Lunch Line Realism
by ALICE BOLIN
They are Scholastic paperbacks from the 1980s, approximately 150 pages, their covers featuring an illustration bordered in a bright color, and since I was a child they have appealed to me more than almost any other object. Even now I often buy them in Goodwills and used bookstores, especially if they seem off-brand, a little sad: because some of these books — The Babysitters Club, notably — took off, while others — ever heard of Sleepover Friends? — languish in bookstore-free-box limbo for all eternity.
I was in a thrift store in the strange, tiny town of Ronan, Montana when I came across Barthe DeClements’ 1985 novel Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You, whose title struck me immediately as both bizarre and bizarrely honest. I bought the book for fifty cents and read it dutifully: it’s the story of a sixth grader named Helen who can’t read and acts out in serious ways, like spray painting her school, because of her learning disability. It’s about ineffectual authority figures and what it means to be a “bad kid.” It’s a totally sad and totally good book.
It wasn’t until after I read Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You that I realized that it is by the same author as one of my most obsessed-on books from childhood, Nothing’s Fair In Fifth Grade. It’s difficult to describe the plot of Nothing’s Fair In Fifth Grade: in Google Books’ synopsis, “Overweight Elsie Edwards, new to Brier, Washington, steals lunch money in order to buy candy and Jenny has to decide whether to risk her popularity with her friends in order to help the troubled new girl.” Or taken another way, on the Scholastic website: “A group of fifth-graders must deal with an overweight classmate who steals everyone's lunch money to buy candy for herself.”
Both of these feel so wrong. The first paints Jenny as brave and valiant, risking her popularity, and the second paints Elsie, the overweight classmate, as the villain. Especially for children’s books, DeClements’ books are remarkably morally ambiguous: the kids in Elsie’s class are brutal to her for her weight, but she does steal from them, making some of them feel justified in disliking her. Jenny eventually becomes Elsie’s friend, but it takes her half the book to discover any compassion for Elsie.
A short synopsis also gives the book too much of a coherent, climactic arc. Nothing's Fair In Fifth Grade is humdrum and episodic — we hear about Jenny making dinner with her mom, playing with her cat, and babysitting her younger brother. There are also amusing 1980s mundanities like Elton John records and Mork and Mindy; Jenny’s mom has to get a part-time job and her dad bitches quaintly about having to make his own dinner. The plot is so quiet as to be almost inaudible, but DeClements gets away with it because the book is so emotionally true — it isn’t boring because it feels real.
When I was a kid I ate that shit up. All I desired was a protagonist whose emotions I could project into and experience; plot could get in the way of my lingering in the fantasy. This is related to my childhood love of sequels: Sister Act 2, Beethoven’s 2nd, and, especially, My Girl 2. (I should mention that Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You is not a sequel to Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade, but it is something of a spin-off: it features a few of the same characters, but only peripherally.) While first films tediously focused on introducing characters and having stories that made sense, sequels could dispense with character development and focus on hijinks and gratuitous love affairs. Sequels felt low-pressure: first films are tense where sequels are loose, their pacing haphazard, as if they have nothing to prove.
My ideal book offered no novel historical setting, no supernatural elements, and characters who were superbly average — but while Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade and Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You are low-pressure, they are also serious. They’re a few steps less bleak than K-mart realism (Target realism? J.C. Penney realism?) for ten-year olds. DeClements was a school psychologist, and this is obvious in her books: they often focus transparently on the underlying issues that make kids misbehave and the problems teachers and parents have when dealing with troubled children. The questions involved are fraught, and Declements doesn’t attempt a unified answer. There’s something axiomatic here: that Declements’ books, like childhood, betray surprising complexity. They’re the kind of books I want to liberate from garage sales and flea markets, wonky, earnest relics that supply weird, honest joys.
Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She last wrote in these pages about the bad movie club. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.
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