Children’s Fiction of 2008: Two Anti-School Stories

The Trouble With Rules by Leslie Bulion.

The Truth About Truman School by Dori Hellestad Butler.

Neither of these books is intended to be “anti-school”, but I gave the second one to my eighth grader who thinks she wants to attend the local public high school next year. I am not totally opposed to this idea, but I want her to know what she might be encountering if she goes there. If she still wants to go to public high school after reading The Truth About Truman School, I’ll be surprised. Ms. Butler’s novel features the stories of several key players in a drama that dominates the social and educational life of Truman School, a fictional school somewhere in the Midwestern U.S. It all starts when social outcasts, Zebby and Amr, decide to start a website that will be a news source for everyone at Truman Middle School, where anyone can post anything as long as it’s their own work and it tells the truth about something, or someone, at Truman School.

The hard part at first is getting anyone to visit the website. Then, the even harder part is separating fact from fiction. When someone starts posting really ugly, but true, things about Lilly, one of the most popular girls at school, what can Zebby and Amr do? They said as long as it was true . . . Then, things get uglier and uglier, and it’s difficult to know what’s true and what’s not.

The Trouble With Rules is aimed at a younger audience, and the trouble in this novel is not as serious nor as dark as the trouble at Truman School. Still, the social atmosphere in Room Twenty in the unnamed upper school (grades 4-6?) in Ms. Bulion’s book is not much better than that of Truman Middle School. The unwritten rule in fourth grade is that girls cannot be friends with boys; in fact, girls and boys cannot even sit on the same side of the lunchroom. Nadie has a problem with this rule since her best friend, Nick, happens to be of the male persuasion, but she and Nick have reached a compromise: they pretend to not to be friends in school and meet after school to enjoy the same friendly relationship they’ve always had. But now there’s a new problem: Summer Crawford, the new girl in class. Summer doesn’t know the rules about boys and girls, and she keeps getting Nadie in trouble.

This book is similar to the Truman School book, too, in that Nadie and her friend Nick are deeply involved in editing, doing artwork, and writing for their school newspaper. And part of the trouble they get into involves their journalistic pursuits. The Trouble With Rules, set as it is in an elementary school, feels like a prelude to the poisonously toxic atmosphere and the seriously hurtful events at Truman School. However, as befits a fourth grade story, all’s well that ends well in The Trouble With Rules, and Nadie and Nick and Summer and their classmates learn that even in fourth grade guys and gals can work and play together if they’re willing to defy “the rules.”

Brown Bear Daughter did read The Truth About Truman School, and her take on the book is that the characters are much too stereotypical. The “popular girls” are cruel, exclusive, and selfish, with very few redeeming qualities. The unpopular kids, especially the two victims of bullying who are even lower on the social scale than Zebby and Amr, are total outcasts with no friends and a miserable school existence. The teachers are unsympathetic and oblivious to the cruelty that is a huge part of daily life at Truman School. Brown Bear Daughter thinks that no school is quite that bad. I hate to disillusion her.

I take for granted the easy comraderie that my children share with both boys and girls in our church, which is mostly made up of homeschooling families, and in our homeschool co-op. Yes, there is some normal sexual tension as the children approach high school age, and boys and girls do hang out with children of their own gender more often than not. However, both my thirteen year old girl and my eleven year old boy have friends of the opposite sex, and they’re not embarrassed to be seen talking to their male or female friends or doing things with them. And not that we don’t have issues at times, but the young people in our homeschool co-op would never be as cruel to their peers as the eighth graders in The Truth About Truman School are. The boys and girls in our fifth grade Sunday School class sit at separate tables, their choice, but the boys and girls talk to each other civilly. And they’re not allowed to tease or slander one another. I’m reminded by books like these that it’s not that way everywhere.

By the way, I’d save The Truth About Truman School for middle school/junior high age kids who are dealing with bullying or a toxic social pecking order. The subject matter (physical and verbal bullying, a girl accused of being a “lezzie”) is a little heavy for elementary school unless the child is facing that kind of intense pressure and viciousness at a younger age. The Trouble With Rules, as I said, is milder and more upbeat.

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