Image courtesy of Librarything
This is so clearly the best of the Hobie Hanson books. In fact, it’s so far the best that I barely even remember the other books, though I know for a fact I read them all as a kid. I guess the critics agree with me, because this book is a Booklist Reviewer’s Choice!
Hobie Hanson, in the fourth grade at Central Elementary in Stockton, IL is walking to school with his best friend Nick on the day of his big social studies report on China. Hobie and Nick were paired up with Lisa and Molly, two snobby popular girls to do their report. The feelings of hatred are mutual between the girls and the boys. But before report time, the kids play a rousing game of kickball. When someone kicks the ball into the ‘spit pit,’ no one wants to get it out, and Hobie is left as the only one who’ll do it and that’s only because it’s his ball.
Report time! Hobie lost half his Confucius mustache and can’t find it anywhere. And really, what good is a Confucius with no Confucius mustache? The report is going all right, until the teacher, Mr. Star gets up and runs out of the class in the middle of the report. Which is no surprise, the stomach flu has been going around the school like wildfire.
Do you know what this means???? Guys! For the first time all year the students of 4-B are going to have a substitute teacher! And at Central Elementary, that means they get to try to sink the sub. What’s sinking the sub you ask? It’s trying to make the sub cry. You play pranks, you misbehave you do whatever the fuck you need to, but that sub better be reduced to tears by the end of the day. There’s a little smack talk, and it’s decided that there’ll be a contest between the boys and the girls. Whoever pulls the prank that sets their sub over the edge and reduced to tears wins. The losers have to get lost kickballs out of the spit pit for the rest of the year.
With all the stomach flu, there are only seventeen kids in class (ten girls, seven boys). All seventeen are woefully unprepared for meeting Svetlana Ivanovitch, their substitute teacher. Ms. I makes a few mistakes right away. First, she lets them know she’s a first-time sub. Second, she’d done her student teaching in kindergarten and treats the fourth-graders like the five year olds she’s used to. Third, she dressed weird. She’s of Russian decent (I mean, obviously, with that name) and wore a Russian folk outfit because she thought the children would be so interested in it. (They’re not). Hobie actually feels sorry for her – but not so sorry he isn’t going to try to sink her.
Hobie, Nick, Marshall and RX lie and say they have to raise the flag and take the kids’ lunch money to the cafeteria (that part is true) and leave the classroom to plan the boys’ attack on Ms. I. They’re pretty low on ideas. Marshall, who is an origami whiz, tells the others to tell Ms. I that he’s Japanese and doesn’t speak any English. This is made all the funnier because Marshall is a black kid wearing a T-shirt that says “My parents went to San Francisco and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.” Marshall is going to spend the day silently making origami and, most importantly, paper airplanes. Honestly, they can’t think of many more ideas other than bringing rubber bands in to fling the following day.
Back in the classroom, everyone is crawling on the ground. Jenny claims to have lost a contact lens. Molly is using this time to make a scoreboard and she changes the board (Which had read “My Name is Svetlana Ivanovitch. I am your sub.”) to read “My name is Sweat-Lana I’ve Got an Itch. I am your nurd.” You spelled nerd wrong, Molly. Even spell check agrees with me. Marshall walks right over to his desk, possibly stepping on the phantom lens, and that’s when Hobie tells Ms. I about Marshall not speaking english.
At recess, the boys all get together and try to come up with more plans. But they’re just stumped. The girls are huddled together, and Hobie is sure they’re thinking up great plans. As the recess bell rings, Ms. I turns to walk into the school, and she’s hit from behind by nine snowballs at once, thrown by the girls (one girl, obviously, refused to comply). Does this bother Ms. I? Nope. She grabs a handful of snow, packs it carefully and sends it flying, hitting a far target right in the center. All of a sudden, the entire class is aware that this is no ordinary sub they’re dealing with.
