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Literature / Nothing's Fair in Fifth Grade

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Nothing's Fair in Fifth Grade, a novel by Barthe Declements, won several awards for being the most popular children's book in thirteen states. The book was first published in 1981.

It's a story set in an elementary school in the Seattle, Washington, suburbs, involving a student, Jenny, who is initially repulsed by a new transfer: morbidly obese classmate Elsie Edwards. At first, Jenny can't stand Elsie any more than the other kids, especially after Elsie — who is on a diet — is caught stealing her classmates' lunch money from their desks so she can buy junk food. However, one day, she runs into Elsie crying in the girl's bathroom. Inconsolable, Elsie spills out her life story to Jenny, along with the details on her cold, unloving mother. Jenny, beginning to see her as human for the first time, vows to stick up for her — and she does. Despite resistance from other kids, she eventually brings her friends over to her side.

Over time, Jenny tries to deal with her own personal problems (having a hard time with math, her parents' occasional arguments), as well as help Elsie with her own. Unfortunately, Jenny's attempts to right things sometimes cause more trouble — or trouble just arises through other means - but things gradually get better over time.

Near the end, when Elsie has been doing well, one of Jenny's friends thumbs a ride and hitchhikes, and Jenny and the rest (including Elsie and Elsie's little sister) go along for the ride out of fear of leaving their friend behind. The man drives far away from the kids' intended destination, and they eventually end up having to escape the man's truck. When they do, Elsie's little sister stupidly goes back in the truck to retrieve her purse, and it drives off with her in it. The kids, horrified, walk to the nearest building, a tavern, and call the police. Yet another strike against Elsie, and when Elsie's mom finds out, she tells her ominously, "This is it for you, Elsie," suggesting that Elsie's being packed off to a boarding school next year is now a certainty.

Things get better over time even with more disasters and strikes against Elsie's good behavior, and it ends on a positive note, thanks largely to teacher Mrs. Hanson, who manages to talk Elsie's mother out of sending her away to boarding school by telling her how much Elsie has turned herself around.

There are two direct sequels, How Do You Lose Those Ninth-Grade Blues? (1983) and Seventeen and In-Between (1984) (both narrated by the slimmed-down but still insecure Elsie as she gets a boyfriend and struggles to come to terms with her still-strained relationship with her mother). There are also a few side stories, including Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You (1985), which relegates Elsie and Jenny to the sidelines and focuses on Helen, a girl with learning disabilities who hides her insecurities by acting out in class, and I Never Asked You to Understand Me (1986), which introduces Didi, who attends an alternative high school for troubled kids, and reintroduces Stacy (a minor character in Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You), who has a home life so troubled it makes even Elsie's look idyllic. None of the sequels or side stories are anywhere near as popular and beloved. It also has a prequel, The Fourth Grade Wizards (1988), which gives backstories to Jack and Marianne, two minor characters.

The book has believable characterizations and very accurate dialogue, and portrays the kids' home and school lives very realistically. This makes it an excellent aversion of the most common mistakes children's book authors make, considering that most of them have never been really good at portraying kids or their lives this realistically, especially while still being fun to read.

This book contains examples of:

