The Fourth Grade Wizards By Barthe De Clements

Jack and Marianne are always in trouble. So how can they become fourth grade wizards?

Back to school! Appropriately late this year, but with a cast of characters who have been really familiar to me and this blog over the last five years.

Barthe De Clements (who appropriately enough will celebrate her 100th birthday in about 2 weeks!) is responsible for the loosely connected series of books featuring Elsie Edwards and her classmates through grade, middle and high school.

Elsie first appeared in Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade as the new kid in town, who immediately becomes the class pariah both because of her “weight problem” and off-putting behavior, which is revealed to be a result of her truly terrible homelife. Like a lot of readers, Fifth Grade left me slightly disturbed as an actual YA reader (as in Blubber and The Against Taffy Sinclair Club, the villains never really get their comeuppance and the adults seem completely out of touch with what their offspring are up to).

However, Elsie gets a second act, as several years later De Clements followed Fifth Grade up with two volumes told from Elsie’s point of view, in which she struggles with a lack of confidence, her continuously terrible mother, a pushy older boyfriend and the realization that losing weight doesn’t magically solve all her problems.

De Clements then doubled back in time to check in with the same group of classmates in sixth grade, this time from the point of view of minor character “Bad” Helen Nicholas, as she struggles with dyslexia and a mother reluctant to “label” her learning disability.

I feel like I keep turning up more volumes in the Elsie Edwards universe, but I THNK this is the final one (please correct me if I missed any!) This one goes back still further to fourth grade, before Elsie moves to town, and fills us in on the backstory of another minor character, Marianne Rawlins.

Marianne played a memorable role in Fifth Grade, as the only girl who would be Elsie’s friend after she is humiliated in front of the entire class, described as “the littlest girl in the room. She isn’t very smart, but she’s nice to everyone.”

Marianne is the rare YA protagonist whose defining qualities are her kindness and gentleness, and De Clements makes her a character appealing enough that the reader doesn’t get frustrated with the passive role she takes in her own life.

We immediately learn that the reason why Marianne is so distracted and that she is doing poorly in school is that her mother recently died- in a plane crash no less. (Aside: I feel like 1980s YA made this seem like a really common way for your parents to die.) Both Marianne and her father are still both depressed and grieving, and Marianne copes by daydreaming in class instead of paying attention to geometry or doing her literacy cards (so 80’s!):

I put my head down on my desk and thought about my mom.

She was bent over the oven door, checking the oatmeal raisin cookies. When they were done, we ate them at the table which was covered with the blue flowered cloth.

I reached for my third cookie while Mom explained she hadn’t really died. People only thought she had…

Fourth Grade teacher Miss Jewell is sympathetic, but strict about her classroom rules, and Marianne soon finds that her name is on the board, indicating that she will have to stay in at recess and go over the lesson.

Luckily for Marianne, she has class clown Jack looking out for her, even as he also gets his name on the board for talking when he jars Marianne out of her daydreaming and reminds her to pay attention.

I feel like Jack (who seems to be lacking a last name) (UPDATE: Lost Classics reader Julie remembered that Jack’s last name is Hansen!)  was somewhat retconned in DeClemtent’s post-Fifth Grade books; I remember him being really mean to Elsie (although by the end of high school he would become her boyfriend), but both in Sixth Grade and this one he is good natured and a defender of the class oddballs, and his pranks are mainly directed at the adults in the room.

Both Marianne and Jack long to be a member of the Master Wizards, the honor society for the fourth grade, which rewards good grades and good behavior with extra privileges and a coveted in-school job and membership pin. Marianne wants to work in the office with familiar character Jenifer (one n!) while Jack wants to work with the tech crew for the year-end assembly.

But membership proves elusive for both Marianne and Jack, as well as my fav juvenile antagonist, Sharon Hinkler, and her equally bossy mother:

Sharon’s mother came to school to find out why Sharon wasn’t given a pin. I don’t know what the principal told Mrs. Hinkler, but Sharon still isn’t a Master Wizard.

As you may recall, by the end of high school Sharon has joined a cult.

Marianne is also still adjusting to being a new latchkey kid, as she and her father found living in the family home too painful after Mrs. Rawlins’ death, and have moved into an apartment building, which comes with its own set of problems, particularly the girl who lives downstairs:

Brittany was waiting for me at my door. She goes to a religious school that gets out earlier than mine does. I really didn’t want to let Brittany in my apartment, but I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, either.

Before I could get to her, Brittany had opened the jewelry box that was sitting on my dresser. “This looks so neat,” she said, slipping on the garnet ring. “It just fits my finger.”

