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.
**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).