For the first three years of his life, my son has enjoyed classic books like Goodnight Moon, The Pout-Pout Fish, and The Going to Bed Book. More recently, I’ve been trying to expose him to more mature books like The Ghost on Saturday Night, My Teacher Fried My Brains, and of course, the absolute best children’s book in history, Sideways Stories From Wayside School by Louis Sachar. I can usually get a page or two into those before he complains how long is this story? And when I calmly explain to him how much of an impact Sideways had on me as a child and an adult, he pretends to get tired and fall asleep. Such is parenthood.
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Last night, when I was reading Sideways Stories From Wayside School, I came upon a passage that took me right back to childhood. I vaguely remembered reading it for the first time and being so awestruck by what it represented. It occurs in Chapter 7 when Calvin is tasked by Mrs. Jewls to deliver a note to Miss Zarves on the 19th story.
Here is that passage.
There was also no Miss Zarves. Miss Zarves taught the class on the nineteenth story. Since there was no nineteenth story, there was no Miss Zarves. And besides that, as if Calvin didn't have enough problems, there was no note. Mrs. Jewls had never given Calvin the note.
That’s the only word I can think of. And it’s a different level of absurdity than the chapters that come before it. Even a little girl rolling out of the 30th story window only to be caught by Louis the Yard Man isn’t quite the same.
This passage is a prime example of how stories can be anything you want them to be. They don’t have to be straightforward. Parts of them don’t have to make literal sense. The play between the missing 19th Story and the missing 19th Chapter is so wonderfully self-aware and so perfectly executed that I can’t help but smile when I read it.
It’s clever. It’s… meta, maybe?
You can spend your entire writing career following reasonable advice from successful authors and Twitter wonks, but nothing teaches you like simply reading good books and emulating what excites you about them. I remember reading Sideways and wanting so much to write a story like. Years later, I tried with a short called Scotty Peanut, but I knew that style wasn’t for me.
Although I can’t write stories like Sachar, I do like following in the footsteps of his IDGAF attitude, the kind of confidence that says this is what I want the story to be, regardless. Regardless of any rules. Regardless of any preconceived notions.
Or maybe he was just trying to be funny.
Louis Sachar, Austinite?
Of course, I had to check in on Louis Sachar to see what he’s been up to lately (spoiler: Fuzzy Mud), and I was surprised to learn he lives here in Austin, Texas. I read his biography and laughed when he mentioned he worked in a sweater factory while working on his first books. That sounds about right.
Something else he mentioned, and in which he seems to take great pride, is this:
I never talk about a book until it is finished. I spent two years on my latest novel, and nobody, not even Carla, Sherre or my editor knew anything about it until it was finished. Then they were the first to read it.
I can’t imagine getting more than a dozen chapters into a new story without mentioning it to someone. Hell, I’m not even finished with the first draft of Book 7 and I’m already working on covers and descriptions and marketing plans. To keep a book secret until the very end?! Madness!
But as my high school friends used to say, mad props.
His website is pretty nice. Check it out at louissachar.com.
It has been a great past 24 hours. I’ve rediscovered an inspirational passage that I will now turn into a graphic and put on my wall, and I found out there is a new Wayside book called Wayside School Beneath the Cloud of Doom that I will need to purchase and read to my son.
People always have lofty answers to the question what makes you want to write? Myself, I think it’s a bunch of little moments that jump off the page and change your idea of what stories can be. String enough of those together, and when you sit down to write, you’ll know how the story is supposed to feel.
And if you haven’t read the Wayside books yet… well, now you have something to do this weekend.