Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing
Book review by Daniela Chamorro Mantica
The so-called "fourth-grade nothing" and narrator of Blume's book is Peter Warren Hatcher, a smart, funny, but very much real nine-year-old boy.
Over ten chapters, Peter recounts various tales of his two-year-old brother, Fudge. (Real name: Farley Drexel. But honestly, Fudge is better.)
Peter calls Fudge "the biggest problem in his life." Fudge throws tantrums in shoe stores, tries to "fly" off jungle gyms, destroys Peter's school projects, and gets lost in a movie theater, to Peter's continued frustration and embarrassment.
The stories are loosely connected but are just as entertaining by themselves. Fudge's various schemes are bookended nicely by the entrance and exit of Peter's pet turtle Dribble, and the final chapter is a perfect climax, an excellent and unforgettable blend of comedy and tragedy.
Peter's parents, and especially his mother, feature consistently in these tales, balancing their two boys in an exceptionally realistic portrayal of parenthood.
Peter's mother and father often look to him to help control Fudge: Peter dutifully rides a bike for a commercial, tries on ugly shoes, and opens his mouth at the dentist so that Fudge will imitate him. "Just like Pee-tah!" The emulation of older siblings is spot-on here.
But while big brothers and sisters will no doubt identify strongly with Peter, readers don't need to know the frustrations of being an older sibling to enjoy Fudge's antics and sympathize with Peter's complaints.
Blume does an excellent job of making Peter a three-dimensional character. Peter complains about Fudge, but Peter is also, at most times, very reasonable, a humanizing and endearing combination. He is neither child nor grown-up, and can comment on the ridiculousness of both groups.
Peter's parents also resist the too-easy portrayal as "annoying parents" that dote on their baby boy and ignore their elder one. Peter may claim they "love Fudge more," but his relationship with his parents is actually very strong.
Similarly, Peter's relationship with Fudge is not clear-cut. Peter states that he "hates" his brother at times, but Fudge's antics occasionally succeed in making his brother laugh.
Supporting characters add to the hilarity of certain chapters. Peter's classmate and neighbor Sheila makes an appearance before she got her own book, Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great.
(Having read Sheila's book, I can say that Blume is terrific at staying inside her main character's head and writing in their voice - in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Sheila is bossy and "a know-it-all," according to Peter, but in Sheila the Great, we grow to love her.)
Fudge's little friends cause as much chaos as Fudge during his birthday party, perhaps softening Peter's (and our) view of Fudge just a little. Portrayals of toddlers contrast with portrayals of adults: a visit from the Yarbys and the boys' trip to their father's office gives us Peter's insightful perspectives on grown-ups.
As for the writing style, Blume writes fast, clear, funny scenes that even older readers can gobble up. The language is simple but not dumbed-down for younger readers.
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