  • The '70s: Although the book was published in 1981, a few of the cultural references seem to suggest that it takes place circa 1979 — for example, Jenny and her friends hang out listening to The Bee Gees, who were no longer consistent hitmakers by 1981.
  • Abusive Parent: Elsie's mother (unnamed in this book, but in the sequels we learn her name is Bette). Verbally, for sure. Emotionally, as she's so embarrassed by Elsie's appearance that she either forces her to stay home or, if out in public with her, makes her walk several paces behind so no one knows Elsie is her daughter. And physically: in one scene, she blames Elsie for a mess for which Robyn and Kenny were responsible and smacks her across the bottom with a broom, in front of her friends. Although this is the only instance of physical abuse we witness, it isn't far-fetched to imagine that it's a regular occurrence in that household. In How Do You Lose Those Ninth Grade Blues?, Bette actually does slap Elsie across the face when Elsie says she'll move in with her father if Bette doesn't start treating her better.
    Kenny: [after witnessing Bette smack Elsie with a broom] She's a mean Mama.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: The rest of the class, not including Marianne.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Kenny for Jenny, and Robyn for Elsie. Both get better in the sequels, and even in Fifth Grade, Jenny admits that he's not "such a bad little brother".
  • Ascended Extra: The sequels, How Do You Lose Those Ninth-Grade Blues? and Seventeen and In-Between, are narrated by Elsie.
    • The 1988 prequel, The Fourth Grade Wizards, is told from Marianne's point of view.
    • Helen, the narrator of Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You, is first mentioned in Seventeen and In-Between.
  • Book Dumb: In Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You, actually averted with Helen. She gets failing grades in Reading, Spelling and Social Studies, but it's because she has a learning disability, not because she's stupid or lazy: she's been confirmed in intelligence tests to have a reasonably high IQ, and her failing grades are despite her working on those subjects until ten o'clock at night. And like Elsie, she's a whiz in Math.
  • Butt-Monkey: Elsie is the class reject due to her thievery and scrounging food from classmates, until Jenny begins to understand her better, befriends her, and convinces others to do the same.
  • Character Development: Jenny learns to be nicer and not as judgmental, while Elsie's self-image improves (though her home life remains troubled, even into the sequels).
  • Cool Teacher: The gym teacher, Mr. Marshall. He encourages Elsie to participate in gym class and scolds the kids for laughing at her during square dance lessons. He's promoted to sixth-grade teacher in Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You and manages to convince Helen to consider special education when she continues to struggle with reading after transferring from Stern Teacher Mrs. Lobb's class into his.
  • Cool Uncle: Helen's Uncle Leo in Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You. He bought Helen the firecrackers which she gets in trouble for setting off at school, and at one point in the book he takes Helen out for lunch and (over her mother's head) to have her ears pierced.
  • The Cutie: Marianne, who's cheerful, somewhat childish, and nice to everyone - even Elsie when the rest of the class hates her. She's later the main character of the prequel The Fourth Grade Wizards, in which we learn that she has her own family issue she's trying to overcome: Her mother was killed in a plane crash.
    There's nothing to hate about Marianne. She's little and friendly and will lend you anything.
  • Demoted to Extra: The original cast hardly appears in Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You, besides showing up here and there to establish that Helen goes to the same school as they do.
  • Disappeared Dad / Missing Mom: Diane's father is dead, and she lives alone with her mother. So is Marianne's mother (although this plot point is not mentioned until The Fourth Grade Wizards). Elsie's parents are divorced and her father is all but nonexistent. In the sequels, Elsie's relationship with her father does improve, but she still harbors some resentment over his abandoning her.
  • Doting Parent: Elsie's mother acts like one of these in front of her new boyfriend in Seventeen and In-Between, wanting him to think that she and her daughters are a perfect little family so he'll marry into it. Elsie is usually good-natured enough to humor her; but when her mother asks about the date and time of the upcoming choir concert where Elsie has a solo, she doesn't hesitate to call her mother out, reminding her that she has never attended any of Elsie's concerts in the past.
