I’ve been meaning to read The View from Saturday for years now, and it took me several false starts before I finally got into it. But it was worth it. It’s an unusual book, told unchronologically from multiple points of view. At its simplest, it’s the story of four sixth graders—Noah, Nadia, Ethan, and Julian, AKA The Souls—and their homeroom teacher at the state finals of the middle school Academic Bowl. In truth, though, it’s a story of acceptance, friendship, the strange bonds of a small community, and an undefined spiritual connection that draws some people together.
Along the way it explores a lot of topics including bullying, name calling, blended families, middle school cliques, and friendship. Each kid and Mrs. Olinsky, their teacher, are developed enough for us to get a sense of their character and for us to get a sense of their voice. Different parts of the story are told from the point of view of the different characters. The book is light on plot, but it’s reflective and thought provoking.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Mrs. Olinsky is a paraplegic after the car accident that left her a widow. She’s coming back to teaching for the first time since the accident, and it leaves her uncertain about such basic things as how to write on the blackboard so the kids in the back of the room can read it. This is less of a big deal in the novel than you might imagine—it’s just an aspect of her character and is one of the challenges she’s currently dealing with.
Labels, Name Calling, and Stereotypes
The term “cripple” comes up several times. Mrs. Olinsky reflects that it’s not so much the word as the delivery that hurts—this applies to most labels.
Her Academic Bowl team is made up of “one Jew, one half-Jew, a WASP, and an Indian.” The principal tries to lecture her on saying “Native American” instead—she gives up on arguing, although we later learn that Julian’s father’s heritage is actually from India, so “Indian” was more accurate that “Native American.”
Julian is very British, with an accent, proper vocabulary, a British schoolboy wardrobe, and a leather satchel for his books. This makes him quite the target for bullies, but this stereotype is part of his identity, and he doesn’t let go of it even in the face of violence. Julian’s father is depicted more as a turban-wearing wiseman than an actual character. He can almost read people’s minds. This bothered me a little—I’d have liked to see him seem more human.
Identity, which is occasionally tied up in labels, is a theme in the book. Nadia is a hybrid in several ways, which adds to her sense that she doesn’t belong. The group starts to really come together once they have a name for themselves—being The Souls gives them an identity, a thing to be together.
The word “ass” is used several times as an insult.
Some battles are worth it. Some are not. Not all battles are fought the same way. Mrs. Olinsky deals with the principal in ways that go against her nature, but mostly because those battles aren’t actually worth fighting—sometimes you smile and nod or give the inaccurate but expected answer, and that’s fine.
Julian stands up gracefully to the boys who bully him. When he has a chance for revenge, he doesn’t take it—although he can’t resist the urge to make it clear that he could have. He hangs in there, continuing to be himself, and finding support in other ways. He becomes close friends with the other kids in the story, but even though they’re all in the same homeroom, they don’t really hang out together in school. Their friendship is primarily for outside of the school, developed over tea on Saturday afternoons. But by the end they know each other well enough that they can be there for each other in school as well.
The bullies also make life difficult for Mrs. Olinsky. The Souls decide that they have to find a way to help her out, to make sure she can put the bullies in their place. They don’t want to take the bullies down themselves—they know it’s a battle she has to fight herself. But they can find ways to support her.
Family, Sex, Love, Marriage, and Divorce
A decent amount of the plot centers around Nadia’s grandfather and Ethan’s grandmother who get married early in the story. Noah’s grandparents are friends with them and Noah ends up being best man in the wedding. Noah’s grandparents have a good marriage and his grandfather makes a joke about having sex with the same woman over and over. The newlyweds are kind of embarrassingly affectionate with each other.
Nadia’s parents are newly divorced, and she mentions that she’s not used to being around married people who actually like each other. She has trouble getting used to dealing with all the change, and there’s an extended metaphor comparing kids of divorce to newly hatched sea turtles seeking the path to where they belong. Sometimes both turtles and kids need a little help to get where they’re going.
Julian’s mother died somewhat recently, and he and his father seem to still be dealing with that loss. Like the death of Mrs. Olinsky’s husband, though, it’s mostly a background issue that informs how they react to other things.
Ethan feels the weight of his family’s expectations. His older brother is perfect, and no one expects him to able to live up to that precedent. He’s supposed to just inherit the farm while his brother goes off and does big things. However, Ethan really wants to design costumes for theatre productions—he knows he can’t mention this to his family. Ethan has pretty much learned to just keep his mouth shut around his family.
Literature and Knowledge
These kids are all wicked smart in their own ways. They speak in a way that doesn’t sound like most kids, although I have heard kids who talk this way (usually kids who are outsiders in one way or another). At some point I was struck by the lack of contractions in their conversation. Even their bickering and teasing has an edge of logical sparring to it. They’ve all read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, a fact that comes up several times.
Their experiences help them answer the Academic Bowl questions that are posed throughout the book. The answers to those questions are at the end of the book, in case you’re curious.
These outsiders gain support as they defy the odds—a team of sixth graders has never been the champions of the school, let alone made it to the state finals. Those who stood against them gradually start to stand with them.
A Random But Particularly Weird Detail
The principal of a rival school tells Mrs. Olinsky that he told their coach that “she could expect to be hung if she lets your sixth grade grunges beat us out.” This lets Mrs. Olinsky correct him on the correct past tense of hang (which is hanged), and I figured that this was the whole reason the author had him say this awful thing. But then the noose becomes a kind of symbol for the sixth grade team—it’s even put on t-shirts. Considering the issues around youth suicide, this seemed inappropriate to me. However, it’s just a relatively minor detail toward the end of the book. It’s not necessarily a reason not to let your kid read this otherwise interesting and reflective book, but using a noose is not a choice I’d have made as the author.
Even with this rather long review, I haven’t begun to give a real impression of what this book is like. It just needs to be experienced. In that sense, it’s best for readers willing to give it a chance—it’s not like most books you’ve read before. Holding all the pieces in your head as the whole puzzle comes together may be challenging and frustrating for some kids. I hope that advanced and avid middle grade readers will give it a chance, though. I can see why it was honored with the Newbery Medal.
The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg
Published in 1996 by Scholastic Inc.
Read my personal copy
Newbery Medal winner