Subversively Nostalgic Review: Sixth Grade Secrets

Fifth grade was kind of the worst. I’d switched to a new school and the kids weren’t very impressed with me (to put it mildly), so I needed all the escapism I could get. If I couldn’t have real-life best friends, I could at least have vicarious ones and dream about the amazing middle school shenanigans we would have next year.

So, when my teacher handed out a list of titles we could choose for our first few book reports, I grabbed Sixth Grade Secrets, by Louis Sachar. What, to a lonely ten-year-old oddball, sounds better than a secret club founded on a super quirky premise, whose members trust each other with their most embarrassing confessions? Throw in a little vicarious Rebel Without a Cause energy to balance out my glaring Goody Two Shoes aura, and you’ll have me at “What does Pig City mean?”

Original cover of Sixth Grade Secrets, by Louis Sachar.  Four students stand on a school playground.  Two of them look like they're about to start throwing punches.  Another girl and boy try to hold the first two back.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Louis Sachar. Sixth Grade Secrets. New York: Scholastic, 1987.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 mock newspaper articles exposing your best friend’s extreme ticklishness.

Playlist:

  • “Secrets,” by Rick Hromadka (from the Sweet Valley High soundtrack)
  • “Salute,” by Little Mix
  • “Phony Calls,” by Weird Al Yankovic
  • “Rebel, Rebel,” by David Bowie
  • “Your Cover’s Blown,” by Belle & Sebastian

Coffee Pairing:

Laura Sibbie and her best friends begin their Pig City adventure by imagining themselves as future pig-related entrepreneurs, selling porcine dairy products.

“How about pig yogurt?” suggested Allison. “Yogurt already tastes like it comes from pigs, anyway.”
“And pig butter,” said Laura.
“And pig cottage cheese,” said Allison.
“And pig ice cream,” Tiffany joined in.

Pg. 9

So, in the spirit of lactic creativity, let’s brainstorm some super-alternative latte options!

Photo of a large black sandwich board that reads "Rise and Shine it's Coffee Time" in white letters.  There's a doodle of a mason jar with the word "Iced" on it in the left bottom corner of the board, and a doodle of a steaming mug with the word "Hot" on it in the right bottom corner of the board.  The steam is drawn to look like leafy vines.

To the left of the board is another sign that says "Crimson Cart" with a drawing of a red mug underneath.
  • Non-Dairy*, Half-Sugar Coconut Caramel Latte. Same tropical sugar rush, half the actual sugar. You use coconut milk instead of syrup, making your drink both semi-vegan (*caramel sauce and some syrups are made with milk) and carb-conscious, if that’s what you’re into. I actually ordered this combo iced at one of my local farmer’s markets the other day. If you’re in downtown Fort Wayne on a Saturday morning, check out the Crimson Cart on the corner of Wayne and Barr streets!
  • Non-Dairy* Almond Joy Mocha. Combine chocolate (see note re: sauces and syrups) and espresso with both almond AND coconut milks! Or, if that’s too gross, switch one of the alt-milks to a syrup.
  • Non-Dairy Oatmeal Cookie Latte. Espresso + oat milk + rum raisin syrup.

Any other ideas? Have you ever tried a different animal milk, and would you dare use it in coffee? Share your real or imagined recipes in the comments!

Close-up of the updated mass-market cover.  A girl with long brown hair, looks suspiciously over her shoulder, her lips quirked to the side in a bold half smirk.  She's wearing a pink baseball cap that says PIG CITY in pale yellow letters.

It starts with a hat. Laura Sibbie finds a mysterious old trucker hat at a garage sale. It’s red with a blue brim (*side-eyes the updated cover close-up above*) and it says PIG CITY on the front. Since the seller won’t tell them what that means, Laura, Tiffany, and Allison must come up with their own interpretation. And what they come up with is the most exciting idea ever — a secret society.

It has to be secret because clubs are outlawed at their school. Ever since one kid’s mom complained that her son was being left out (a fair argument, at heart), the admin took the most extreme and least sensical option of banning all students from forming or joining clubs — which apparently extended to after-school, off-campus activities.

