8 December, 2021

LitStaff Pick: The Books That Remind Us of Our School Days

Miss Nelson is MissingMiss Nelson
Harry G. Allard Jr., illus. by James Marshall

Nothing quite brings me back to my days in the schoolroom quite like Miss Nelson is Missing, a wry, humorous look at the consequences of misbehavior, and the wily teacher who pulls the wool over the eyes of an entire classroom of students.

I know that I first encountered this book when I was very young, possibly even pre-school age, and that my Nana was one of the first people to read it to me.  My Nana had a decided penchant for black humor, something that frequently unsettled my sister and I, even as we both wanted her to keep singing those strange, sad songs (like The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot) and reading those twisted books (I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly, anyone?  Terrifying!)  Miss Nelson is Missing is positively tame in comparison to the stories we usually heard from her, but my memory of the book is always overshadowed by the dark, menacing figure of Viola Swamp: the black-clad, overly-made-up harridan who terrorized Miss Nelson’s poorly behaved class.

I’m not sure when I began associating the experiences in the book with my own schooldays, but it’s one of the first titles that pops to mind whenever I’m reminiscing.  Maybe it’s because I was a bit of a rabble-rouser when I was young – not bad, but I tended to speak out in class and not quiet down until I was asked multiple times.  Maybe it’s because I really felt terrible for Miss Nelson, so kind and patient while her students were so rambunctious.  Or maybe it’s because I liked the simple, amusing moral of the story: be nice to the people around you, because there’s always someone worse out there!

I don’t remember how early in life I realized the crux of the plot: that Miss Nelson IS Viola Swamp, the dark and light sides of the same coin.  When I did figure it out, I took a certain giddy childish glee in seeing Miss Nelson able to throw off her wishy-washy “nice” self and be able to treat the children as they deserved.  In fact, it’s almost a let-down when she returns as herself, because she is so much less interesting and arresting.  But like the best magic tricks, the thing disappeared has to reappear again, and we get the enjoyable wink at the end when we see Ms. Swamp’s outfit hanging unassumingly in Miss Nelson’s closet.  It’s a short, rich, funny story for children that sticks with me even today.

-Kira Apple

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