There's no shortage of great school stories. Many ascribe the phenomenal success of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to its being grounded in the comfortable formula of the school story. Before Holes, Louis Sachar charmed readers with the antic goings-on at a particularly bizarre school in Wayside School Gets Little Stranger and others. And Andrew Clements, author of the sublime Frindle, has built an entire writing career around them.
Find out about more great school stories.
But I have a special place in my heart reserved for A Year with Butch and Spike, by Gail Gauthier, now tragically out of print. Brown-noser extraordinaire Jasper Gordon has been looking forward to sixth grade throughout his tenure at Theodore Ervin Elementary, where he sails through life as an exemplary Teddy Scholar (and library aide, Spanish tutor and coeditor of the school's literary magazine).
In sixth grade, he will have the redoubtable Mrs. McNulty, the toughest teacher in the school—or perhaps the universe. He allays the fears of other students by remarking that "I'm sure that whatever Mrs. McNulty does, it will be for our own good." ("Oh, sure she's nice to you," his friend says. "Teachers are always nice to kids who like essay questions.")
But the blue skies of sixth grade are clouded by the knowledge that he will be sharing Mrs. McNulty with cousins Butch and Spike Couture—the Cootches—legendary delinquents-in-training.
"They had been my research project for the summer…In August, I had hidden behind a Sports Illustrated for Kids, so I could spy on them as they prowled the adult fiction area in the public library, opening books and reading dirty sections aloud to each other before laughing and shelving them out of order," Jasper tells readers.
What brilliant character development. If that doesn't tell readers what kind of kid Jasper is, nothing will.
Jasper’s universe is further rocked when Mrs. McNulty violates the sanctity of alphabetical order to seat him between the Cootches. "I told you to leave the nameplates where they are," Mrs. McNulty booms on the first day of class. "You are starting the year seated in alphabetical order. Alphabetical order! It's the finest teaching tool ever devised. If that's the only thing you learn this year, I'll be satisfied." But Jasper has been seated between Butch and Spike despite the fact that G does not go between C and C. "You're their role model. You're a role model for every child in the school. Didn't you know that?…You're my secret weapon," she confides.
What follows is a wild ride through Jasper's sixth-grade year, in which the role modeling proves to be a two-way relationship. Through a field trip, group assignments, visits to the library and prep for the science fair to end all science fairs, the classroom psychodrama plays itself out in a complicated dance with Jasper, the Cootches and Mrs. McNulty in the spotlight and a strong supporting cast of other student types in the corps.
A Year with Butch and Spike ranks as one of the funniest and smartest satires of modern education I've read. That it also connects perfectly with its target audience of fourth, fifth and sixth graders is testament to Gauthier’s powers of observation and her ability to communicate directly with child readers.
Are you listening, Putnam? Bring back Butch and Spike. Readers, until then, take advantage of the copies that remain in your local libraries.
Vicky Smith is the children’s and YA editor at Kirkus.