality isn’t new either (this when I think of Bull Conor). But, in addition to worsening social inequality, what seems to be new is an increase in access to the type of weaponry that can cause widespread devastation. I just can’t believe we live in a society where mentally ill people can get assault weapons.

  6. I read these around the same time you did and remember loving them, too! Hearing your experience makes me wonder what else might be hiding in some of the books I consider “classics” from my childhood, but remember more for their titles/covers than stories or details.

    1. I wonder if these books would’ve been written differently today. The Wayside Stories are still fun, though, and I’m glad my children love them. If you’re looking to re-live the experience, I highly recommend the audiobooks for a car trip or commute.

    1. Thank you! They had a wonderful birthday. If you’re ever looking for a fun audio book for a car trip, I recommend re-experiencing the Wayside School series that way. 🙂

  7. I remember loving the Wayside School books in elementary school (late ’90s), too. But all I remember is that there was no 13th floor and that someone had to carry a TV all the way up to 14, only to have the teacher push it out the window for a lesson in gravity. I don’t remember the gun episode, but I might have read it (just slightly) before Columbine. I think it’s great that you were able to turn these issues into good discussions with your kids!

    1. The Miss Zarves chapters (in the first two books) are the ones that really stayed with me over the years. If you’re ever looking for a fun, nostalgia-laden audio book for a car ride, I recommend this series!

  8. Our culture has changed because it’s been turned into one that revolves around fear. Looking back, I see exactly how our government and news media effected this change, and it’s horrible. Kids today should be enjoying the same freedom I did as a child, essentially running wild from dawn to dark with no adults hovering over us. How else can children learn to assess situations and make decisions on their own? If it’s unhealthy psychologically for adults to be afraid all the time, then it must be quadrupled for our kids to feel that way.

    1. Well said, Theo. When Columbine happened, I was graduating from high school and my youngest sister was just entering it. Our experiences were entirely different. Our school revoked its open campus policy, employed security guards, and instituted drills, among other changes. It only got worse when 9/11 happened (in addition to other tragedies since that time). I tend to believe we’re better off today than we were in the past (in general), but when it comes to education and the security of our children, I don’t think that’s true.

  9. My son discovered the Wayside School books on his own in the school library, and he loved them–not least for the fact that they were his alone and there were topics he knew were forbidden, like guns in school. (Books discovered on his own were a big deal for him, as a younger sibling in a very book-oriented family.)

    1. It’s fun for kids to have books they can entirely call their own. I discovered the Wayside books (the first two) on my own in the early 1990s. My parents were generally aware of what I was reading, but they didn’t screen everything.

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