Study Guide

Sideways Stories From Wayside School Themes

By Louis Sachar

  • Foolishness and Folly

    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.

    Questions About Foolishness and Folly

    1. Sometimes the kids at Wayside act foolish, and sometimes it's the teachers who are ridiculous. Who do you think is more foolish overall, the kids or the adults?
    2. How does Sachar use foolish or silly situations at Wayside to poke fun of everyday, real life situations?
    3. Which is more foolish: coming to school on a Saturday, or trying to sell your toes?
    4. With all of the foolishness in this book, do you think Sachar is trying to make elementary school seem more fun? Does his strategy work?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Friendship

    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.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Sometimes friends stick up for each other, but sometimes they tease each other, too. How does Sideways Stories illustrate different types of elementary school friendships?
    2. Nancy and Mac have one of the best-described friendships in the book. Why do you think their shared experience of hating their own names makes them such good friends?
    3. The kids at Wayside don't always get along, especially on the playground. What strategies do the teachers use to help them resolve disagreements?
    4. Maurecia doesn't like anyone until she's introduced to their flavor of ice cream. What do you think Sachar is trying to say here about making friends?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Appearances

    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.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Why do you think Sachar frequently starts a chapter with a physical description of the starring character?
    2. How does Sachar use appearances to give us clues about a character's personality?
    3. Allison is teased for being pretty. How does she cope?
    4. Stephen has green hair, but we don't find out that it's not a part of his Halloween costume until the end of his story. Why do you think Sachar left that fact until the very end?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Choices

    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.

    Questions About Choices

    1. Todd always gets in trouble for talking in class—sometimes it's for good reasons, and sometimes it's not. What does his story tell you about making choices?
    2. Paul spends most of his own story trying not to give in to temptation and pull Leslie's pigtails. He makes up his mind not to do it, but his arm has a different idea. Do you think he made a conscious or unconscious choice?
    3. Leslie makes up her mind to sell her toes. Do you think this is a wise choice? What's Louis's strategy for convincing her not to do it?
    4. Joy decides to steal Dameon's lunch, and doesn't exactly tell the truth. What does she learn from her choice?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • The Supernatural

    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.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. The magic in this book is very inconsistent—sometimes it shows up, and sometimes not. How does this contribute to the atmosphere at Wayside School?
    2. The supernatural story elements in Sideways Stories are often creepy. Are there times when magic is used for fun instead?
    3. Mrs. Gorf could clearly do magic. Does Mrs. Jewls know magic too? Why do you think so?
    4. In this book, it seems like only the adults can have magical powers, and not the kids. Why do you think that's the case?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Education

    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.

    Questions About Education

    1. Mrs. Jewls tries to help her students in all kinds of ways. What are some of her strategies for accommodating different learning styles?
    2. Why does Mrs. Jewls think school is useful?
    3. How is education different at Wayside than at an ordinary school? Is it different? How is it the same?
    4. Why do you think Mrs. Jewls mixes up arithmetic and spelling while talking to Allison? Why does Sachar show us that the teacher sometimes gets mixed up?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Versions of Reality

    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.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. What are some of the clues that Wayside might exist in a different reality?
    2. Why don't you think Sachar explains how Louis knows about ordinary schools?
    3. Wayside School has some very subtle differences from ordinary schools, and some very big differences. What are some of these differences?
    4. Would you rather go to school at Wayside School, or stay in your current reality? Why?

    Chew on This

    The characters at Wayside never go into a wardrobe or down a rabbit hole, but they live in an alternate version of reality.

    Sachar uses the different reality at Wayside School as a way to poke fun of real elementary schools.

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

    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.

    Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge

    1. Who do you think is the wisest character in the book?
    2. Do you think Sachar would say that knowledge and wisdom are the same or different?
    3. Which student do you think learns the most important lesson? Why?
    4. Do you think there are any students who don't gain any wisdom or knowledge in their stories?

    Chew on This

    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.