The 1984 Buckeye Children's Book Award for grades 4-8 was Nothing's Fair in Fifth Grade by Barthe DeClements. I'm not sure about you, but I read this book once as a 4th grader, again as a 6th grader, and once more as a high schooler. It's been 12 years since high school, but I still remember this story quite clearly, because it was the first book I had read that dealt directly with bullying.
A new student named Elsie is introduced to Jenifer's 5th grade class and all the kids can talk about is how fat she is. She's on a special diet to lose weight, per her mother, and Elsie tries to get around it by eating other people's lunches and even stealing lunch money. Elsie is caught and punished, and Jenifer is irritated that Elsie is in her class (constantly calling her "gross") until one day Elsie's dress falls down in front of the whole class. Jenifer is sent to comfort her, and it's then that she realizes Elsie is a human being with feelings. She begins to befriend her, and in doing so, discovers there's more to people than what you see on the outside, and that there is a reason for Elsie's obsession with food.
The writing style of this book is not all that great, but the straightforwardness of it has its appeal. Right from the get go, the reader is peppered with the words "fat" and "gross" in relation to Elsie on every page. Every student takes one look at Elsie and immediately disregards her because of how she looks, making snide comments under their breath and even to Elsie's face. You are struck with how cruel the kids are being immediately.
What I like about this book is it isn't just about appearances and bullying. It goes into the reason why. Elsie can't stop eating because it's a coping mechanism -- her parents are divorced, her mom clearly favors Elsie's sister and seems to blame Elsie for everything, and ultimately, Elsie is sad. She has no friends because of her appearance and her obsession has led to stealing, which furthers her mother's anger. My favorite line of this book is:
"I had never thought of Elsie as a human being. Just a fat girl."
When Jenifer realizes this, it's a huge turning point for the book. I think it's something that a lot of kids would identify with, or would be good for them to learn. The bullying of Elsie, by kids and parents alike, is appalling and the straightforward writing style makes it clear from the get go that it isn't right. That's why, when Jenifer and other classmates begin to be Elsie's friend, it's so satisfying to see them realize they were wrong. At the end of the book, Jenifer also acknowledges how awful she had been in the beginning.
Elsie herself begins to realize that her eating habits are not okay, and even identifies why she has an eating disorder, but that only begins when she gets a friend in Jenifer. That shows the power of friendship, and how being a friend can make all the difference in someone's life. Elsie hates herself and her situation until Jenifer spends time with her and stands up for her; only then does she begin to like herself. She feels worthless until someone (Jenifer) proves that she isn't. It's a sad truth, but one that is all too common, especially for children who are abused verbally like Elsie.
What I really enjoyed about the book is nothing is resolved quickly or in an unrealistic way. It takes almost half of the book before Jenifer realizes her wrongs, and even longer for everyone else to get on board. The inclusion isn't with the entire class (some of the boys still don't pay any attention to Elsie) but at the same time, things are mostly resolved. Elsie still has some work to do to overcome her issues, and mean comments still occur sometimes, but you can tell that most of the characters in the book have learned an important lesson. This realism is what will draw kids into the story. It's also nice that the kids learn this lesson mostly on their own, and try to solve the problem on their own, with minimal adult intervention. I'm not saying adults shouldn't intervene, but it made it more powerful that way, and the kids learned more doing it themselves than having an adult tell them what they should be doing.
There are many outdated references, such as watching Mork and Mindy, 50 cents for a lunch, and using records. Most of it didn't detract from the story, but a couple references did leave me confused (I had to look up what a housecoat was!).
This is not a story that would've won major awards, but it's universal themes make it a book kids will continue to pick up and read. I find many kids turn to books for answers or for reflections of everyday life, and this book definitely satisfies that need.
If only someone could come up with better covers...
Anyway, what are you reading now, Jill? Do you remember a story that dealt with bullying from when you were a kid and left an impression on you?
As always, please join us in our Buckeye Book Award Reading Challenge!! We'd love to hear your thoughts!