  • Dude, Not Funny!: Mr. Marshall stops the square-dance lesson to scold Jack and Lester for laughing at Elsie while she tries to learn the steps.
  • Easily Forgiven: Although Marianne was the first person to have her lunch money stolen by Elsie, she is also the first to forgive her once Elsie begins tutoring her in math. When Jenny rebuffs the idea of Elsie tutoring her because she "doesn't want a thief helping [her]," Marianne even scolds her, "Jenny, you could forget about that."
    • However, after Jenny's conversation with Elsie in the girls' room, all enmity seems to melt away, especially once she realizes what Elsie has to deal with at home, and she subsequently convinces her mother to have Elsie be the one to tutor her in math. Jenny's friends Diane (another victim of Elsie's thefts) and Sharon take a little longer to come around, but they eventually do.
  • Everything's Cuter with Kittens: Jenny's kitten D.D.
  • Evil Matriarch: Every time we see Elsie's mother, we like her even less.
  • Evil Redhead: Jack Hanson is crueler to Elsie than any of the other kids.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: While the story is told by Jenny, it is mostly Elsie's story. Both of the direct sequels are, however, narrated by Elsie herself.
  • Forgotten Birthday: In How Do You Lose Those Ninth-Grade Blues?, Elsie's mother completely forgets about her birthday until Robyn, who is confused by the lack of celebration, brings out her gift for her big sister. Elsie tries to act like she doesn't care, but the narration makes it clear that she's utterly crushed.
  • Formerly Fat: By the end of the original book, Elsie has lost a lot of weight, but still has a ways to go. By How Do You Lose Those Ninth-Grade Blues?, she's become much thinner and quite beautiful.
  • The Friend Nobody Likes: In the sequels and prequels, Sharon is the least-liked person in her class, largely due to her being a big-mouthed gossip, a teacher's pet, and a tattletale. In The Fourth Grade Wizard, Miss Jewell assigns Jack to do something nice for Sharon to make up for shooting spitballs at her, and he ends up baking her cupcakes, but to make clear what he thinks of Sharon, he makes sure the cupcake he gives Sharon is messy and looks unappetizing, while he brings more cupcakes for his friends that look "normal."
  • Gossipy Hens: Sharon Hinkler is an example, especially in the sequels and prequel where she frequently also veers into Jerkass territory. She isn't nearly that bad in this book, however.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: In Seventeen and In-Between, Elsie's boyfriend is increasingly jealous of her friendship with Jack. As it turns out, he's not without reason.
  • Hidden Depths: Elsie turns out to be quite the talented singer. Jenny is stunned when Elsie is over at her house one day and breaks into the The Rolling Stones classic "As Tears Go By," and afterward marvels at how professional Elsie sounds.
  • Hope Spot: Just when things get better, another disaster occurs.
  • Inner Monologue: Jenny makes jokes at Elsie's expense, but never out loud. She makes less of them as she grows to like her, but still makes a few.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Sharon may be gossipy, spoiled and selfish, but she is Jenny's friend (although Diane only puts up with her because Jenny's and Sharon's mothers are friends) and eventually warms up to Elsie as well, to the point of giving her useful advice to improve her school performance so she won't be sent to boarding school. The other books in the series, however, portray her more or less one-dimensionally as a big-mouthed gossip. She's even downright nasty in the prequel The Fourth Grade Wizards, making fun of an impoverished classmate behind the girl's back, which earns her a severe scolding from Miss Jewell.
  • Jerkass: All the kids in the class except Marianne act like this toward Elsie at the beginning but perhaps none more than red-headed Class Clown Jack Hanson. In the sequels, however, Jack and Elsie become very close friends, and by the end of Seventeen and In-Between, closer than friends.
  • Kids Are Cruel: The teasing Elsie endures, even before she starts to steal lunch money.
  • "L" Is for "Dyslexia": In Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You, Helen's reading problem is not specifically mentioned as being dyslexia, but it seems similar. In the first chapter, she spells the word "detour" as "betour."
