With its crazy cast of characters, absurd situations, and total lack of anything like a real plot, this book seems to have one big goal: to make you laugh. And if Louis Sachar can't make you laugh with one story, he has twenty-nine more to keep trying.
Each story has a humorous twist and ends with a punchline—who can forget Calvin saying, "but really, it was nothing" (7.54), after he tries to find the invisible nineteenth floor? How about Mrs. Jewls freaking out about her class full of monkeys? "I'm a teacher, not a zookeeper!" (2.8) she exclaims. Sachar's specialty is finding ways to turn regular school-day situations on their heads to make fun of everyday life in a classroom.
And speaking of turning things on their heads, Sachar even does funny things with the book itself—when John stands on his head in Chapter 17, the words on the page are printed upside down. It's hard to take a book seriously when you're standing on your head to read it. Unless you just flip the book over, but that's not nearly as fun, is it?
This book is written for a young audience and could easily be enjoyed by elementary school kids. (In our experience, it's definitely enjoyed by elementary school kids.) However, sometimes Sachar's sense of humor can get pretty dark and weird, which is why Sideways Stories is also a good fit for the young adult lit genre. It's easy reading, but it's smart and funny enough that it could appeal to almost any age.
Since Wayside School doesn't always conform to the laws of physics, you might say this book could also fall into the magical realism category. However, there's no rhyme or reason to the universe here, so put away your serious spellbooks—anything can happen, but it almost never makes sense. Magic isn't a factor in every chapter, but since teachers can turn people into apples and invent kid-flavored ice cream, this book definitely hangs out in a world of its own.
Sideways Stories from Wayside School. It's a mouthful, isn't it? And check out all of those similar sounds—it could almost be a tongue twister. One thing's clear from the title, though: this book is about turning things sideways… or maybe backwards… and occasionally upside down. Did you notice that Wayside is Sideways spelled in reverse? (Okay, minus an s.) This is a clue that the book we're about to crack open is playful and doesn't take itself too seriously.
As for what a sideways story is, however, we're still trying to figure that one out.
In a book without a traditional plot, we can't really expect a traditional ending, but Sideways Stories manages to come full circle and pull together its cast of characters for a farewell bow and curtain call. The ending of the book is Louis' chapter, where he reveals that he's the author of the book. He comes to the classroom on the thirtieth floor to tell the kids stories about the kinds of schools we all go to, much to the horror of the kids at Wayside.
Way back in the book's introduction, narrator Louis says to the reader, "When I told stories about you to the children at Wayside, they thought you were strange and silly" (I.6), and at the end we get to watch him tell these exact stories. In fact, he echoes the very same words from the introduction when talking with the Wayside kids: "When I told them stories about you, they thought that you were strange and silly" (30.24). And of course, Louis is right—the students on the thirtieth floor can hardly believe it.
This final chapter makes us realize how well we've gotten to know this big group of twenty-eight kids and all the rest of the Wayside crew. Each student in class has at least one line in this chapter, helping the reader remember each of their stories in turn.
Because everything at Wayside is, of course, the opposite of ordinary life, the book doesn't end with a round of applause for Louis' wonderful stories. Instead the entire class boos him out of the room, which in the Wayside universe might actually be the perfect ending.
This book is set at Wayside School, which as narrator Louis tells us, was built sideways: thirty stories straight up in the air, instead of thirty classrooms side by side. "The builder said he was very sorry" (I.3) though, apparently. Louis points out that this error gives the school a remarkably large yard, but as we find out over the course of the book, sometimes running up and down the stairs to the thirtieth floor can be tiring and a little bit ridiculous.
Having your classroom on the thirtieth floor provides some unusual challenges. Sharie, who likes to sleep during class, falls out the thirtieth story window and has to be saved by Louis; Deedee, who loves recess games, can never get a high-bouncing green ball because kids from lower floors always get there first; Dameon is run ragged when Mrs. Jewls asks him to send messages back and forth to Louis down on the ground floor. On the up side, though, when a dead rat visits your classroom wearing smelly raincoats, you can totally just toss them out the window.
The builder of Wayside School made another little mistake when building the school too: he forgot to include the nineteenth story. This is not exactly convenient for Miss Zarves, the teacher on the nineteenth story—but it's okay, because there is no Miss Zarves anyway.
