Even though some tough stuff happens in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing—like the death of a much beloved pet—Peter keeps the tone playful and light. He doesn't linger on the problems, and bounces back at the end of every chapter.
You know, the way fourth-graders tend to do.
Even when his dad loses the Juicy-O account, everyone in the family recovers pretty quickly:
The next week my father came home from the office and collected all the cans of Juicy-O in our house. He dumped them into the garbage. My mother felt bad that my father had lost such an important account. But my father told her not to worry […].
"You know, Dad," I said. "I only drank Juicy-O to be polite. I really hated it."
"You know something funny, Peter?" my father said. "I thought it was pretty bad myself." (2.109-111)
The playful tone reflects the Hatcher family's take on life. They don't take things too seriously and are all very resilient. They have to be, with a toddler like Fudge. Because they're such a cohesive family unit, they manage to get through the hard times together, and that's mirrored in the tone of the book.
Told from the perspective of a fourth grader, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing is geared to younger audiences. Peter takes on life in New York City from a kid's perspective, making the stories relevant to other kids. He talks about parents who just don't understand, obnoxious little brothers, tough school projects, and girls who obviously have cooties. It's all authentically told in kid-speak.
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing is, at its heart, a story about family relationships. Sure, Peter talks about his friends and going to school, but most of the conflict in the story revolves around his relationship with his brother, Fudge, and how his parents react when problems arise.
Why is this book called Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing instead of something more literal, like Stories About Fudge? Well, throughout the book, Peter Hatcher is constantly complaining about how his parents don't treat him like he matters, while they cater to Fudge's every whim. It's clear that he feels like "nothing" when it comes to his family's attention, and because that's his main complaint in life, it takes center stage in the title.
Judy Blume's original title for the book was Peter, Fudge, and Dribble. Her editor, Ann Durell, didn't want to use it because another kids' book had just come out with the name "Peter" in the title. So Judy came up with about 20 other titles for the book and sent them to Ann. This is the one Ann chose, and we're glad she did.
At the very end of the book, Peter has just recovered from one of the worst things to ever happen in his young life—the death of his pet turtle, Dribble, at the hands (or mouth) of his brother. He feels alone and resentful because everyone seems to care more about Fudge, who's in the hospital after swallowing the aforementioned Dribble. But that's when Peter's parents surprise him:
I looked up. Could I be hearing right? Did they really remember about me and Dribble? I put my hand inside the box. I felt something warm and soft and furry. I knew it was a dog, but I pretended to be surprised when he jumped up on my lap and licked me. (10.113)
The gift helps alleviate Peter's feelings about being forgotten by his parents, because it's clear that they do see what he's gone through and they want to make things up to him. He's not a fourth-grade nothing after all; he's a good kid who's responsible enough to take care of a puppy. The ending shows kids that while it's easy to feel neglected and misunderstood by your parents, most of the time they've got your back.
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing takes place in New York City. Peter and his family have a classic New York lifestyle. They live in an apartment building and use taxis to get around. Central Park is Peter's "backyard":
We live near Central Park. On nice days I like to play there after school. I'm allowed to walk over by myself as long as I'm going to be with friends. (4.1)
The hustle and bustle of the city serves as an interesting backdrop to Peter's tales. We get to see his father working in a high-rise building, the neighborhood kids coming over to each other's apartments to hang out, and even the hassle of having downstairs neighbors who complain about noise—which happens when Fudge's third birthday party rolls around:
Then the doorbell rang. It was Mrs. Rudder. She lives in the apartment right under us. She wanted to know what was going on. She said it sounded like her ceiling was about to crash in on her any second.
My mother explained that Fudge was having a little birthday party and wouldn't she like to stay for piece of cake? (5.65-66)
The New York City of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing isn't a dystopian, grim place like Gotham City. It's a busy, fun place where kids can still be kids and play outside even though they have to take an elevator to get there. Peter doesn't think it's unusual at all; he's a city kid through and through.
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing is perfect for readers who are moving past picture books and diving headfirst into the exciting world of chapter books. The language is simple, and each chapter/story is short and snappy—giving you a perfect time to take a break whenever the going gets tough. And the subject matter is perfect for kids too; sibling rivalries and family dynamics are themes that everyone can relate to, no matter how young or old.
The writing style in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing is both simple and conversational. Because the story's told from the perspective of a fourth grader, Peter's language is uncomplicated and casual. It's written in the same way that a kid would talk:
I thought how great it would be if we could trade in Fudge for a nice cocker spaniel. That would solve all my problems. I'd walk him and feed him and play with him. He could even sleep on the edge of my bed at night. But of course that was wishful thinking. My brother is here to stay. And there's nothing I can do about it. (3.27)
When Peter complains about his little brother, it's obvious that he's coming at it from a kid's point of view; he's complaining in a way that a young reader would relate to. He even has daydreams about trading Fudge in for a puppy, which is a total kid move.
Like countless other kids growing up and wanting their independence, Peter decides at a certain point that he needs a lock on his bedroom door. Initially, his mother vetoes the idea:
"That's why I need a lock on my door," I said.