On the way to music, Hobie inadvertently finds himself becoming a teacher’s pet. He’s uncomfortable with it, but maybe he could use that as a way to sink her? No one seems to be able to sink her. After lunch, the girls constantly get up to sharpen their pencils, all the boys dropped their math books to the floor at the same instant, the girls all had to go to the bathroom at the same time, and one boy put a paper clip in the radiator and it made an annoying noise for twenty minutes. The class was basically out of control, especially when they insisted that they didn’t know how to do the basic multiplication work Mr. Star had left for them.
Gym time! The kids thought they’d get to do the parachute, having seen the third-graders doing it earlier. (Remember the parachute!?? Best day ever in elementary school gym). But they’re in for a bad bad surprise. It’s folk dancing. And guess who joins in? Ms. I. And because there are an odd number of kids, guess who she chooses as her partner? Hobie. It never comes to that, though, because when RX was dancing with his partner, Jenny, he swung her too hard and Jenny went careening into Ms. I, who fell to the ground hurting her elbow. Big trouble from the gym teacher for that one, obviously.
Everyone kind of feels let down coming back from gym class. Hobie just doesn’t like the sinking the sub game anymore. RX honestly didn’t mean to physically hurt Ms. I, and he admits to Hobie that before leaving for gym, he stopped up the classroom sink and left the water running. Sure enough when they get back there, the floor is soaked. Ms. I loses her shit, calling them vicious brats, which they honestly deserve. Everyone feels bad (except Molly, the only one really in to the game). Ms. I is going to go get the principal, but comes back with mops and buckets, courtesy of the janitor.
The kids mostly feel bad, especially RX, and they pitch in to clean up. Nick wets a paper towel and throws it up to the ceiling, where it sticks. As they’re cleaning, the kids start to like Ms. I. Then the paper towel that Nick threw comes falling down and lands on Ms. I’s head. She laughs. She laughs so hard she cries, making the boys the winners of the game. They get the room cleaned and all try out Marshall’s paper airplanes. The principal comes in and asks Ms. I to come back tomorrow, and Ms. I asks if they make substitute kids. HAHAHAHA! You’re so funny Ms. I.
- The spit pit- a set of stairs leading down to a mysterious basement entrance to the school. Kids throw trash and hock loogies there.
- When Hobie and Nick are hiding (looking for half of Hobie’s Confucius mustache) Hobie over hears Lisa calling him “cueshee”, which means cute. She says when she eats her apple at lunch, she’s going to try to twist the stem off at H. Embarrassingly, I am a 30-somethingish married woman, and I STILL recite the alphabet when I twist off my apple stems. And I get a little happy when I get a D or a B, which are my husband’s initials. Yes, I just admitted this to you all. And please let me know if you don’t know the apple stem game.
- Ms. I has eyebrows that are thick and practically meet in the middle. Hobie believes that to be a trait of a werewolf. (I just think it’s a trait of someone who needs to be schooled in the use of tweezers).
- Why the hell does Ms. I think it’s OK to let the kids know it’s her first time as a sub?
- Molly is a straight-up bitch. She threatens the silent treatment to any student who narcs about the game. And Molly’s silent treatments are terrible – last year one girl had to get transferred to the other class because she was a victim of Molly. Also, when they get to music class, Molly says to the music teacher “we’re late because we have a sub. She doesn’t know much,” in Ms. I’s ear shot. When Ms. I calls out the class on their misbehavior and says they’re out of control, Hobie is feeling ashamed. But Molly looks the teacher right in the eye, “we’re not out of control. You are. I’m going to the principal and telling her you can’t control a class. They’ll never let you sub again.” God, I hate to think what Molly’s gonna be like as a teenager.
- When the record player in gym class skips, the teacher balances a quarter in the center. And I know kids reading this today are utterly confused by that. Maybe if the book’s been updated, it’s a CD player now.
- At the end, when they can no longer pretend Marshall is Japanese, he makes a racist joke that NO ONE calls him out on. He pretends to speak some kind of random asian, and says to Ms. I “herro may watchie san chop suey oosick.” Really? Anyone want to talk to the kid about that? No? All right then.
- Good book. I love the books where the kids are smarter than the grownups.