"Didn’t Elsie eat because she was hungy?"…or Nothing’s Fair in the Fifth Grade


This cover is not the same as the cover I had as a kid, so I guess it was updated eventually. It was pretty similar though, it was a slumber party scene. Elsie isn’t as fat on this cover as she was on the old one though. Bad decision I think, the cover should be more true to the book. .

Anyway, this book is told from the point of view of Jenny Sawyer, who is (obviously) a fifth grader. Her teacher is Mrs. Hanson, who Jenny thinks is pretty strict. One day a new girl comes to her class, Elsie Edwards. Elsie is FAT with a capital F-A-T. Like even her face is fat and you can’t see her eyes. Of course all the polite 11 year olds are understanding and make friends with Elsie right away! Oh wait….that is the exact opposite of what happens! All the students are grossed out by Elsie. Everyone overhears Elsie’s mom telling Mrs. Hanson that Elsie is on a special diet and is only permitted to eat what in packed in her lunchbox.

So lunchtime comes, and for whatever reason, this school doesn’t have a cafeteria, so the students eat at their desks. I’ve never heard of such a thing! Elsie finishes her carrots and pear and chicken broth in seconds and starts scrounging for food. Mrs. Hanson catches Elsie and she gets in trouble. The next day, she is caught again. Then Jenny ends up doing group work with Elsie and we begin to learn that Elsie’s mom hates her.

Lunch money (only $0.50!) begins disappearing from student’s desks. No one knows who is taking it, but Jenny is a suspect because two students who sit next to her are victims of this crime. One day, Jenny spies Elsie buying licorice from 7-11, and paying with two quarters. She is convinced that Elsie stole the money, because she learned that Elsie’s mom hates her and wouldn’t give her money knowing Elsie would use it to break her diet. Sure enough, the next day, Elsie is caught eating the licorice and Mrs. Hanson doesn’t believe that it was in Elsie’s lunch box. She confiscates it and calls Elsie’s mom, and they find out that Elsie, in fact has been stealing the lunch money. And you think she was an outcast before???

Jenny ends up getting very ill with the flu, as do a few other people in their class. She is out for a long time. When she gets back, she is behind in her work, which is very bad in math class where she is already behind in fractions. Elsie, who rocks in math, helps another girl catch up and offers Jenny help. Jenny refuses because she “doesn’t need a theif helping me.” Jenny doesn’t believe that Elsie’s mom doesn’t give her an allowance to pay back the students from whom she stole.

Report cards come out and Jenny ends up with good grades in everything, but a terrible D minus in math, thanks to her trouble with fractions. When Elsie goes to Mrs. Hanson’s desk to get her report card, her skirt falls down. She runs out of the classroom crying. Jenny is asked to go talk to Elsie. Jenny finds her in the girls bathroom crying. Jenny tries to comfort Elsie and at that moment kind of realizes Elsie is human, not just a fatgirl. Jenny tells Elsie that she’ll be her friend. And at recess that same day, Jenny sticks up for Elsie when everyone else is laughing about the skirt incident. She points out that Elsie’s skirt fell off because she’s learning to STOP eating, not because she’s pigging out.

Because of the terrible report card, Jenny’s parents (who are low on funds) decide she needs a tutor. Jenny asks if Elsie can be her tutor, and her parent’s agree to it. One hour an afternoon for fifty cents. Elsie’s mom agrees to it. Elsie uses the money to pay back what she owes the students she stolemoney from. Jenny and Elsie become pretty good friends. Jenny gets a B on her next fractions test, so yay! One day Jenny brings her little brother Kenny (yes, Jenny and Kenny….that’s pretty awful) to Elsie’s house and Kenny and Elsie’s sister play. They make a big mess in the kitchen just in time for Elsie’s mom to come home. Elsie’s mom of course blames Elsie, and smacks her with a broom. Youch.