  • Like Mother, Like Daughter: Sharon Hinkler is a big-mouthed gossip, and it's implied this is because her mother is one as well. Sharon spends most of her time parroting what her mother says. Jenny still genuinely likes her as a friend, but admits she gets tired of Sharon's constant gossiping. Diane, the most popular girl in class, only tolerates Sharon because their parents are friends. (In Seventeen and In-Between, it's mentioned that Sharon has joined a church youth group and no longer hangs around with Jenny and Elsie.)
    • Diane can be forceful and bossy, a trait she apparently learned from her own mother. Jenny notes the similarity after Diane's mother takes Elsie's mother to task for the way she treats Elsie (in this case, specifically for making Elsie continue to wear her now-too big clothes after she loses weight).
    • Also applies with Elsie, as she mentions that both she and her mother gained weight after Elsie's parents' divorce due to stress eating. The difference was that her mother at some point swung back the opposite way and became obsessed with dietingnote , while Elsie continued to overeat.
  • Meaningful Name: Jenny names her kitten D.D. after the kitten's troubles with becoming housebroken, because kids who get Ds in school "are slow to catch on."
  • Misblamed: Elsie's mother blames Elsie for the hitchhiking incident, even though Elsie was probably the least to blame for what happened; Elsie was the one who tried to tell everyone else it was a bad idea and specifically tried to prevent Robyn from getting on the truck, but Robyn had made up her mind to get in with or without Elsie, and she made a downright heroic, but unsuccessful, attempt to rescue Robyn after she went back for her purse. If anything, Elsie deserves credit for choosing put herself into a situation she knew was risky rather than let her sister go into potential danger alonenote .
  • Most Writers Are Adults: Excellently averted. The dialogue, characterizations, and concerns of the children are actually very realistic. The fact that the author is both a former teacher and former school psychologist likely has a lot to do with that. DeClements states that she began the story of "Bad Helen" by writing a paragraph on the blackboard every morning and incorporating both classroom incidents and suggestions from her students.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: By the end of the book, Jenny feels legitimately sorry for how she and her friends treated Elsie before.
    • In Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You, when Helen learns that taxpayer money will have to be used to fix the graffiti she spray-painted on the school, she feels bad about acting out for the first time. She then earns the money herself to pay for paint to cover up the graffiti.
  • My Nayme Is: Unusually, Jenny's full name, Jenifer, is only spelled with one "n".
  • Nice Mean And In Between: Jenny is usually a nice girl, Sharon is the class gossip who can be mean, and Diane is the in-between Jerk with a Heart of Gold, snippy and bossy but still a loyal friend.
  • Not My Driver: Shouldn't have picked the potential kidnapper for a ride, hitchhiking fools!
  • Odd Friendship: A normal, average girl and a morbidly obese bully magnet.
    • In the later books, the former bully magnet and her former tormentor.
  • Off to Boarding School: The fate that awaits Elsie if she doesn't shape up and if her mother can't be convinced otherwise.
  • Only Child Syndrome: Invoked but subverted in the introductory chapter in Fifth Grade; when Jenny describes Diane and Sharon, she notes that even though Diane is an only child while Sharon isn't, Sharon is the one who exhibits the traits usually associated with only children due to how self-centered she can be.
  • Parental Neglect: When Elsie's mother isn't being abusive to her, this is her default state. When Elsie begins to lose weight and her old clothes don't fit well anymore, her mother can't be bothered to buy her new clothes, and Diane's mother takes it upon herself to alter Elsie's clothes so they fit better, only for Elsie's mom, who clearly didn't care about the state of her clothes up to that point, to get mad at Diane's mom for doing so. This results in a shouting match between Elsie's and Diane's mothers over the phone, in which Diane's mother outright accuses Elsie's mother of neglect. The next day at school, Elsie's wearing brand-new clothes which fit perfectly, and Elsie's mother even eventually makes her new clothes. However, the sequels show that she's still largely neglectful of Elsie: she forgets Elsie's birthday in How Do You Lose Those Ninth-Grade Blues?, and Seventeen and In-Between indicates that she never goes to Elsie's choir concerts.