These quirks aside, Wayside School seems to have plenty of ordinary school features—an office, a school library, and a lunchroom staffed by the incompetent Miss Mush; two buses run in the afternoon, a kindergarten bus and a later bus. Just like at an ordinary school, some of the kids walk home, like Myron and Dana, and one even arrives on a motorcycle (we're looking at you, Jenny).
But most of the action at Wayside takes place either on the yard or in the classroom on the thirtieth floor. The yard has a fence—perfect for kicking balls or Terrence over—and places to jump rope and play hopscotch and kickball. The thirtieth floor classroom seems pretty ordinary too, other than the fact that the blackboard can chuckle, the desks jump up and down, and the walls sometimes turn purple from laughing. Oh—and on Halloween the ghost of your deceased teacher might decide to walk through the blackboard and pay the class a visit.
On the bright side, Mrs. Jewls always keeps Tootsie pops in a container on top of her desk.
This book wouldn't be out of place in a third-grade classroom, but that doesn't mean it can only be appreciated by eight-year-olds. Sideways Stories has a surprisingly wry, offbeat sense of humor wrapped up in a very childlike package. File this next to your beloved Ramona books—it just might make you laugh twice as hard.
Sideways Stories from Wayside School is not only written for a young audience, it's written to entertain a young audience. And nothing ruins a joke like having to look up a word halfway through reading it, so Sachar keeps the language simple and straightforward to make sure everyone gets all the punch lines.
Characters are described in just a few words—"Joe had curly hair" (3.1), and "Sharie had long eyelashes" (4.1)—and the book is full of bright, funny dialogue. It's almost like Sachar is coloring with big, bold crayons when he writes, rather than using subtle oil paints or watercolors. His style fits in perfectly with an elementary school full of kids.
Sachar has also chosen to write a collection of thirty separate stories, instead of a long and twisting adventure. Why? Well it's a great way to focus on the kids in the classroom and all of their separate personalities. For a book so detached from reality, this approach seems very true to life—if you went into a classroom and had to learn about all the kids, you'd probably spend some time with each one of them, too. Plus, writing thirty little stories really suits the classroom environment, where young kids can't often—or won't—pay attention for a super long time.
Sachar creates Wayside's funny world by writing about it a lot of different ways, and the end result is a patchwork of tales that create one very vivid—and entertaining—picture.
Even though the world of Wayside doesn't seem to stick to regular laws of physics, they have a well-known code for disciplining students: Mrs. Jewls writes the name of any kid who misbehaves up on the chalkboard under discipline; if the student misbehaves a second time a check goes next to their name; a third incident gets their name circled and the student sent home early.
This may seem like a very concrete system, except Mrs. Jewls hardly ever writes the correct person on the board—unless they're Sammy the dead rat. The discipline list seems to stand for rules in general, and the fact that the authority figures who enforce the rules are so often wrong about who's to blame.
If anyone knows about teachers blaming the wrong person, it's Todd. "Todd," Mrs. Jewls says at the beginning of Todd's chapter, "you know better than to talk in class. You must learn to work quietly, like the other children" (5.3). And then up it goes: Mrs. Jewls writes Todd's name on the board under discipline.
The problem is that Mrs. Jewls blames Todd when other kids next to him are behaving much worse. When Joy yells at the top of her lungs, Mrs. Jewls says nothing—but when Todd responds, "Will you please let me do my work and stop bothering me!" (5.18), Mrs. Jewls puts a check next to his name. Why does Mrs. Jewls single Todd out for punishment, especially when he's trying to be a good student? It's silly and over-the-top, but it also reminds us that sometimes teachers can be seriously wrong.
And because the discipline list comes up repeatedly throughout the book, it also reminds us that Wayside isn't an ordinary school. While it's fun hanging out in Mrs. Jewls's classroom, good luck not getting sent home on the kindergarten bus.
One of the most memorable things about this book is its lack of a proper nineteenth chapter, which is instead only a few sentences long. Check it out:
There is no Miss Zarves. There is no nineteenth story. Sorry. (19.1)
This, of course, is due to the fact that the builder of Wayside School forgot to build the nineteenth story. But the thing about that is that it's impossible. In the real world, you can call a building's stories whatever you'd like, but it is simply not possible to have thirty stories but not a nineteenth. Because of this, one of the things that the missing nineteenth story symbolizes is the silliness of the world Sachar created in this book. Every time it comes up we are reminded that all bets are off at Wayside.
