No Talking

No TalkingBoth of my kids love No Talking, and once I finally read it, I can see why. Inspired by a school report on Mahatma Gandhi, Dave decides to stop talking for a day. In the process, he ends up coughing his way out of an oral report he was supposed to give with Lynsey. At this point, what might have been an interesting experiment turns into a petty no talking contest between the boys and the girls.

The narrator makes clear that these 5th graders aren’t exactly typical. They’re still very much boys against girls, at a point where most kids would have matured past this. They’ve also been known as the Unshushables since kindergarten, because they are simply incapable of being quiet. Ever.

They agree that three words are permitted when a teacher or other school-related adult directly asks a question, but they must be completely silent at home. They’ll use the honor system to keep track of non-school times. The girls will keep score of the boys’ mess ups, and the boys will keep track of the girls’ mess ups. It will last for 48 hours, from noon on Tuesday to noon on Thursday.

The adults in the school wrestle with this suddenly silent 5th grade. Some like it, because these kids were never quiet and the contest offers interesting teaching opportunities. The principal, while she appreciates the silence, is unhappy that this thing is happening without her approval—she feels like she’s losing control of her school.

The narrator is amusing—an omniscient voice that focuses on the story, explicitly skipping ahead or moving back depending on what the reader should know at that moment. And constantly reminding us that there’s more than could be told but won’t be. There’s always more to any story.

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid

Silence Can Be Good

Everyone who participated in the experiment realized that they probably talked too much, often about things they didn’t care about and sometimes didn’t even mean, frequently at the expense of introspection and thinking. They all come to appreciate silence, even if they’re happy to be able to chatter again.

Relatedly, being limited in what you can say really makes you carefully weigh the words you choose and to think carefully before you speak. And body language and signs are totally valid and useful forms of communication.

Nothing Unites Like a Common Enemy

When the principal puts her foot down and demands that the kids start speaking normally again, every kid in the 5th grade, boys and girls, works together to defend the contest, to show that they can still do the work required, and to demonstrate that no one can force them to talk if they don’t want to. After Dave speaks 30 words of eloquent defiance to the principal on behalf of the student body, effectively losing the contest for the boys, Lynsey makes a speech in the very last minute of the contest, bringing the girls’ total of illegal words to exactly equal the boys’ number of illegal words. What was a petty contest where the loser would get an L written on their forehead in permanent marker became a common goal where everyone grew up a bit, and the boys and girls learned to work together. As the narrator says, “…cooties were dying all over the place.”

Teachers Aren’t Idiots

While the teachers are thrown for a loop at first, most of them catch on to what’s going on without it needing to be explained to them. And most of them adapt to it, and find out that the kids are quieter and more focused—they don’t see any reason to demand that the kids stop the contest. Mr. Burton, the English teacher, immediately sees it as a great topic for a paper for a graduate class he’s taking. The science teacher figures things out through observation and experimentation. Most of the teachers appreciate the focus the kids have, because even while they’re worrying about saying everything in three words, they’re really paying attention to what’s happening in class. Mr. Burton even has a debate where each argument can only be three words.

Teachers Aren’t Perfect

While arguing about how the contest should be handled, Mr. Burton allows a gender stereotype to slip into his mind, but then consciously corrects his thinking, “(b)ecause anybody who hangs on to stereotypes about boys and girls…shouldn’t. Especially if he’s a teacher.”

Then Mrs. Hiatt, the principal, does the same and corrects her thinking, because “(o)n a school faculty, it’s never supposed to be girls against boys. In fact, that’s called discrimination, which is against the law.”

Teachers Can Learn

When Mrs. Hiatt tells her students to stop the contest and her teachers to enforce that, she expects them to listen. She comes back to the school after some meetings and learns that her orders were ignored. She screams at the 5th graders, at which point Dave stands up to her. He’s called to her office, and everyone assumes he’s in for it. Instead, Mrs. Hiatt apologizes to him for losing it. She gives him a chance to explain himself, which he won’t because he’s on the honor system to only speak in three word phrases. She finally catches on, and communicates with him on his terms. He asks her to join the contest for the last 24 hours, and she does. (The rest of the school does too, although the kindergartners are exempted when it becomes clear they just can’t do it at their age.)

Names and Insults

The boys and girls, particularly Lynsey and Dave, are verbally very mean to each other, although it’s mostly typical and fairly tame middle school type language. One girl kisses a boy against his will to try to get him to say some illegal words. Sounds aren’t off limits, so some pretty gross sounds are made to try to annoy each other. Most of this, though, is to establish the unhealthy situation in the 5th grade before the contest started so we can see how it changes through the book.


Both my kids love this book, and I really like it too. It’s thought provoking, which is encouraged by the narrator who can provide commentary throughout. There’s a kind of epilogue where all the far reaching results of the contest are hinted at as the narrator lists all the things we could read about, but instead we’re going to go back to the moment the contest ended. I liked that the adults were neither perfect nor idiots. I liked the insight into how the teasing between Lynsey and Dave quickly escalated to things that neither of them intended or even wanted—despite the fact that they were driving it, it also seemed to develop on its own, which I think is something a lot of people can identify with. This is a great book for maybe 9 or 10 and up. It’s a great book for reluctant readers, too—lots to discuss in a book that’s not too challenging to read.


No Talking by Andrew Clements
Published in 2007 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Read my daughter’s copy

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