Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Book of the Week: TALES OF A FOURTH GRADE NOTHING by Judy Blume

Happy Thanksgiving, Esteemed Reader! Make sure you tune in Thursday as Judy Blume will… probably be eating turkey with her family:) Actually, there will be no author interview this Thursday and no literary agent interview on Saturday. I’ll be with family and won’t have time to post them and I don’t imagine you'd have much time to read them, so we’ll take the week off. Did you see we had literary agent Katie Grimm stop by over the weekend?

Next week, make sure you find your back here, Esteemed Reader, as it is going to be a tour de force. We’ll be discussing Savvy (who doesn’t love that book) and New York Times best-selling author Ingrid Law, a Newberry nominee, is going to be right here at this blog to face the 7 Questions! Wow! That is going to be huge, so don’t miss it. We’ll also have some wonderful surprise literary agents in the coming weeks. And while I’m bragging, I might also mention that I have Courtney Summers’ newest book already even though it’s not on bookshelves, and we’ve got some other very big names in fiction heading our way in the coming weeks. God, I love being a ninja!

Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing is a favorite of mine from childhood and I’ll wager it’s one of yours as well. If you’re one of the few who managed to grow up without reading this book, I’m sorry. That’s so sad. Hurry up and read it to your kids. You’ll be glad you did. I found I loved this book even more reading it as an adult. As a writer, reading this book is the equivalent of a semester in an MFA program and I picked my copy up for two bucks. They won’t even let you hang out at a coffee shop near an MFA program for that!

I’m not going to bother with a review this week. This book is awesome. You should read it (again). That’s it. What makes it a classic? It was written by Judy Blume:) Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing was published in 1972 and kids are still reading it in droves. Also, it inspired four sequels that continue to be reprinted and read. Whatever magic it is that makes a book classic, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing has got it and if you’re a writer wanting some of that magic for your own, there’s nothing for it but to study this book (and others-- I reccomend one a week;)

I could tell you about the book’s protagonist, Peter Warren Hatcher, but Blume does a much better job than I can. Here’s our first of many excerpts, and the thing to notice is how expertly Blume works in the necessary exposition, including socioeconomic data, and see how she avoids the temptation of describing Peter’s appearance in the mirror:

I named my turtle Dribble while I was walking home from Jimmy’s party. I live at 2 West 68th Street. It’s an old apartment building. But it’s got one of the best elevators in New York City. There are mirrors all around. You can see yourself from every angle. There’s a soft cushioned bench to sit on if you’re too tired to stand. The elevator operator’s name is Henry Bevelheimer. He lets us call him Henry because Bevelheimer’s very hard to say.

Our apartment’s on the twelfth floor. But I don’t have to tell Henry. He already knows. He knows everybody in the building. He’s that smart! He even knows I’m nine and in fourth grade.

I should go on to tell you about the book, but there are some other excerpts I want to share with you, so we'll do that first. New York City is a wonderful setting and one I see all the time in adult books, but not as often in middle grade fiction. Even though she's writing for children, Blume still treats New York like New York and here are some tidbits that do not often appear in children's' literature:

I've never been mugged. But sooner or later I probably will be. My father's told me what to do. Give the muggers whatever they want and try not to get hit on the head...

Both my mother and my father are always warning me never to talk to strangers in the park. Because a lot of dope-pushers hang around there. But taking dope is even dumber than smoking, so nobody's going to hook me...

I never saw bright red, yellow, and orange leaves until the day my father took us for a drive in the country. The reason the leaves don't turn bright colors in New York is the air pollution. And that's too bad. Because yellow and orange and red leaves really look neat!

