The Book That Almost Made Me an SE: Sarah, Plain and Tall

I’ve been thinking a lot about elementary school Patricia and reading lately, probably because I’m suddenly in charge of 18 3rd-5th graders and their reading. Oddly, despite my own childhood anger over this very subject, one of my first thoughts was “I could have us all read the same book and then talk about it!” Luckily, my librarian training made me remember before I could get too far that kids hate exactly this. I was suddenly sent into a flashback where I was forced to confront my own irrational rage towards:

1. Charlotte’s Web
2. The Call of the Wild
3. Sarah, Plain and Tall

The three books that nearly made me an SE at the age of 10.

I like Charlotte’s Web now. Kind of. Sure, I can think of a lot of children’s books I like better, but it was okay. But I remember as a third grader feeling insulted. By all of it. By the forced pace of one chapter a day. By the talking animals (“Just because I’m eight doesn’t mean I need talking animals, God”). By the way no one in the book seemed to know how a farm worked (pigs are for eating!! And why aren’t the sheep and geese worried?). When I was eight, I knew I was way too old for Charlotte’s Web. And the lame animated movie.

The Call of the Wild was, I’m positive, our teacher’s attempt to reengage all the boys in our class, who by that time had mostly already turned away from reading. I don’t know why she didn’t try nonfiction, but teachers seem to have an archaically narrow view about what constitutes “reading”. Maybe Call of the Wild worked for some of the boys in our class, but it didn’t work for me. For one thing, there were hardly any conversations, which, at the time, I knew were the pinnacle of literary interest. Also, it was about a bunch of men alone in the wilderness. Later, in middle school, I would learn to loathe Gary Paulsen’s The Hatchet for the same reasons. And, to an extent, Twilight without the whole survival aspect. Really, I don’t need a minute-by-minute play-by-play of how you started a fire, cooked some dinner, sharpened your knives, and made a camp bed out of leaves and forest moss. Wake me up when something interesting happens.

Even looking at this picture now makes me want to punch Newberry in the face

Even looking at this picture now makes me want to punch Newberry in the face

And then we come to the major culprit: Sarah, Plain and Tall. I don’t think I can emphasize enough how much I hated Sarah, Plain and Tall. I’ve been able to admit since that Charlotte’s Web is an okay book and that The Call of the Wild has its literary merits, but to this day I cannot stand Sarah, Plain and Tall and discourage library patrons from checking it out if they have a choice. Here is what I can remember of the story, that is not already too clouded by my mind’s cloaking mists of hatred:

The Setting: Some farm somewhere, the Great Depression.
Pa: Well, your mom’s dead and I’m sick of talking to you kids. Time to get me a mail order bride!
Children: We don’t want a new mom! We want food and water!
Pa: Too bad, it hasn’t rained in like a million years.
Little Boy: I’m going to place this cup on this fence post to catch the water when it does come. SYMBOL OF HOPE!
Sarah: What does it say about me that I would describe myself as PLAIN and TALL? Why do you think this is the title of the book?
Children: We’re going to be mean to you because we aren’t ready to trust again!
Sarah: [cries]
Children: J/K we’re sorry!
God: [rewards them with rain]
All: Rejoice! All of our interpersonal problems are solved! Who knew we just had to be more accepting to end the Great Depression?

I may have gotten the actual story confused with the million and one worksheets I remember having to fill out about it. Besides the rather boring storyline, Sarah, Plain and Tall had the difficulty of being forced upon me THREE YEARS IN A ROW. Seriously, third grade, fourth grade, AND fifth grade. Halfway through it in fifth grade, I complained so much that the teacher let me read the sequel, Skylark instead. It was, if possible, even worse, since the plot was the same “If only it would rain to solve our personal problems” tripe, but in a new and more annoying setting.

Another problem I had, particularly in third grade, was the way everyone always says the title so it sounds more like Sarah, Plain, and Tall. Coupled with the fact that the cover of the book had three people on it, I assumed it would be about three characters named Sarah, Plain, and Tall. I kept waiting for Plain and Tall to show up, knowing that their names meant they HAD to be more amusing than the rest of the book combined. Naturally, Plain and Tall disappointed me and I learned a valuable lesson about commas.

I have no idea why Sarah, Plain and Tall is STILL read in schools. Probably because everyone remembers reading it in the third/fourth/fifth grades and so makes their third/fourth/fifth graders read it too. I guarantee you, however, that there are more modern books that teach the same themes, whether you want to concentrate on the historical aspects of the Great Depression (Out of the Dust) or the whole getting-a-new-parent thing. I’ve made lists of them at the library, just to be vindictive. Each time I save a kid from having to read Sarah, Plain and Tall, I feel like I’ve justified my existence. Like some kind of bad literature superhero.

4 responses to “The Book That Almost Made Me an SE: Sarah, Plain and Tall

  1. Mom Ladd says:

    You are amazing. I learned so much. You would make a great elementary teacher ya know. Your students are lucky to have you.

  2. Bova says:

    My biggest fear in life is to be refered to as, “Cynthia, Plain and Tall”

  3. Bova says:

    Sorry I spelled “referred” wrong.

  4. I always thought Plain and Tall were a pair of time traveling hit men who return to the Depression Era and slaughter every character in this story in order to alter history and prevent the book based on the original timeline from ever being written. At least that’s what SHOULD have happened.

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