Though the nineteenth chapter—which is also the nineteenth story of the book—is almost as nonexistent as the nineteenth floor itself, something pretty cool happens in it. Let's focus on the last sentence:
No apology needed, right? The whole nineteenth story problem makes for some good laughs, after all. But none of this is what's important—what's important is who is being apologized to. And that would be us, the readers.
Pushing aside the barrier between the story and the audience by speaking to the reader is called breaking the fourth wall. And while the nineteenth chapter isn't the only place Sachar does this (check out Chapter 20 to see if you can find it happening there too), it's a really great example of breaking the fourth wall because it's such a short little chapter. With nothing after following the apology, we really notice that we're being spoken to.
So let's do a little math, shall we? Breaking the fourth wall + no nineteenth story = this is one unusual book about one extraordinary school. Yup—that's the nineteenth story as a symbol in a nutshell.
Louis has three kinds of balls on the playground, and the green balls—which bounce the highest—seem to symbolize that special thing kids always want, but somehow never get. You know the special thing we're talking about. Every kid has something they super want but just can't seem to get their hands on.
"The green balls were the best" (15.6), Sachar explains simply, and poor Deedee does everything she can to get one, including jumping down the stairs, cutting across the lawn, and masquerading as a dead rat. Why are the green balls so good? Let's consider the other options.
The red balls "didn't bounce as high" (15.8), and the only other ball—a yellow one—is a dud Louis is always trying to get rid of: "It didn't bounce, and it never went the way it was kicked" (15.11). The green ball is clearly the best—and when Deedee finally gets to bounce a prized green ball, "it went fifty feet straight up in the air" (15.44) before she catches it. Fifty feet.
The red, yellow, and green balls represent the things kids want—and don't want—and also how ridiculously hard it is for kids to get what they want sometimes. On the flip side of this, the green ball reminds us that with a little cleverness and by keeping our eyes on the prize, anything is possible. Even getting a green ball at recess.
Maurecia doesn't like anyone in the class but loves ice cream, and eventually learns to love all of her classmates when Mrs. Jewls brings in ice cream flavored like each of them. Mrs. Jewls starts by making a Maurecia-flavored version, but Maurecia, of course, can't taste it. She says:
"It doesn't taste bad, but it doesn't taste good. It doesn't taste like anything at all!" (9.12)
She can't taste it because it's how her mouth always tastes—but everyone else loves Maurecia's flavor. "This is some of the best-tasting ice cream I've ever eaten!" (9.15) Todd exclaims, "It's so sweet and creamy" (9.17), Deedee agrees. Mrs. Jewls proceeds to bring in ice cream flavored like each student and, with the exception of Kathy, as Maurecia tries them she starts to like each of her classmates in turn.
The strangeness of person-flavored ice cream aside, this means that the ice cream is a symbol for getting to know people. You never know who you'll end up liking if you just give them a chance… or a lick, as the case may be. Plus each flavor is different, which also reminds us that the kids at Wayside—just like the rest of us—are each unique and wonderful in their own way.
Except for Kathy, of course. Kathy-flavored ice cream tastes "a little bit like old bologna" (9.26). Poor Kathy.
Louis Sachar has created a strange little world at Wayside School, and the same holds true for his narrative technique. He starts the book's introduction by addressing the reader directly—"There is something you ought to know so you don't get confused" (I.1)—which is called writing in the second person. As you might have guessed, the second person is a really unusual technique to use, and writers almost never do it.
Luckily for us, after the opening most of the book is written in third person (which is way more commonly used), with occasional glimpses into the thoughts and motivations of the kids featured in each story. However, Sachar sometimes switches back into second person, pulling the readers into the story as if we are students just like the kids at Wayside. This happens most memorably in the last chapter, when the narrator reveals that Louis is the person who has been writing the book all along. Fourth wall, you're history.
Because this book is backwards, sideways, and sometimes upside-down, it doesn't have anything like a traditional plot structure. Sideways Stories from Wayside School is a collection of thirty mini-stories, each one with its own problem and punch line. So in the spirit of the famous nineteenth story of Wayside School, which doesn't exist, we'll just say this about the plot of this book: There is no plot. The author forgot to write one. He is very sorry.