Because, apparently, a blanket ban is easier than just insisting that all clubs be inclusive on school grounds.

GIF image of a woman with large glasses sitting in an office chair in front of a bookshelf, saying "Is it possible you may be overreacting a bit?"

And if that’s not enough to guarantee rebellion, Laura’s infuriatingly hunky teacher, Mr. Doyle, has some kind of chip on his shoulder about punishing students for the most harmless infractions. To be somewhat fair, the punishment is just copying dictionary pages by hand after school, but it’s the principal of the thing.

So why wouldn’t Laura bait her beloved Mr. Doyle by sneaking into the classroom every morning to write random pig-related messages on the chalkboard? Why just break a dumb school rule when you can be totally petty about it?

And why not tempt fate further by seeing how many classmates you can recruit into the forbidden club before someone blows the secret?

Of course, rebellion is only fun if you legitimately try not to get caught. So, Laura and her co-founders agree that every club member will submit a form of personal “insurance” against blabbing. Each member has to give Laura some horrifically embarrassing object (a pair of underwear, a bathtub baby picture, a teacher-crush confession, that sort of thing), which will be kept hidden in the club house unless that person spills the proverbial beans.

Updated mass-market cover close-up.

According to Gabrielle Moss, author of Paperback Crush (I HIGHLY recommend this fantastic, textbook-style ode to the millennial mass-market paperback) clubs were a staple of late-80s/early-90s fiction. Everyone wanted to jump on the Babysitters Club bandwagon, and apparently Louis Sachar was no different.

What’s more exciting than organized friendship adventures? Forbidden organized friendship adventures! Who could resist a fictional society with not only a hierarchy and a kooky theme, but strict rules of secrecy?

What happens in Pig City stays in Pig City, amirite?

Anyway, of course such stories are only really fun if things go wrong. The B-plot involves Laura’s classroom nemesis and a boy with a secret crush on her, and when the former arranges a wacky misunderstanding between Laura and the latter, the club situation goes haywire. Soon, Laura’s secret admirer has created his own counter-club complete with its own anthem and, in the ensuing chaos, secrets start spilling.

Updated mass-market cover close-up.

For the most part, Sixth Grade Secrets is as much fun to read now as it was in my own middle-school days. I remember checking this book out multiple times, eager to spend more time in the Dog House (Pig City meetings are held in a giant converted dog house in Laura’s backyard) with these rad rebels, even though I feared deep down I was more of a Howard than a Laura — he’s a kid who wants everybody to like him but ends up alienating everyone instead.

I even created my first Out of the Books Experience by writing Pig City messages on sheets of notebook paper and holding them up to a school bus window in the mornings. Unfortunately, this did not propel me to Rad Rebel status (not least because my scrawny pencil scratches were probably invisible to the drivers and pedestrians below). I only got a single, grudging “Fair enough” from one of the older kids on the bus when I held up one last sign saying “PACKERS RULE” (I lived in Wisconsin).

GIF image of a Green Bay Packers fan holding up a sign that says "Deep Dish Pizza is Overrated. Go Pack Go!"
#sorrynotsorry #iactuallylovedeepdish πŸ˜†

But there was one big thing that lowered my present-day rating by a half point. The Pig City/Monkey Town war takes a surprisingly violent turn when two Monkey Town members assault Laura on the way home from school. Later, Laura has an unfortunate turning point where she decides she had it coming because she got too cocky and self-important, and that she should give up on being president of any club, let alone her ultimate dream of being the first woman POTUS.

It’s almost as if women are expected to never be too confident or make any mistakes if they want to be leaders! (*cough*2016 election*cough*) As though Laura’s middle-grade war crimes (she covers a guy with mustard while her friends hold him down) are more heinous than her male counterpart’s. Or even, I d’know, being physically assaulted herself.