Elsie is asked to tutor Jenny’s friend, Diane, who is also having trouble in math. Diane starts to like Elsie and asks her to come to her slumber party. (Elsie can come, but only AFTER dinner and must leave BEFORE breakfast). It’s so sad. Elsie is so nice but we learn more about her relationship with her mother, which is very bad. Elsie’s parents are divorced and when her dad left is when Elsie started eating. Her mom did too, but eventually was able to control herself and kept trying to get Elsie to diet. Her weight just went up gradually and Elsie’s mom is ashamed of her and is a totally selfish bitch. Diane’s mom noticed Elsie’s clothes were held up by safety pins and takes them that night and resews them. We learn that Elsie’s mom is sending her to boarding school next year because of the stealing money incident. Well, that and her mom just plain hates her. Sadness. The next morning, Elsie’s mom really lays in to Diane’s mom for sewing Elsie’s clothes, “If I want my child’s clothes altered I’ll take care of it myself.” Diane’s mom yells right back at her “I certainley hope you do, it’s about time you paid attention to her!” Score! The next day at school, Elsie is wearing all new clothes.

One Saturday the girls decide to go to some carnival in town. Jenny is watching Kenny and Elsie is watching her sister, Robyn. They are walking and it turns out to be farther away than they originally thought, so Diane sticks out her thumb. A truck driver pulls over and they climb in the back. The driver goes and keeps going, and going and going completely missing the shopping center. At a red light, they all jump out but Elsie’s sister climbs back in to get her purse, the driver drives off without her. The girls walk to a restaurant/bar and call their parents and the cops. Of course, this is it for Elsie with her mom. The police find Robyn and give the driver a ticket. He said he had a stop to go to before getting to the carnival.

The next day at school, Elsie tells the other girls that she is being shipped off to boarding school camp in June. Her mother has made her final decision. Jenny is sad. She asks her mom to talk to Elsie’s mom and try to get her to change her mind. Jenny’s mom does, but it doesn’t work. So Jenny goes to Mrs. Hanson, who agrees to try. Evidently that does work! Mrs. Hanson tells Elsie’s mom about how great Elsie has been doing, and how her behavior has improved, etc. So if Elsie stays out of trouble the rest of the year, Elsie’s mom agrees that she can stay.

So she doesn’t get in to any more trouble, and Elsie gets to stay. We end the book with Elsie happy because she lost enough weight that she can see her shoes for the first time in two years!

  • Seriously, isn’t it weird that they eat lunch in their classroom, not in a cafeteria?
  • Jenny’s parents are worried about money, and about inflation. Sounds familiar. So Jenny’s mom, who has been a homemaker goes and gets a job at a nursery. Jenny’s dad is pretty chauvanistic about it. In fact when the girls get in trouble for hitchhiking, it’s when her mom is at work and her dad is off bowling. Then her dad blames her mom for not being there. Dick.
  • The people in this book say davenport instead of couch or sofa. That’s weird. I remember reading this as a kid and that is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone say davenport. It might be the last as well until I just read it now.
  • The girls wear housecoats! What fifth grader has ever worn a housecoat, even in 1981, when this book was published?
  • Do you remember that scene in the movie the Breakfast Club, where Judd Nelson’s character tells Molly Ringwald’s character that her name (Claire) is a “fat girl’s name.” I never got that. But Elsie is definitely a “fat girl’s name.” Or do I just think that because my first experience with the name Elsie is from this book?

My next post will be the sequel, Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You, which is a much better book than this. I thought Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade was only OK. Not much snarkability, but honestly I found it to be somewhat bland.

Also, I apologize if my post was a little rambling or had some typos or grammar mistakes. My son has been sick and not sleeping well, therefore I have not been sleeping well and I’m about ready to drop off here.

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About nikkihb

Wife. Mother. Reader. Blogger.
This entry was posted in Barthe DeClements. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to "Didn’t Elsie eat because she was hungy?"…or Nothing’s Fair in the Fifth Grade

  1. Elsie is a fat girl’s name because it’s a cow’s name! Is this the cover you grew up with?http://hares2ewe.ecrater.com/24421/463ded90cfbf0_24421n.jpgThe truck driver got a ticket?! I’m surprised he wasn’t arrested.

