“There are some kids–you can tell just by looking at them–who are good spitters. That is probably the best way to describe Bradley Chalkers. He looked like a good spitter.”
It’s often said that bullies bully because they’re insecure. One person made me believe it: Bradley Chalkers, the unlikely endearing underdog of Louis Sachar’s There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom.
Bradley — last seat, last row — doesn’t have much going for him when we meet him. Except, maybe, a knack for outlandish lying. Call the zoo if you don’t believe me! The kids have alienated him (and vice versa), other teachers fear him, and his own teacher has just about given up. His mother is harried, his sister is horrid, and his father is threatening military school.
Fortunately, his friends–from the broken rabbit to the cocker spaniel ashtray and owl saltshakers–all like him. But human friends confuse him, especially the new kid. Jeff Fishkin is nothing, however, compared to Carla, the new school counselor. Among other things, she doesn’t believe in accidents and can see the good in anything, even a green monster with a black eye. Even Bradley. The question is, can Bradley learn to believe her?
The characterization is outstanding. All the kids play off each other, so that we get to know them even better by looking at somebody else. It’s interesting to read Jeff’s chapters and watch as he becomes a mirror of Bradley and vice versa, capturing the fickleness of elementary peer pressure. Adults are just adults, busy and slightly weary. Carla isn’t a do-gooder regurgitating platitudes (though she does offer a cool fact about Zen monks); she genuinely takes an interest in the kids’ problems. And she has her own; a chapter from her point of view, at a “concerned parents” meeting, is realistically uncomfortable.
But the most striking glimpses of the characters are subtler. When Bradley plays with his animals, we see what he thinks and how his relationships develop, especially his feelings toward Carla. When he has to make a list of topics for a meeting, we see his intelligence, fears, and humor–he feels more than he lets on. His teacher’s careless comments in front of Bradley and the other students made me wince; they reveal Bradley’s reputation, but also made me think, “Man, no wonder it’s so hard for him to change.” Fortunately, he has his animals and Carla…and even a “magic book” by a certain Uriah C. Lasso.
There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom evokes the playground politics of fifth grade wittily and flawlessly, but more than that, it shows us how to deal with trust and change. In fact, older readers might get a little prickly-eyed at the end…Ahem.
I just have one question: who ate all the peanuts?