  • Parents as People: Jenny's parents are generally portrayed as intelligent and kind, but her father really disapproves of his wife getting a job, and it contributes heavily to mounting tensions in the household. They finally divorce in Seventeen and In-Between; as Elsie observes, it mostly upsets Jenny because they're splitting custody, and she's going to be living apart from her brother Kenny (to whom she's grown close in the years since Fifth Grade).
  • Peer Pressure Makes You Evil: Some of the kids in Fifth Grade start picking on Elsie because that's what the popular kids are doing. Or it makes you stupid, as in the hitchhiking instance.
    • Inverted later in Fifth Grade; after Jenny becomes friends with Elsie, she uses her influence over her peers to convince them to be nice to Elsie.
  • Pet the Dog: The later books from Elsie's point of view show occasional moments of her mother behaving this way, such as lending her a nice pair of shoes to wear for Thanksgiving dinner at her new boyfriend's house.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Sharon gets a brief but stinging one from a classmate in Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You, in retaliation for badgering Helen about being a Special Education student. It stuns her speechless.
    Jimmy: [after Sharon mentions her mother says Helen wouldn't be such a disciplinary problem if she'd been enrolled in Special Ed sooner] So what? You know what my mother said? She said your mom's a bigmouth, and so are you.
  • Spoiled Brat: Robyn, Elsie's little sister. In the sequels, though, Robyn is much less of this and she and Elsie grow much closer.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: Jenny's father is not happy when his wife decides to take a job outside the home, working at a greenhouse. As Jenny's father is inept in the kitchen, dinner often ends up consisting of grilled-cheese sandwiches made by Jenny. In Seventeen and In-Between, things finally come to a head and Jenny's parents decide to separate, with her brother Kenny choosing to live with his father.
  • Stern Teacher: Mrs. Hanson is no-nonsense and doesn't tolerate monkey business, but she is also caring and supportive and wants the best for her students (for instance, she punishes the class for laughing at Elsie's Wardrobe Malfunction by assigning a massive 42-problem arithmetic assignment — harsh, but she's ultimately sticking up for a student being picked on by her classmates). This is also true of Miss Jewell in The Fourth Grade Wizards. Compare this to other examples of this trope in the sequels - such as Miss Bickford in How Do You Lose Those Ninth Grade Blues? or Mrs. Lobb in Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You - who are strict but neither caring nor supportive.
  • Title Drop: The title of Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You comes from Helen's Uncle Leo telling her that when he'd done something wrong as a boy and was afraid of being punished by his mother, he'd work up his courage by telling himself, "She can only kill me." Helen takes this advice to heart, and it gives her the courage to stick with school instead of dropping out as she wants to.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behaviour: The hitchhiking scene.
  • The Un-Favourite: Elsie is the unloved one.
    • While Jenny admits there are times when she feels like The Unfavorite in her family, she has to concede that, compared to Elsie's, her home life isn't so bad.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Marianne is the only girl in the class to be nice to Elsie from the start. Elsie "thanks" her by stealing her lunch money first.
  • Wardrobe Malfunction: Elsie's skirt falls down as she stands up to get her report card, because Elsie is losing weight so her clothes are now too big for her. This scene is the catalyst for Jenny's conversation with a tearful Elsie in the girls' room.
  • When She Smiles: After becoming friends with Elsie, Jenifer notices that she has beautiful teeth when she smiles, which unfortunately isn't too often.
  • Write What You Know: The reason the book is so spot-on accurate with its portrayal of fifth-graders both in and out of school.
  • You Just Had to Say It: Invoked with Sharon after Elsie accidentally slugs Jack in the mouth with a baseball bat and Sharon tells him, "Remember, Red, be a sport," knowing that Jack hates to be called "Red." Jenny jumps on Sharon for this, fearing that Jack will tattle on Elsie, thus ensuring that Elsie will be sent to boarding school. He doesn't.
  • Youth Is Wasted on the Dumb: The hitchhiking scene, and the subsequent greater trouble to which it leads, would not have occurred if the kids weren't acting so dumb and impulsive then. The seven-year-old going back to the truck to retrieve her purse is the icing on the cake.