Review x 2: Dominic and Sideways Stories From Wayside School

Dec 9, 2015

I'm combining reviews today. One is for the book, Dominic by William Steig, which I read aloud to my kids. The other is for the book Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar, which I read along with Aaron.

Dominic by William Steig

Dominic went on my library list immediately after I read Erica's post about fall family read-alouds (an all-around excellent list if you're looking for some ideas). I could tell just from her brief synopsis that it would be a story my kids would love. And I was right.

Dominic is a dog in search of adventure. One day he decides that there isn't "enough going on in his own neighborhood," and so he sets off in search of something exciting. It doesn't take him long to find it. On the second day, he falls into a deep hole dug by the nefarious Doomsday Gang. They have big plans for their prisoner, but Dominic isn't one to sit around and bemoan his fate. While the gang is sleeping, he digs his way out and takes the road of adventure once again. Along the way, he meets new friends, sees new sights, and, yes, continues to get the upper hand on the Doomsday Gang.

My kids were sold on the book as soon as they met the Doomsday Gang. If there's anything they like more than an honorable and brave hero (which Dominic is), it's a motley group of villains for him to defeat.

For my part, I fell in love with this book because of Dominic's contagious optimism towards the unpredictability of life. For example, when he's trapped in the hole, "which was now getting a bit stuffy, what with the logs covering it, Dominic wasn't a bit worried. Challenges were his delight. Whatever life offered was, this way or that, a test of one's skills, one's faculties; and he enjoyed proving equal to these tests." I could use a good healthy dose of that.

The very first individual Dominic meets on his journey (even before his run-in with the Doomsday Gang) is a witch-alligator who offers to give him a glimpse of his future: "For twenty-five cents I'll reveal your immediate prospects . . . For half a dollar I'll describe the next full year of your life. For a dollar you can have your complete history, unexpurgated, from now to the finish." As someone who likes to plan for the future, I would certainly be tempted to plunk down my dollar and get my life's summary, but Dominic says, "I'm certainly interested in my fortune. Yet I think it would be much more fun to find out what happens when it happens."

In addition to all of this, Dominic is kind and thoughtful and willing to go out of his way to help other people.  At one point, Dominic comes upon a small cottage in the forest. In it, he finds Bartholomew Badger, an old sick pig who is all alone in the world. Dominic's sensitive nose is assaulted as soon as he entered the house: "The room smelled like a sickroom. The air was stale. And the pig smelled like a sick pig." That description is enough to make anyone turn and run. But not Dominic. He saw someone in need, and he did what he could.

This attitude (challenges are a delight + the future is exciting + it's worth the trouble to help other people) could go a long way in making this world a better place. This book brought these things into clearer focus for me and hopefully for my kids too. But whether or not they picked up on those subtle messages, the story is one grand adventure after another, and it's fun to go along for the ride.

Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar

I never read any of the Wayside School books when I was a kid, and now, as an adult, I feel like I missed out just a little bit. I don't really consider them children's classics, but raise your hand if you read them when you were eight years old. That's what I thought. So although maybe not a classic, they do seem to be something of a rite of passage.

As I mentioned last week, one of the things I decided to do to be more involved with what Aaron was reading was to read some of the same books he was reading at the same time he was reading them. It was not by accident that this happened to be the first book we read together. I knew if we started out with something heavy and dense, he would forevermore be wary when I said that I was going to read a book with him. I wanted this to be fun--an experience that he would enjoy now and look forward to again in the future. So I picked a book that was wacky and silly but still had a certain reputation that comes from having been read by millions of children.

We both enjoyed it immensely.

When Wayside School was built, it was accidentally built vertically instead of horizontally. That means that instead of thirty classrooms all on one level, it has thirty classrooms stacked one on top of the other. This book is about the students on the thirtieth floor. There are thirty chapters in the book--one for each student (except in the case of the three Erics) with a few teachers thrown in.

This book made me laugh. There was Joe, the student who couldn't count but always ended up with the right answer. The dialogue was so funny, I had to read it aloud to Mike (who did read Sideways Stories as a kid): "[Mrs. Jewls] put five pencils on the desk. 'How many pencils do we have here, Joe?' Joe counted the pencils. 'Four, six, one, nine, five. There are five pencils, Mrs. Jewls.' 'That's wrong,' said Mrs. Jewls. 'How many pencils are there?' Joe asked. 'Five,' said Mrs. Jewls. 'That's what I said,' said Joe. 'Can I go to recess now?' 'No,' said Mrs. Jewls. 'You got the right answer, but you counted the wrong way. You were just lucky.'"

There were the three Erics: Eric Bacon (who is the skinniest kid in the class, but everyone assumes that all the Erics are fat so they call him "Fatso), Eric Fry (who is the best athlete in the class, but everyone assumes that all the Erics are clumsy so they call him "Butterfingers"), and Eric Ovens (who is the nicest kid in the class, but everyone assumes that all the Erics are mean so they call him "Crabapple").

And there was Calvin, who was given the impossible task to take a note to Miss Zarves on the nineteenth floor. When Wayside School was built, the nineteenth floor was accidentally not included (the builder said he was very sorry). Calvin's task is impossible, but Mrs. Jewls won't listen to reason. Calvin thinks: "Boy, this is just great. Just great! I'm supposed to take a note that I don't have to a teacher who doesn't exist, and who teaches on a story that was never built."

Seriously, I feel like I could just sit here and quote the whole book to you. And that's basically what Aaron and I did. Every night, one of us would ask, "Where are you in the book?" Then we would read snippets of our favorite parts, laugh at our favorite characters, and give little teasers for what was coming up. (Aaron, with a twinkle in his eye: "Have you got to the nineteenth chapter yet?" (There isn't a nineteenth chapter because, as already mentioned, there isn't a nineteenth floor.))

This is a book that was made ten times better because it was shared with someone else. I'm already planning out the next book Aaron and I can read together. In the meantime, he has a couple more Wayside School books he can't wait to check out from the library.

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