It's a story set in an elementary school, 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 is caught stealing her classmates' lunch money from their desks so she can buy 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 / The '80s: 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. The sequels are also similarly dated by the mentioning of popular musical acts of the era, such as The Go-Go's (How Do You Lose Those Ninth Grade Blues?, 1983) and Van Halen (Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You, 1985).
- Abusive Parent: Elsie's mother. 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.
- 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".
- 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).
- 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.[Marianne] is little and friendly and will lend you anything.
- 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.
- 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. 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.
- Fat Girl: Elsie.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 can be forceful and bossy, a trait she apparently learned from her own mother.
- 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 gained control of her eating while Elsie's spiraled out of control.
- 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."
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. 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.
- 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: Or stupid, as in the hitchhiking instance. Or good, as in being nicer to Elsie. Or for that matter, evil, as in mocking Elsie because others are doing it.
- 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.
- Spoiled Brat: Robyn, Elsie's little sister. In the sequels, though, Robyn is much less of this and she and Elsie grow much closer.
- Stern Teacher: Mrs. Hanson is no-nonsense and doesn't tolerate monkey business, but she is also caring and supportive (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.
- 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.
- 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.