HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade
Author: Barthe DeClements
Cover Illustrator: Jeanette Adams
Publisher: Puffin Books, republished 2008
Language level: 2
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing and/or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing and/or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Recommended reading level: Ages 8 – 12
Rating: *** 3 stars (FAIR)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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DeClements, Barthe. Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade (published in 1981 by The Viking Press, 625 Madison Ave., New York City, NY 10022; republished in 1982 by Apple Paperbacks, a trademark of Scholastic Inc., New York City, NY). Jenifer (Jenny) Sawyer, who lives with her father, mother, and three year old brother Kenny somewhere in the rainy Pacific northwest, is a fifth-grade student in Mrs. Hanson’s class at school. Her best friends are Diane and Sharon. One day a new student named Elsie Edwards arrives. Jenny notes that Elsie is “a fat blond girl.” Diane says, “She’s gross.” Another boy calls her a blimp. Everyone hates having Elsie in the room. She had been expelled from her previous school, and Jenny’s school may be her last chance because if she doesn’t make it here, her mother will send her away to boarding school. She’s supposed to be on a diet, but she’s always hungry and begs food from the other children, so the boys start calling her “Scrounge.”
Not long after that, various kids start finding that the lunch money which they had left on their desks has disappeared during recess. Is it fair that the whole class is being punished? Can you guess who is accused of taking the money? Can you imagine who actually stole it? And what happens to Elsie? Parents may want to know that there is a little “boy-girl” interaction in middle school, a few common euphemisms are used, dancing occurs in physical education class, Elsie’s skirt falls off in class after she loses some weight, and the picture of parenting seems rather permissive. Without giving the ending away, this is one of those stories where “all’s well that ends well,” but, my, my, my, what terrible baggage there is on the way to getting there. These children can be really mean, and Elsie experiences some severe problems at home. One might justify it all by saying that it’s reality, and it may be for many public school students, but I have to say that it’s far from the reality that we wanted for our boys.
I suppose that the purpose of the book is to encourage people to be more sensitive and less judgmental regarding children like Elsie. But, even though it has won several awards, it may also have other, unintended consequences. One reader wrote, “I am absolutely appalled by this book. I read it as a child, and it encouraged my extreme fear of fat-ness.…I have been in the hospital for the anorexia I developed as a child,” noting that “No one in this book begins to accept Elsie for who she is until she loses weight.” And someone else remarked, “Although I loved this book in the 5th grade back in the 80s, I’m pretty sure it contributed in some way to my eating disorder. Be careful who reads it.” Several others agreed. Under certain circumstances, the story might be used to discourage bullying, but I think that another reader summed it up well, saying, “No good ending can salvage the damage that would be done by this book!” And still another “decided that it’s not the kind of message I want to share, even if the story turns around in the end.” I did not enjoy it, even with the “happy ending.” There appears to be a sequel, Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You.