Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great
First published 1972
My history with this book
I know I read this book as a kid, but I had no memory of it, so it apparently didn’t leave as much of an impression as my favorite Judy Blume books: Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, Deenie, and Starring Sally J. Friedman as Herself.
It’s funny that this book apparently didn’t leave much of an impression on me as a child, because I really enjoyed it as an adult. I recently read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing for the first time, so I decided to read Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, which is about a minor character in the former book. My husband read both of these books as a kid, and he still remembers being blown away by an author writing related books from two totally different viewpoints. Sheila comes across as a very annoying character in Tales, and she’s something of a nemesis to the main character (who is painted in a negative light in Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great).
Sheila Tubman lives in an apartment in Manhattan (in the same building as Peter, the hero of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing) with her parents and her boy-crazy older sister Libby. Sheila wants to go to Disneyland for the summer, but her parents end up renting a house in Tarrytown instead. Sheila makes a new best friend, Mouse Ellis, and learns to face her many fears, the most serious of which are dogs and swimming. Sheila is forced to confront her fears during her time in Tarrytown, because their house comes with a dog and her mother insists that she take swimming lessons.
Sheila is a quite a character. She’s something of a legend in her own mind, but she’s also a very anxious child with a lot of fears. She hides her fears behind boasting and bravado, but her bluff ends up being called when she makes friends with the very clever Mouse. Sheila thinks she’s good at hiding her fears and presenting a confident, even brash persona. But Mouse figures her out.
“Sheila, if a person is scared of something, a person should just admit it. Don’t you think so?”
“Oh, definitely,” I said. “And if I was ever afraid of anything I’d be the first to admit it.”
Which is, of course, totally untrue, as Sheila lies constantly in an effort to hide her fears and whenever she doesn’t know how to do something. The lies are kind of hilarious: She used to be really good at yo-yo’s but she hasn’t played with one since she was two, she can’t go in the pool because she had a cold, she’s allergic to dogs and gets hives inside her body, she can run a newspaper single-handedly.
I found Sheila’s first night in the new house very funny. She’s having trouble sleeping, so she turns on the light, which leads to her seeing a spider on the ceiling, so she wakes up her father. The sense of weary resignation from her father’s gives one gets the feeling that this is not the first time this has happened. Later that same night, Sheila is awoken by a strange noise. This time, she wakes her mother, who is annoyed at first but then gets freaked out by the noise as well (which turns out to be the dog howling at the moon).
Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great would be an excellent book to offer to a kid who has some fears. A parent could read along with their child, and use Sheila’s experiences as a good conversation starter.
Does it hold up?
Quite well. Judy Blume’s book are so universal, they don’t really seem dated. The only thing that struck me as odd was that the milkman still delivers milk in Tarrytown. I’m not sure when milk deliveries stopped being common, but I never knew of anyone who had milk delivered in the U.S. (milk delivery in rural Ireland was still common when I was a child).
Would I want my kid to read it?
Is there any objectionable content?
No, except for some mild fat shaming of one of Sheila’s friends.
Can you read it aloud?
It’s still in print and available in audio and ebook format.