If there's one rule at Wayside School, it's that silliness is the order of the day. Although the kids take school seriously, their school doesn't always take them seriously, so as Sideways Stories goes along, we see students asked to do all sorts of ridiculous things—from delivering notes to a teacher who doesn't exist to selling their toes at a discount. It's safe to say that when a new teacher mistakes her classroom of children for a group of monkeys, foolishness is going to be a major part of the story.
Even though she can seem like a really foolish person, Mrs. Jewls is actually a very wise teacher.
All the silliness at Wayside School has a purpose: it helps the kids learn.
Nothing can be simpler—or more complicated—than alliances between elementary school kids. In Sideways Stories, Louis Sachar seems to intuitively understand how these friendships work. Some kids have best friends, and some kids don't; some pairs are perfectly suited for one another, some tease each other, and sometimes you never see one particular kid without the other. The class on the thirtieth floor has a wide range of friendships, from art class partners like Bebe and Calvin, to kids who like to stand on each other's heads, like Joe and John.
And then there's Kathy, who doesn't like anyone at all.
According to chapters like Myron's and Allison's, sometimes it's not always easy to be a good friend.
In Kathy's chapter, Sachar seems to be saying that the best way to make friends is to be open-minded.
In Sideways Stories from Wayside School, characters are always described using one or two stand-out features—like missing teeth, a big round face, or in Stephen's case, green hair. In this book appearances distinguish one character from the next, while at the same time reminding us that looks can be deceiving. After all, just because one kid's name is Eric doesn't mean he looks like the other two kids named Eric. Everyone at Wayside is an individual… or a dead rat, of course.
The story of the three Erics illustrates the danger of making generalizations, especially when it comes to appearances.
Some characters at Wayside School have aspects of their appearance that reflect their personalities.
One thing the students on the thirtieth floor are constantly learning is how to make good choices. When is it okay to talk in class, and when should you listen? Is it ever okay to pull your classmate's pigtails? Is it worth it to sell your toes if you're not using them? What do you do when you accidentally turn your teacher into an apple? Sideways Stories explores these and other head-scratching dilemmas, and how kids learn about their choices along the way.
A few of the kids at Wayside School consistently make bad choices, like Kathy and Terrence, but they don't always learn from their mistakes.
Nancy and Mac decide to switch names, which turns out to be a positive choice for both of them.
It wouldn't be Wayside without weirdness, and one way this weirdness shows up is through supernatural events. Sometimes these are subtle—like furniture that can laugh—but sometimes we get full-on witchcraft. Anytime Mrs. Gorf shows up, get ready for magic, ghosts, and spells. And Sammy the dead rat seems to have some strange powers too, since he can talk through infinite layers of filthy raincoats. Plus, since when can dead rats talk, anyway?
Nothing at Wayside seems to follow any rules, so magic isn't in every chapter, but there's definitely a healthy dose of it in Sideways Stories.
Supernatural events are just one way Louis Sachar demonstrates that Wayside School is unusual.
Magic is the most predictable thing at Wayside. Once you figure out how it works—like Mrs. Gorf and her wiggling ears—it makes more sense than just about everything else.
It's kind of hard to write a book set in an elementary school without having education as a main theme, so this theme's pretty obvious in this respect. But what's not obvious is that there's also a lot of sly commentary here about how traditional education can be kind of silly, in addition to hidden messages about how kids learn and the best ways to teach them. Sideways Stories wants us to know that all kids are individuals, and because of this they learn differently. It also wants to remind us that humor pretty much always helps.
At Wayside School, the students learn just as much on the playground as they do in the classroom.
Joe can only count in the wrong order, and John can only read upside down, but both of them overcome their problems almost by accident instead of through hard work.
The Wayside School universe is a school where many things look normal—except very often they're not. Sideways Stories seems to exist in a parallel universe, and only yard teacher Louis knows that things at Wayside are not the same as they are elsewhere. We never find out how Louis knows about the real world, but somehow the yard teacher has the clearest perspective on Wayside's unusual state of being. Wayside School's version of reality, and how it differs from our own, is at the heart of the humor and fun of Sachar's book.
Sachar uses the different reality at Wayside School as a way to poke fun of real elementary schools.
The delicious irony of Sideways Stories: despite the ridiculous setting and the wacky, nonsensical situations, Sachar still manages to weave wisdom and truth into these pages. Sometimes it's a lesson learned by one of the kids—why school is really valuable, for example, or why one carefully done piece of art has more value than thousands of scribbled sketches. And sometimes it's through a joke—for instance, we bet you never thought about why missing teeth are so much cuter than real teeth, did you?
But either way, before the bell rings at the end of the day, readers will leave this book with some touching and true thoughts about friendship, school, and life in general. Not too shabby for a book that is guaranteed to make you giggle.
Mrs. Jewls teaches the children more about wisdom and knowledge than she does about academic subjects.
Kathy's chapter is an example of a wise lesson about friendships concealed in a funny story.