The Absurd Joy of Sideways Stories From Wayside School

The classic children’s book, first published in 1978, is an early primer for young readers who will eventually find their way to more profound surrealism.

Long before I’d ever read Haruki Murakami or David Mitchell, I was devouring stories by Louis Sachar. The first time I read Sideways Stories from Wayside School, in maybe third grade, I felt like I’d been let in on a fantastic secret.

Looking back now, I can appreciate Sachar for the foundation he had laid: Sideways Stories was a celebration of the surreal, a sort of early primer for the works of Murakami and Mitchell, yes, but also a kin to Kurt Vonnegut, Franz Kafka, Jose Saramago, Isabel Allende, and all the other writers who would dazzle me with vivid and peculiar stories in years to come.

It’s not that Sachar was an outlier, exactly. Many children’s books are dark and unsettling, and that’s part of what makes the experience of reading as a child so special. Literature has a way of honoring what kids already suspect to be true: that there are vast universes yet to explore, many of them just out of reach and not altogether pleasant.

Sideways Stories was a natural follow-up to the fantastical stories I loved best in younger childhood—Strega Nona, Jumanji, The Amazing Bone, and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. It was also a perfect fit on a bookshelf alongside The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Witches, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales.

Like the adventures in those stories, Sideways Stories had its own sinister and bizarre undercurrents, but there was something different about Sachar’s tales. While writers like Madeleine L’Engle, L. Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis, and Roald Dahl often transported their protagonists to curious and dizzying new worlds, Sachar invented a universe that was outlandish only to the reader. To the characters in the book, who are simply going to school each day, Sideways Stories is ordinary bordering on mundane.

Harper Collins

But Sachar has a way of winking at the reader throughout 30 short chapters. (One chapter for each story of a school that was built vertically, with a classroom on each floor, instead of at ground level.) For one thing, he inserts himself as a character, a yard teacher who drifts in and out of various stories.

Even the pace of his writing—and the clipped, matter-of-fact sentences that make it easy for young readers to keep up—enhances the absurdity and playfulness of the story. There’s this exchange, for example, in a chapter that features a new and “terribly nice” teacher who finds her students so “horribly cute” that she refuses to believe they’re children. They’re just too adorable. They must be monkeys, the teacher concludes.

Allison stood up. ‘I’m not a monkey,’ she said. ‘I’m a girl. My name is Allison. And so is everybody else.’

Mrs. Jewls was shocked.

‘Do you mean to tell me that every monkey in here is named Allison?’

Elsewhere in the story, a child is told to deliver a note to a mysterious teacher. “Miss Zarves taught the class on the 19th story. Since there was no 19th story, there was no Miss Zarves.” Sachar returns to Mrs. Zarves later in the book, naming chapter 19 for the mystery teacher—then, after a quick play-on-words, proceeding to chapter 20.

Later, there is a section about a boy who can read only when he’s standing on his head, so some of the text of that chapter is displayed upside down. These details, and the extent to which Sachar weaves oddities into the very structure of his writing, are delightful. They also come across as a kind of fissure in the fabric of the parallel universe where the story takes place; making the book itself feel like an object that can travel between the world where Sideways Stories is set and our own. These two realms are otherwise quite different.

At Wayside School, there’s a girl who keeps ice cream in her desk, a classroom in which the inanimate objects laugh uproariously, a ball at recess that flies in the opposite direction that it’s kicked, and, memorably, a new student who turns out to be a dead rat disguised by several raincoats. (“Dead rats were always trying to sneak into Mrs. Jewls’ class.”) All the while Sachar—both as the narrator and as Louis the yard teacher—embraces the chaos with a mix of joy and detachment.

A propensity for wandering into the supernatural notwithstanding, the children of Wayside School are surprisingly relatable—and probably because they’re given distinct identities.  Not every kid in the class is a special snowflake. Some children are smart, others struggle with math and reading. Some are thin, some are fat. Some are cute, others are mousey. These differences aren’t glossed over, but accentuated and accepted. (Except by Kathy, who hates everyone—including the reader. “Kathy doesn’t know you, but she still doesn’t like you. She thinks you’re stupid! In fact, she thinks you are the stupidest person she doesn’t know.”) With the exception of Kathy—who “also thinks you’re ugly!”—the children often band together to support one another.

The underlying message in Sideways Stories from Wayside School is that adults are strange and inscrutable, and that children are smarter than their teachers; ideas that feel like divine truths when you’re in third grade. When I reread the book this week, I remembered for a moment what that felt like. “The world is still wide open to kids,” Sachar told The Guardian last year. “As I get older, it’s becoming harder to find the inspiration to write for kids. I have to dig deep inside me, and remember how I felt when I was a kid.”

What it feels like to be a kid is to be at the mercy of authority figures like teachers and parents, whose reasoning and behavior is often puzzling and frustrating. That disconnect, the chasm between kids and grown-ups, can seem profound when you are small. Finding ways to revel in the distance from youth to adulthood, to celebrate the weirdness and wonder of being young, is a foundational part of kid culture—and a theme that’s at the heart of Sideways Stories.

“It has been said that these stories are strange and silly,” Sachar writes in the introduction. “That is probably true. However, when I told stories about you to the children at Wayside, they thought you were strange and silly. That is probably also true.”