• Happy birthday Dennis Lee (Alligator Pie), Deborah Kogan Ray (Dinosaur Mountain: Digging into the Jurassic Age), and Kenneth Oppel (Airborn).
  • It’s the birth date of William Saroyan (1908-1981), The Human Comedy.
  • Also born on this day was educator Maria Montessori (1870-1952).
  • In 1803, Lewis and Clark leave Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, starting their expedition to the West. Read Lewis & Clark by Nick Bertozzi.
  • It’s National Trail Mix Day. Read Sheep Take a Hike by Nancy Shaw, illustrated by Margot Apple.

As August comes to a close, many children head back to or have already started school. Today I’m recommending one of my favorite stories about school, one that some teachers like to use at this time. It not only tells a great story, but also sends a subtle message.

By the time James Marshall created Miss Nelson Is Missing! he was at the height of his craft. Having worked out picture book pacing and timing in the George and Martha series, he was now able to take a story, run it over thirty-two pages, and create a perfect story arc.  The idea of Miss Nelson was given to Jim by his friend Harry Allard, who called in the middle of the night and said to Jim: “Miss Nelson Is Missing!” And then Harry hung up the phone. Jim couldn’t reach him, couldn’t get back to sleep, and began to wonder about this Miss Nelson. In Jim’s sketchbooks, now at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, he developed his ideas for the book — as the story progressed Viola Swamp became meaner and meaner.

Miss Nelson presides over the worst-behaved class in school—they are rude during story hours and refuse to do their lessons. So the next day, rather than Miss Nelson, a “woman in an ugly black dress stood before” this class. Looking a bit like Maria Callas with a fake nose and long sharp fingernails, Miss Viola Swamp rules the class with an iron hand. She loads them down with homework and works them to death. Days go by without a sign of Miss Nelson. When the teacher finally returns, her students behave like angels. Only on the last pages do readers comprehend the true identity of Miss Nelson and Viola Swamp.

Of course, when read in class, the book can always be followed by that question, “Who do you want, Miss Nelson or Viola? The choice is yours!” In this saga, and so many others, Marshall shows that stories that make us laugh together are good for our spirits. James Marshall crafted some of the best characters ever created for children. In Miss Nelson Is Missing! he also explores with heart and wit the relationship between teachers and students—and the need for students to show appreciation for a good teacher when they have one.


Here’s a page from Miss Nelson Is Missing!:


Originally posted August 31, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: Humor, School
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Miss Nelson Is Missing!


  1. stefanie says:

    Read this the first week of school! My students took it from there and wrote funny stories about where Miss Nelson was when she was missing!

  2. Anita says:

    Stefanie: Thanks for mentioning this activity. The book can be used in so many ways.

  3. Rachel says:

    Our whole third grade read this story and also watched Miss Nelson videos off of Discovery Education. I feel that my class really absorbed the subtle message you are referring to in this post.

  4. G.Perry says:

    I thought this was a really creative and well crafted story. It was fun, and I loved it.

    I also note the mention of William Saroyan. I’ve always felt Saroyan one of those special souls that has something important to say, and he said things wise and well. He speaks to human dignity, real emotions and family, from days some believe gone. (Not me.) The Human Comedy should be required reading.

    Some Saroyan wisdom:

    “While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.”

  5. Sally Spratt says:

    Another great story – Viola Swamp gotta lover her!

  6. Fran in Texas says:

    Here’s a lovely tribute to Marshall by Maurice Sendak:

  7. Anita says:

    Fran: Thanks for the link. Maurice and Jim were very good friends.

  8. suzi w. says:

    ooh, looking forward to the MS link. First, though, this book is so near and dear to my heart–when my siblings were young, my mom read this book to them and whenever she was being mean to get us to do stuff, she’d say, “I’m Viola Swamp!” My father is usually the one that read books to us, so beyond it being totally awesome that she made this literature connection, it was the one literary connection that originated with Mom, as all the other ones (Mr. Plumbean and a myriad of others) that originated with Dad.

    It seems a grandchild is on the way, and it will be great fun watching my parents read to this new person, when he or she emerges.

    Thanks for the memory. I will definitely have conversations with at least one of my parents about this post today.

    Suzi W.

  9. Jane Martyn says:

    I haven’t read this one! It sounds wonderful…heading to the local library to check it out! Thanks for the recommendation.

    -Jane Martyn

  10. Bonny says:

    A phone call in the middle of the night, a cryptic message–what a great story to the story.

  11. Anita says:

    Bonny: Yes, it is a great story. And Jim always told it brilliantly!

  12. One of my favorite books. I didn’t know about the call in the night! sure sounds like a James Marshall story!

  13. G. Perry says:

    This is a great reminder. Time to read this delightful book again.

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