  2. BananaBomb says:

    I liked the Sixth Grade book better than this one, mostly because I read that one first. I have the one with the old cover too, like Elsie has butterball cheeks and is wearing an ugly purple robe thing.Weren’t these books part of a series that follows the same class all through school but focuses on a different kid in each book?

  3. My grandmother called couches davenports. I always figured it was because she was an aussie.

  4. colleenn says:

    I’m not sure I even know what a housecoat is… unless I’ve just called it by a different name. I never read this one… the mother hits poor Elsie with a broom??And my elementary school did not have a cafeteria! We had to eat at our desks, so this would not have struck me as weird at all in this book. I went to a perpetually in need of funding Catholic school though, so the lack of cafeteria is not surprising. When I graduated 8th grade in 1996, the 15 or so computers in the school’s library were still Apple II’s. The high school part of our school didn’t even have lockers–they had to keep their books in their homeroom desks. Luckily, I didn’t go to high school there. 🙂

  5. Becki says:

    I just found your blog and I love it! I had to chime in to say that in one of the Beverly Cleary books, Ramona also wears a housecoat and I STILL don’t know what it is! Also, Elise is a fat girl name because it is totally a cow’s name.

  6. Jannie says:

    I loved this book as a kid and hated Elsie's mom- the treatment that Elsie's mom gave her seriously made me cry.

  7. Kahran042 says:

    I remember eating lunch in my classroom in fourth grade…

  8. Sara says:

    I remember liking this book okay, but the way Elsie was treated by her mother made me cringe so badly. Even if her daughter DID need to lose weight and take better care of herself, shaming her in public and HITTING HER WITH A BROOM for making mistakes isn’t the way to motivate a child.

  9. kate says:

    Barthe declements was a local author in my hometown. Funny you mention the lack of a cafeteria because we didn’t have a cafeteria at my elementary school… all the food was delievered to our classroom pods on rolling carts and we would stand in line, get our food, and eat at our desks.

    I always loved her books because she mentioned local stuff 🙂

  10. samantha says:

    who stole the book club money

  11. Isabel Escalante says:

    I just can’t identify with the eating lunch in the classroom thing, because it seems so contradictory to the ‘no eating in class’ rule… like, it’s hard to not associate eating with the classroom if people eat their lunch in there.
    I have a student named Elsie who is skinny… and since she’s the first Elsie I know, I associate the name with a cute, sweet girl who loves anything pink. I guess that’s the thing about names; most of the time, when I hear a name and a certain image comes to mind, it’s usually either the first or the most memorable person who had that name.

  12. Cass says:

    Stumbling across this six years after the fact, and had to say how much I loved DeClements books, especially the Elsie ones. My favorites were the two that focused on Elsie in high school, How Do You Lose Those Ninth Grade Blues and Seventeen and In-Between. By high school, Elsie is thin and gorgeous (of course :P) but what makes that bearable is that she still has very realistic self-esteem issues that didn’t simply melt away with the pounds she lost, and continue to affect her interpersonal relationships – particularly her new boyfriend, who is actually kind of a tool. Most interesting to me now as an adult is the way Elsie’s relationship with her mother evolves over the two books. At the beginning of 9th grade, Mom is still pretty abusive, and Elsie is terrified of her. By the end of that book, she’s beginning to grow a backbone and stops taking her shit. In the next book, Elsie is basically just coldly hostile towards her, and the mother starts tentatively reaching out and trying to establish a better relationship with her. That book ends with a kind of uneasy peace between them, though it’s still far from perfect, and you get the feeling that this as far as they can come. No sappy mother-daughter bonding ending!

    I do have some issues with the books now, but it would take pages to go into them. So I’ll just say kudos for a great review!

  13. Sara says:

    Oh, and regarding your comment about Jenny’s dad: Her parents do end up getting a divorce in “Seventeen and In-Between”. Dad and Kenny leave town and Jenny stays to finish out her senior year. Sad, but it’s not like I didn’t see it coming.

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