This is not to say that eleven-year-olds shouldn’t choose to focus on more “trivial” adventures for a while, like holding hands with their significant classmates (this, in and of itself, can be a very high-stakes matter for queer kids). It’s unhealthy to expect kids to always be thinking about the Bigger Issues. But to suggest that a girl needs to be gentler and more humble than boys if she ever wants to be treated with respect is super outdated (or, at least, it should be).

The rest of that half point was taken by Mr. Doyle and his very borderline, gaslight-ey behavior. He literally teases Laura about her crush on him, saying he might reduce her dictionary-page punishment for all those chalkboard messages because he’s so flattered. Laura, badass that she is, refuses the offer, though she does end the story by returning his (sarcastic? begrudging? conciliatory?) Pig City salute just before heading off to summer vacation.

Updated mass-market close-up.

Anyhoo! As I said, the book mostly holds up as a delightful ode to random pre-teen rebellion that made the prospect of entering middle school a little less scary. Maybe, like Laura, I’d have to deal with playground bullies or unfair teachers (to their credit, my middle school teachers were all wonderful), but at least my fictional friends would have my back. At least someone would think my school bus window messages were funny.

:-p

*

What about you, Bookwyrms? Did you ever start or join a club, secret or otherwise? Were you a note-passer in school, and if so, how creative did you get with the delivery?

Confess your craziest classroom crimes in the comments!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Credits:

Overreacting GIF from tenor.

Packers GIF from giphy.

6 comments

  1. I started a peacock club and passed out questionnaires with silly questions I’d made up as an entrance requirement. We had t-shirts with “peacock club” on them, ones I had made and gave out.

    • I love that! Peacocks are my favorite birds and they’re such great arts & crafts inspo! I bet those t-shirts looked rad. What was the club’s mission? Do you remember any of the questions? 😁

  2. Hmm, I think my greatest crime was not being a typical girl. I alienated a lot of the girls in my class because I WOULDN’T get in on the drama. I remember sharing a secret 1 time. The trust was betrayed, and I ended what could have been a great friendship. None of the girls understood why I was so unforgiving. After all, everyone was sharing secrets and then telling them to others. Nope! Not me! I was burned once and walked away. Seriously though, it drove several of them crazy. Maybe it’s because no one had any dirt on me? At least not after that they didn’t.

    Anywhoo, that’s the only rebellion I remember doing.

    • Right on! I was the same way. I never got the whole friendly backstabbing/trash talking concept. I always expected people to say what they really meant, and to take my words equally seriously. When I tried to be more like the teens and preteens on TV, it would come off as overly intentional and awkward, like I was literally putting on an act.

      Non-drama rebels, high five! πŸ–πŸ˜ƒ

  3. I had secret detective clubs all through elementary and middle school xD. I made up cases based on things I found, saw, or overheard and worked with friends to try to find answers to questions nobody else was asking. Somehow my findings always involved some sort of supernatural interference, or odd-ball assumptions based on minimal observations, but never anything even close to actual detective work.

    One such meeting was held in the library over lunch, which was supposed to be quiet time. My friends and I were hiding amongst the stacks, discussing a handful of watches that all stopped keeping time at the exact same time– we were of course leaning toward a supernatural occurrence when the librarian began screaming at the top of her lungs. We all thought we were getting busted for breaking the library lunch rules. Instead, she just sneezed and I nearly wet my pants. Pretty sure we all scattered like cats being sprayed with a water bottle and somehow the mysterious case of the watches was never brought up again. Someone (or something) was warning us away from the case!

    I think a newer read that you’d like based on the description of this book is called Pickle: The (Formerly) Anonymous Prank Club of Fountain Point Middle School. πŸ˜‰

    Also, I’m pretty sure we now know where Umbridge ended up working after Hogwarts. πŸ™‚

    • That sounds like an awesome club!!! Like a real-life Scooby Doo crew! I bet the time-stopping villain was really a disgruntled janitor trying to scare people away from the library so he could finally clean up ALL the gum stuck under the chairs! You just had to pull off his Dr. Who mask!

      And ooooh, good insight about who came up with the No Clubs rule! That makes so much sense! Pig City was the proto-DA all along! πŸ˜„

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