Is there a movie that, while you’re channel surfing, makes you stop and linger and watch the entire thing? For me, that movie is “Holes,” based on Louis Sachar’s 1998 Newbery medal young adult novel. I’m immediately drawn into Stanley Yelnat’s predicament – he’s wrongly incarcerated in a youth facility on a dried up desert lake. The plot is complex and requires all my attention, so maybe dinner and chores will be put aside.
When I discovered that author Louis Sachar, whose birthday we celebrate March 20, is on the banned books list, I wondered what parts of Holes might have been challenged. Was it the description of the brutal conditions of Camp Green Lake, the escapades of Kissin’ Kate and the men she killed, or the themes of racism or homelessness, all found in this popular book? Imagine my surprise that Sachar’s middle grade series, Wayside School, are the challenged books in question!
Published in 1978, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, the first book in the series, was one of the most popular books in my elementary library for many years. Atlantic writer Adrienne French describes the appeal of Sideways Stories in this 2016 article, “The Surreal Delights of Louis Sachar.” Wayside School, where the students are much smarter than the teachers, is fun for elementary readers as they transition to chapter books. As French says in her article, “Sachar invented a universe that was outlandish only to the reader.” The strange happenings at Wayside School are the reason the series has been challenged, though. The challenge happened at Neely Elementary School in Gilbert, Arizona, because the book “shows the dark side of religion through the occult, the devil, and satanism.”
Sachar’s introduction to Sideways Stories captures the readers’ interest from the get-go: This book contains thirty stories about the children and teachers at Wayside School. But before we get to them, there is something you ought to know so that you don’t get confused. Wayside School was accidentally built sideways. It was supposed to be only one story high, with thirty classrooms all in a row. Instead it is thirty stories high, with one classroom on each story. The builder said he was very sorry. The children at Wayside like having a sideways school. They have an extra-large playground. The children and teachers described in this book all go to class on the top floor. So there are thirty stories from the thirtieth story of Wayside School. It has been said that these stories are strange and silly. 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.
Wayside School is Falling Down, second in the series, was challenged in Antigo, Wisconsin for “showing the destruction of school property.” So, it’s not a good idea to throw computers out of the school windows to teach a lesson in gravity?
In 1998, Sachar’s middle grade book, There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom was challenged in Arkansas for “inappropriate language.” The book was, however, retained in the Pea Ridge 5th grade curriculum.
Most librarians and classroom teachers enjoy reading a chapter book aloud to our students. It’s even better when it’s a story that brings us together through laughter and shared experiences. I agree with writer Nikki Porter, who said about Sachar in this 2020 interview, “Sachar’s books treat the reader as an intelligent and willing partner, not as an audience member demanding entertainment.” Thank you, Louis Sachar, for writing these hilarious tales for teachers and students to enjoy. I think I’ll go re-read Chapter One of Wayside Stories. I really could use a good belly laugh!
Kellyanne Burbage lives in Charleston, SC, and recently retired after 27 years in education which included teaching science and serving as an elementary librarian. Kelly’s interests include connecting students to science through children’s literature and by promoting science careers. In her spare time, Kelly enjoys sharing current NASA events as a volunteer Solar System Ambassador. She is a NatGeo certified educator and frequently writes about science education and intellectual freedom in her local newspaper.