‘Bebe’ by Louis Sachar

If you pressed me, I mean really laid it on me to choose a desert island book, I think it would be this one. A few years ago, Jia Tolentino described Sideways Stories as “lovely little lessons in craft, structured as neatly as a Rubik’s cube.” This book and these stories (which technically, are an interlinked novel, or a story cycle) are doing all of the things that I tried to learn and replicate in graduate school – and are doing it for elementary schoolers. The book is a nonlinear narrative, it’s absurdist, the characters are charming and dynamic, and the book is endlessly playful – you can tell Sachar enjoyed writing it. ‘Bebe’ is one of my favorites because it’s a hilarious meditation on art – Bebe is a student who cranks out drawing after drawing in art class, and her friend Calvin helps by sharpening her pencils and placing new sheets of paper in front of her, choosing to assist Bebe rather than make his own art, because she can create more that way than they’d be able to do alone. The teacher, Mrs. Jewls, confronts Calvin, asks why he hasn’t drawn anything, and questions if he likes art. “I love art,” said Calvin. “That’s why I didn’t draw anything.”

Mrs. Jewls tries to motivate Calvin, argues for quality over quantity, claiming that one really well done piece of art is better than a million pieces of mediocre art, and in the process, completely stifles Bebe’s own motivations, who abandons her process. Every story in this collection is charming, playful, and clever. It’s like Invisible Cities for kids, or for adults who feel like kids.

First published in Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1978)

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