Title: There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom
Author: Louis Sachar
Genre: Middle Grade Realistic Fiction
Number of Pages: 195
This is an example of something I’d seen in libraries when I was a kid and just never decided to pick it up until now. I read Holes years ago and don’t remember anything about it, but I heard somewhere that this was more serious and thoughtful than the title suggests, and I sometimes like to catch up on older middle grade fiction I missed when I actually middle grade aged.
There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom was published in 1987 and I was amazed by how relevant it still is. It tells the story of Bradley Chalkers, a boy who has been held back several grades and has no friends. Even the teachers openly dislike him because he’s socially incompetent and a bully. The reader is never given any clear reason for his behavioral problems (i.e. an abuse backstory,) which is refreshing. His dad was a cop who was shot and injured in the line of duty. He’s pretty grumpy, but who can blame him?
His mom spoils him rotten and enables his bad behavior and his sister is just a regular annoying little sister. Bradley has no interpersonal skills whatsoever. The only time he’s comfortable is when he’s acting out make-believe worlds with the collection of shabby animal figurines he gets from thrift stores. The animals listen to him and he has a name and personality for each one (that I could relate to. I was totally that kind of kid, the kid with a huge collection of stuffed animals I played with regularly.)
The animals are a good addition to the book, revealing Bradley’s loneliness and showing a different facet to his personality. When Jeff, a quiet, impressionable kid, starts out at Bradley’s school they start a tentative friendship, despite Bradley threatening to spit on him when they first met. Jeff eventually deserts Bradley, though, and starts hanging out with a group of bullies and picking on him.
Bradley also reluctantly starts talking to Carla, an unconventional guidance counselor who believes he can be better and changes his life. She tries to get to the root of his emotional disturbances and helps him manage his anger and frustration. Bradley is a convincing protagonist, and the author isn’t afraid to make him alienating and unlikable for the majority of the book. His relationship with Carla is moving and it’s great to see him grow as a character throughout the book. I did feel like his transition from bully to victim was a little too abrupt to be believable.
The Bradley from the second half feels like a different person from the Bradley from the first half. That would be my one criticism of this story, with is otherwise entertaining and emotionally satisfying (even for a 28-year-old such as myself.) There are so many kids like Bradley that have low impulse control and slip through the cracks. Middle grade fiction doesn’t usually focus on characters like him and Bradley’s journey to be his best self is strongly written, original, and compelling.