Wayside School Beneath the Cloud of Doom by Louis Sachar; illustrated by Tim Heitz; Harper, 182 pages ($17.99) Ages 8 to 12.
Louis Sachar, Newbery Medal-winning author of the now classic "Holes," offers hilarity, absurdity and inspired fun in this clever collection of stories, his fourth book about Wayside School. (The first was written more than 40 years ago.) And despite the "Cloud of Doom" in the title, he could never have anticipated in writing it that the school setting itself would evoke a kind of sweet nostalgia, that it would be published at a time of crisis when nobody is going to school.
Wayside School is 30 stories tall, with one classroom per floor. The action involves Mrs. Jewls' classroom, on the 30th floor. Her blackboard warns children: "ultimate test starts tomorrow." The ultimate test is given over three days (a jab at state assessments, no doubt), and anyone who fails faces "being sent back to kindergarten." And what do you need to know for the test? "You just need to remember everything you've ever learned in your whole life." The oddball kid-friendly humor includes a class project proposed by Mrs. Jewls to better conceptualize a million by collecting a million toenail clippings. (The principal, Mr. Kidswatter, upon noticing bins of toenails, says: "I'm glad to see you're doing important work here.")
Mrs. Jewls hands out one paper clip at the beginning of the year and demands the children keep track of their one paper clip. ("Do you think paper clips grow on trees?" she asks, as she waxes poetic about the glory of the paper clip.) Outside her classroom is a giant closet wrapped in heavy chains and locked with a giant padlock. Then there's argumentative, unpleasant Kathy, who emerges in an altered state after a visit to school psychiatrist Dr. Pickell. Among the cafeteria offerings: spaghetti topped with "feetballs," foot-shaped meat patties. Then there's Miss Zarves, a teacher who objects to studying only famous people. "We don't play favorites in my class," she says, passing out a list of everyone born in 1837 along with a Chinese dictionary since a goodly number of them were born in China.
The author himself appears as Louis the yard teacher, who accidentally fills the dodge ball with too much air, making it explode. Of course, he has to sew it back together. (In a note at the beginning he writes: "In my heart I'm still Louis, the yard teacher, passing out balls and playing with the kids at recess.")
The authors of "Sex in the City" and "99 Days" join forces for this page-turner about a high-achieving high school senior who is flattered by the friendly overtures of her AP English teacher but shattered when he crosses the line to assault, kissing her against her will.
This is an interesting novel of the #MeToo era: Marin is smart and popular and has her heart set on getting into Brown University. Her teacher's betrayal opens her eyes to the sexist norms (particularly the dress code) and gender power dynamics at her school and the sexist attitudes of her classmates including her boyfriend.
When she complains to the principal about the teacher's assault and is not believed, the teacher turns on her, and even her friend Chloe, co-editor of the school newspaper with her and her best friend of many years, gives her the cold shoulder. Marin writes a fiery editorial, "Rules for Being a Girl," dumps her former boyfriend, and with the support of a female teacher, starts a feminist book club which attracts a diverse group of students, giving Marin a new group of friends along with a valuable perspective on her vantage point of white privilege. Among the members of the book club is a handsome athlete named Gray Kendall, previously dismissed by Marin as just another jock, but who turns out to have hidden depths. A side angle to the story is Marin's close relationship with her grandmother, who is suffering from Alzheimer's.