I normally don’t care about children’s books or movies or culture in general because I am not a child and I do not have a child, but I stopped the goddamn presses in my mind when I found out, that after a 20 year gap, Louis Sachar has announced a new edition to the Wayside School series. Apparently this news broke in August, but I didn’t hear about it until last weekend and I’m ringing the alarm bells because if you have access to a child, you have to show them this series. It’s Twin Peaks for children, and if you want them to be prepared for the strange, sad, funny, maddening darkness of the world, this is your one stop shop.
In the same way that David Lynch subverts the roles and expectations of a small, seemingly bucolic American town, Louis Sachar (who also wrote Holes because the man deeply understands the inherent trauma and weirdness involved in being a child) exposes the darkness deep at the core of the American school system.
The three original novels Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Wayside School is Falling Down and Wayside School Gets A Little Stranger (which were published in 1978, 1989 and 1995 respectively) center around a school that also functions as an architectural anomaly because it is 30 classrooms high.
Between the 30 sets of stairs, a Twilight Zone-esque understanding of the world reigns supreme. There are kids who fundamentally don’t know how to count, yet correctly answer every math problem, kids who eat magic ice cream, kids who can only read books upside down, kids who see hallucinations featuring talking pigtails, kids who ride motorcycles, kids who fall out of the window on the 30th floor and somehow survive and kids who are secretly a dead rat wearing many coats (these are all real plot points). However, the real evil at the core of the Wayside books are a series of teachers with magical ears who choose to use them for nefarious means (including turning kids into apples, stealing their voices and reading their minds). Like the rotten core in the center of power in Twin Peaks, it’s the people you should be able to trust the most, who you can’t trust at all.
The Wayside series also plays around with liminal spaces. While Lynch’s TV show channels the idea of a malevolent dream space that crawls in and out of time into the Black Lodge, Sachar encapsulates these same themes on the 19th floor of Wayside. Billed as a floor that doesn’t exist, taught by a teach who doesn’t exist, the 19th floor is a dark corner of the school that traps unsuspecting students into completing busy work for the rest of their lives.
It’s clear that Wayside’s unusual darkness mirrors the surrealism of Twin Peaks, but the book and TV series also find themselves as strange bedfellows in the romance department. Dale Cooper might be breaking hearts and taking names in the town of Twin Peaks, but Wayside finds its romantic storyline in the love between Louis the Yard Teacher (he’s… a playground monitor? A janitor? I don’t know?) and Ms. Wendy Nogard, a substitute teacher who uses her secret third ear to listen in on people’s thoughts and use them for evil. After being badly burned by a cruel ex-boyfriend, with the help of Louis and a strange baby, Ms. Nogard learns to love again.
In the same way that Twin Peaks: The Return added an exciting chapter to the lush world of Twin Peaks, Washington, I’m hopeful that Wayside School: Beneath The Cloud of Doom will add a delightfully creepy chapter to the teeming universe of Wayside. Either way, it’ll be the first children’s book I’ve read in years.