Nothing's Fair in Fifth Grade

by Barthe DeClements

Barthe DeClements's Nothing's Fair in Fifth Grade

Book review by Monica Friedman

Ages 9-12

Mean Girls, Fat Shaming, and Trouble with Fractions

I first read this book in the early eighties, shortly after its original publication, and in a lot of ways the story stands up to the test of time, even though many of the central issues of the story are handled much differently now.

The concept of popular girls shunning a newcomer is one that receives even more attention than it did three decades ago, and is considered more important than it once was.

Today, most schools have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying, while the adults in this book seem to accept that the other kids’ opinion of the newcomer is dead on and that she deserves to live as an outcast.

An even bigger attitude shift surrounds the treatment of weight and the perception of overweight kids.

Review: Nothing's Fair in Fifth Grade

Whereas the main character, Jenny, and her friends all agree that Elsie, the new girl, is the fattest kid they’ve ever seen, the illustration on the original cover depicts a kid who wouldn’t be considered all that unusual today. (The new edition doesn’t depict a fat kid at all, only one of the popular girls, and is rather cartoonish, while the first edition paperback artwork was, as these editions were in those days, fairly realistic.)

Elsie has problems, but before the other kids learn that she’s a liar and a thief, they’ve already judged her on her looks. Jenny thinks, “I knew everyone hated having Elsie in our room,” the moment they take in her appearance. The fact that she steals their book money to buy the candy that is forbidden on her diet only exacerbates their hatred.

It turns out that Elsie has one thing going for her, at least, which is that she’s effortlessly good at math, whereas Jenny just happens to be on the verge of flunking fractions. A series of events forces Jenny to begin to see Elsie as a human being with thoughts and feelings and leads her to ask Elsie for some tutoring. From there, she can’t help but learn more about the girl she found so disgusting at first sight.

Review: Nothing's Fair in Fifth Grade

The story simply lays out a psychological case for Elsie’s weight problem. In her case, it is overeating to fill an emotional void, pure and simple, and while Jenny cannot directly address the family issues that have sabotaged her new friend, she can draw the troubled girl into her group.

Elsie’s diet is a huge focus of the story, and, predictably, once she is motivated to stay on it for her own good, regardless of what goes on around her, the weight falls off her body, so that she’s less visibly different from the other fifth-graders, although, “she wasn’t skinny yet, or even down to chubby, but she had lost that fat-lady-in-the-circus-look.” (A year later, in the book’s sequel, Elsie is physically no different from the other girls.)

The story of Nothing's Fair in Fifth Grade still reads well to modern kids as a tale of shunning, followed by acceptance and retribution. In an era when most overweight kids have grown fat on junk food given to them by their parents, it’s interesting to see a story in which a child uses food, as many adults do, in a purely emotional way. She has the awareness to say, “every time I felt sad I went to the kitchen and pulled down some cookies.” It’s an awareness that bears scrutiny.

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