“Please put the ring back,” I told her. “It’s my mom’s.”

Brittany whirled away from me. “That doesn’t matter. She’s dead. Why don’t you give me this for a present? Red matches me better than it does you.”

So, Brittany is obviously terrible, and Marianne takes after her father, who is also pretty ineffectual when it comes to confrontation, is not much help when Marianne asks for advice in dealing with difficult people:

“Hmm. If the person is a guest, I suppose you have to do the best you can with how they are. And make sure you’re not doing anything to make it worse. That’s not much help, huh?”

“Not much,” I agreed.

“I guess the most important thing is to make sure you’re being nice. And then try to find something you both would like to play.”

Adding to the problem is Brittany’s single mother, who is obviously on the make and has Mr. Rawlins squarely in her sights. She comes knocking (complete with lipstick on her teeth!) later that evening to invite them both over for a home-cooked meal. Not until he’s accepted the invitation does Mr. Rawlins put it together that Brittany is the girl that Marianne is having a problem with.

It’s Jack who throughout the book pushes Marianne (and indirectly, her father) into action, this time advising Marianne to avoid the whole Brittany problem by sneaking in the back entrance of the building. He also has this incredibly accurate 4th grade-boy-advice:

“You need a dog,” he bit his lip in thought. “A wolf hybrid.”

Marianne successfully avoids Brittany for a while, but after the dinner at their place, Brittany’s mother becomes pushier about the girls spending time together. Her very polite father finally stands up for his daughter, saying that when Marianne wants company she’ll come visit Brittany’s apartment.

Brittany’s mom also seems to be getting ahead of herself, constantly dropping comments about how between the two of them they have enough furniture for a bigger apartment (!!!) which makes Marianne nervous:

My dad never says mean things about people so it’s hard to tell what he thinks about them.

Things take a turn for the better when Mr. Rawlins decides it is time to move into a new house, and they find one in the country that will allow space for Marianne to get the wolf hybrid of her dreams; it is also closer to Jo-Mae, another lonely girl in her class that Marianne befriends.

While Brittany and her mom continue to try and push their way into the Rawlins’ lives (there is a trip to the ER when Brittany gets scratched by Marianne’s new wolf hybrid-puppy), there is also Lacy, the kindhearted divorced social worker who lives on the horse farm next door. Lacy helps Marianne search for the missing dog in some third act drama, and there is a hint that she’ll start dating Mr. Rawlins.

Mr. Rawlins also finally deals with the Brittany-and-her-Mom problem after they show up unannounced when Marianne is the only one home, and Brittany steals Marianne’s mother’s ring. Calmly confronting the situation, he gets the ring back (despite Brittany’s insistence that Marianne GAVE it to her…)

We could hear Mrs. James’s voice coming through the wall. It didn’t sound the same as when she had apologized to us over and over.

“You idiot!” She raged. “Why did you do such a dumb thing? How stupid can you get? Now how are we ever going to see them again?”

And finally, at the very end of the school year both Marianne and Jack finally ascend to Master Wizard status!

Sign It Was Written In 1988 Department:

That night Dad took me to McDonalds for Chicken McDLTs.

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7 Responses to The Fourth Grade Wizards By Barthe De Clements

  1. Susan says:

    I remember the McDLT but not that there were Chicken McDLTs!

    • mondomolly says:

      I don’t remember Chicken McDLTs either, but I feel like it’s likely they made them? 😀 Or maybe they were a test market item in teh state of Washington??? When I was a teenager my city was a test market for McDonalds pizza, fried chicken and pasta dinners. Obviously, nothing made it to the national menu! Thanks for commenting!

  2. Julie says:

    Somehow I never came across this book till I was a late teen, but I read and loved it anyway! Her books never talk down to the reader, and even if some references are a bit dated, the characters are real enough that it doesn’t matter.
    BTW, if I remember correctly, Jack’s last name is Hansen. I also love how he is the character that ties so many of her books together. I think the author had a real soft spot for him, as do I. He may have been a literary crush of mine way back when;)

    • mondomolly says:

      THANK YOU! Yes it was driving me crazy, I knew it started with an ‘H’!

      And I agree, she does a great job with these characters and aging them through high school. I keep looking at her other totles to see if there are any more with this group of kids! Thanks for commenting!

  3. Sheesh says:

    After reading this, I think that part of the reason Jack was mean to Elsie in NFIFG was because of the way she took advantage of Marianne.

  4. Pingback: I Never Asked You To Understand Me By Barthe DeClements | Lost Classics of Teen Lit: 1939-1989

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