By the way, is there a description more authentically nine-year-old boy than “red leaves really look neat!” The conflict in this story, surprisingly, is not the fourth grade. Actually, school makes only a brief appearance in the “tales.” Otherwise, the focus of the novel is Peter’s conflict with his younger brother (almost three) Farley Drexel Hatcher, or Fudge. Fudge isn’t the main character, but he’s certainly the star of the show, and it’s very telling that the sequels in this series have titles like: Superfudge, Fudge-a-mania, and Double Fudge. And Peter’s problem is:

It burns me up the way people treat Fudge. He’s not so special. He’s just little, that’s all! But some day he’s going to be nine years old too. I can’t wait until he is. Then he’ll know there’s nothing so great about him after all.

I wish Fudge had never been born, I thought. Everything good always happens to him! If he had to be born I wish he could be nine or ten—like me.

And there you have it. That’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing in a nutshell: Peter’s life would be swell if not for his obnoxious baby brother, who ruins everything. Fudge engages in a series of activities from ruining Peter’s homework to wrecking his dad’s relationship with an important business client. Peter becomes more and more irritated, Fudge becomes more and more obnoxious, each new stunt upping the ante (always important). 

Readers don’t want to read about the most involving conflict and then go back and read about the second most involving. Therefore, once Fudge has wrecked Peter’s homework, he can’t then go back and wreck one of his socks. He has to wreck something more interesting, like say, a pet.

What struck me as most interesting rereading this book is that if Judy Blume were starting from scratch today and wanted to publish this book, she’d have a tough time of it. The story has held up well considering it was published before the Ninja was born and its theme is timeless. It’s incredibly well-written, of course. But it’s episodic and there is no clear goal set for our protagonist.

Seriously. I could be wrong, but I’ve been turning it over in my head and I can’t figure out what Peter’s goal is, what prevents him from achieving it, and how it is achieved. Robert McKee would not approve. Peter’s goal isn’t to get rid of his brother. He’d like that, but accepts he cannot and takes no action toward such a resolution. He has an unconscious need to feel his parents love him as much as Fudge and that need is satisfied in a moving way. But that’s not a goal. Peter is a poor kid who is victimized by his obnoxious baby brother, but his parents love him, the end.

It helps that Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing is only 120 pages long and very funny. Also, no one can create an instantly lovable and relatable character like Blume. During a party scene, Blume introduces three new toddlers, and though they are only in the story for one chapter, they are more memorable than characters who have stared in whole books. And Peter’s friend Sheila is so memorable she went on to be the star of her own book, Sheila the Great.

All right then, Esteemed Reader. We’re out of time so that’s where we’ll leave it. No interviews this week, but next week we'll have author Ingrid Law and a surprise literary agent. As always, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite passages from Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. It's important to know that Jennie is only three:

"What does Dribble do?" Jeanie asked.
"Do? He doesn't do anything special," I said. "He's a turtle. He does turtle things."
"Like what?" Jennie asked.
What was with this kid, anyway? "Well," I said. "he swims around a little and sleeps on his rock and he eats."
Does he make?" Jennie asked.
"Make?" I said.
"Make a tinkle?"
"Oh, that. Well, sure. I guess so."
Jennie laughed. So did Sam and Fudge.
"I make tinkles too. Want to see?" Jennie asked.
"No," I said.
"See... see," Fudge laughed, pointing at Jennie.
Jennie had a big smile on her face. Next thing I knew there was a puddle on the rug.
"Mom!" I hollered. "Come quick!"


STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.


  1. Love it! I was a big fan of all books by Judy Blume. I still am! My favorite Blume book is "Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself."

    You always choose the best children's books to review! Have a happy Thanksgiving! Many blessings to you and your family! :)

  2. I love this book. It left a permanent mark on me in a wonderful way. I must have read it4 a bajillion times!

  3. Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary (Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins) are the two main reasons I got into writing. After reading their books in elementary school, I desperately wanted to write the next "Superfudge" or "Ramona" book, an idea I toy with every so often. Reading those excerpts took me back to my childhood, and I laughed hard at the "tinkle" scene. Hard to believe that book was written nearly 40 years ago.


Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.