Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, by Judy Blume, is a slightly entertaining children’s novel written in a realistic style. Although it does contain a few questionable elements, on the whole it’s only mediocre, and not deranged as the title would suggest.
Peter Hatcher is a fourth grader who lives in an apartment in Manhattan with his family. The family consists of his quirky stay-at-home mom, his no-nonsense but reasonable father, and a toddler brother, known as Fudge, whom Peter finds extraordinarily irritating. The plot consists of a number of mostly self-contained episodes in the life of Peter, his family, his friends, and his pet turtle Dribble.
Both in tone and in the style of humor, the book is similar to the film A Christmas Story. Despite the phrase “fourth grade nothing” the book’s tone is fairly light, and the heavier elements have nothing to do with fourth grade existential crises. Parents are shown as human beings with strengths and weaknesses that correspond to their sex. For example, one scene finds humor in Dad’s shortcomings as a homemaker, while in another, it is Dad’s practicality, more than mom’s nurturing sense, that are called for. Mom is likewise shown as a person with unique strengths, but with occasional lapses in character or judgment. I enjoyed a scene in which the mother apologized to her son for an emotional outburst that, while understandable, was unjust. Several other good scenes explored the humor found in the differing strengths and weaknesses of fourth grade boys and girls, or in the drawbacks of group projects. Blume is obviously an observer of actual human behavior, and this gives her writing a certain realism that is its main strength.
Having said this, I found this realism problematic in two ways. First, the book repeatedly shows Hatcher’s “realistic” intolerance for his younger brother Fudge. He expresses hatred for Fudge in one place and later wishes his brother had not been born. His mother corrects this behavior, arguing that Peter doesn’t really hate his brother. Still, Peter’s distaste for his brother is fairly pervasive, and it’s not regulated by an internal principle of charity. I can’t recall a single instance of Peter fighting back against his more negative thoughts. This seems in keeping with the Hatcher family, which seems nice, but not particularly virtuous, as if their decency consisted largely of the vestigial mores of a once-Christian America.
That brings up the second problem with the book: it’s use of realism. Very simply, by portraying a behavior as realistic, an author comes close to portraying it as normal. In the human mind, commonness and normality are closely related, and normality points to normativity. It’s a very common error to confuse real in the sense of “common”, with real in the sense of “normal” or “not so bad”. Hence the phrase “everybody does it!” Children are sometimes even more prone to thinking this way. Consequently, a children’s book written in the realistic style is almost invariably in the business of normalizing behavior. Just portraying it as common tends to suggest it’s not so bad. Since this book introduces a series of five, and since Mrs. Blume addressed more mature subjects in books for pubescent and teenage people, the normalizing implications of her realistic style are worth keeping in mind. No writer is a complete bystander to the story, because he or she always chooses what to put in frame.
Nevertheless, a well-formed child from a strong, healthy family would have little to fear from the book, although he would probably dislike the protagonist a bit. The writing is simple and will challenge absolutely no one—which may be considered a point against it—but the tone and content are not what the grim title would tend to suggest. The writer is admittedly very good at what she is trying to do. She successfully applies a realistic tone to a fourth-grader’s world. However, her selection of what ought to be included in frame, along with her style, run the risk of normalizing mediocrity. Finally, because eight and nine-year-old’s are especially in need of examples of what’s normal, and because they are so likely to normalize whatever is portrayed as typical, this book isn’t quite right for its intended audience.
- When Peter wants a lock on his door, his mother says, “I don’t like locks on doors. We’re a family. We don’t have to lock each other out.” Is Peter’s desire for a lock reasonable? Is his mother’s dislike of locks on doors reasonable? Explain why or why not?
- What scene did you find most funny?
- What scene did you find most familiar or relatable?
- What does it mean to actually hate someone, as opposed to being really mad about his or her actions?
- Why does Sheila want to write “handwritten by miss shelia tubman” in small letters on the report? Why do they boys become so outraged over this?