"I don't like locks on doors. We're a family. We don't have to lock each other out." (7.76-77)
She thinks that they're all one big happy family, and that Peter shouldn't want to get away from his little brother. And besides, Fudge will respect his property, right?
Fudge gets into Peter's stuff and ends up destroying the school project that had taken him and his group weeks of work. He goes into Peter's room and cuts his hair into Dribble's bowl. When his parents see this, they realize that Peter was right all along:
[...] my father came home with a chain latch for my bedroom door. I could reach it when I stood on tip-toe, but that brother of mine couldn't reach it at all—no matter what. (7.119)
The new chain lock on Peter's bedroom door is an unspoken apology from his parents for not taking his concerns seriously before. It's also a symbol of his growing up (Fudge isn't tall enough to reach it) and his right to have his own space now.
Peter's not jumping up and down at the chance to go shoe shopping—especially not if it's with his mom and his annoying little brother. But he doesn't have a choice in the matter, and so off they go. Peter initially picks out the shoes he always gets, but Fudge throws a tantrum when he's asked to try on saddle shoes. He wants to be just like his big brother:
Fudge sat up. "Like Pee-tah's." he said.
I smiled. I guess the kid really looks up to me. He even wants to wear the same kind of shoes. (6.93-94)
In this moment, it's clear that even though Fudge is annoying as can be, he often just wants to get Peter's attention and approval. And even though Peter always gripes about Fudge and how he doesn't want to hang out with him, he still does the good big brother thing and tries on the saddle shoes so that Fudge can see him wearing them:
Mr. Berman came back with a pair of brown-and-white saddle shoes in my size. I tried them on. Did they look ugly.
"See Peter's nice saddle shoes," my mother said. "Now Fudgie tries on his nice saddle shoes.
Fudge let Mr. Berman get him into his new pair of shoes. (6.114-116)
Of course, Peter doesn't actually end up buying the shoes, but he does humor Fudge. He knows in his heart of hearts that Fudge isn't actively trying to make Peter's life miserable; he just doesn't know any better. He worships his big brother and wants to be like him. Peter's more grownup shoes are another symbol of his maturity, like the lock on his bedroom door.
Has getting a new pet ever been so bittersweet?
Peter's a huge animal lover, so it's no surprise that he loves the puppy that his parents give him at the end of the book. But the whole thing is still a bit sad, because he's only getting the dog because of the death of his pet turtle, Dribble. And so Peter decides to name his new dog Turtle:
We all laughed. My dog was neat.
I named him Turtle to remind me. (10.118-119)
Peter wants to remember Dribble and the good times they had together. But you have to admit that a puppy is definitely an upgrade. It's another symbol that Peter's growing up. Dogs are a lot more work than turtles, and his parents trust him to take as good care of Turtle as he did little Dribble.
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing is told entirely from Peter's perspective. He tells readers all about his life and his quirky family, especially his infuriating younger brother, Fudge. He's especially annoyed whenever Fudge messes with his pet turtle:
I jumped up. "Give him to me." I told Fudge. I took Dribble and his bowl and marched into my room. I inspected my turtle all over. He seemed all right. I didn't want to make a big scene in front of our company but I was mad. I mean really mad. That kid knows he's not allowed to touch my turtle. (2.83)
Because the book is told from Peter's point of view, we get the full story on all his encounters with Fudge and can see when he's fuming even when he acts calm on the outside. His parents may gloss over all of Fudge's shenanigans, but when Peter's telling the tales, he can give us the lowdown on just how aggravating Fudge can be and how much harder Peter's life is as a result.
The book opens up by introducing us to our fearless narrator, a boy named Peter Hatcher. Peter gives us a glimpse into his family's quirks and conflicts. We meet his father, who works in advertising, and his mother, who has her hands full taking care of two young boys in a small apartment in New York City. And of course, we meet the bane of Peter's existence—his little brother Fudge.
Throughout the book, we see Fudge making his brother's life difficult in lots of different ways. He's always going through Peter's stuff, getting him in trouble, and ruining his plans to hang out with his friends. It's obvious that Peter's mounting frustrations with Fudge will only get worse over time, especially since their mom seems to side with Fudge no matter what.
Mr. Hatcher and Peter get a chance to see just how hard watching over Fudge can be when Mrs. Hatcher goes out of town for the weekend. In true Fudge fashion, nothing goes according to plan. Fudge inserts himself into a commercial that his father is working on, disrupts a movie when they go out, and exhausts both Mr. Hatcher and Peter. They're relieved and grateful when Mrs. Hatcher finally comes home again.
The trouble isn't over yet. Fudge swallows Peter's beloved pet turtle, Dribble. After that, Fudge has to go to the hospital and everyone fusses over him during his recovery. This just makes Peter more resentful. He's pretty sure that everyone's ignoring the fact that he just lost a pet, and that Fudge was responsible for Dribble's untimely demise.
Things get resolved at the end of the book after Fudge comes home from the hospital. Peter's parents give him a present, a brand new puppy, to show that they've totally noticed what a hard time he's going through and how good he's been about the troublesome Fudge. Peter decides to forgive and move on, although he names his new dog Turtle in memory of Dribble.