In the well written middle-grade novel No Talking, author Andrew Clements portrays a competition between the fifth-grade boys and the fifth-grade girls at Laketon Elementary School to determine which group can talk the least for 48 hours spread over three weekdays, beginning and ending with lunch period. Dave Packer gets the idea of being silent from reading about Mahatma Gandhi. In a moment of annoyance with Lynsey Burgess, Dave challenges Lynsey and the other girls to have this contest. They accept the competition. The rules allow the youngsters to use a maximum of three words if the children must respond to a teacher or other adult. During the silent days, Lynsey serves as the ringleader of the girls, while Dave leads the boys. Both children are “proud and stubborn” (chapter 5, p. 25).
After the contest begins, the teachers at Laketon Elementary School are surprised when this noisy cohort of students, whom the faculty members call “The Unshushables” (chapter 7, p. 33), suddenly fall silent. Because Clements narrates this novel in third-person omniscient, he can show readers how each teacher reacts and copes differently with the new problem. Science teacher Mrs. Marlow gets annoyed because the fifth graders cannot develop their ideas smoothly when they discuss assigned homework (chapter 11, pp. 55-60). The three-word limit creates the most serious difficulties in music class (chapter 12), where the students are practicing songs for the Thanksgiving program. Frustrated, Mrs. Akers asks the pupils to hum and clap, which the contest rules allow (pp. 66-67).
We also find out how Principal Abigail Hiatt views the situation. Before the contest begins, she has been going around the school trying to change the behavior of the fifth graders to make them more quiet and obedient. However, her tactics are hypocritical: for example, she shouts into her bullhorn in the cafeteria (chapter 7, p. 37). After the contest begins, Principal Hiatt, who likes having control, is dumbfounded by the quiet students and angry that “no one had asked for her permission” (p. 43).
The most open-minded and creative faculty member is Mr. Burton, who teaches language arts. Clements writes, “Unlike Mrs. Marlow, Mr. Burton had a lot of patience and a pretty good sense of humor” (chapter 12, p. 68). During his first class, Mr. Burton has the students take turns reading a funny piece of short fiction, three words at a time. Then, he asks the pupils to make up their own story, each student contributing three-word units (pp. 68-72). For his second class, Mr. Burton has the fifth graders write many notes to each other because their contest does not restrict written communication (chapter 13). During the second day of silence, he assigns debates between students, who use three-word sentences (chapter 17, pp. 120-21). Instead of expressing anger as the other teachers do, he studies his students’ behavior and plans to write a book about the unusual situation (chapter 20, p. 140).
Finally, Principal Hiatt decides to call a school assembly to force the fifth graders to talk (chapter 15, p. 100). She begins by asking Dave and Lynsey to lead the Pledge of Allegiance (chapter 16, 105). Then Principal Hiatt tells the students that their no-talking contest must end immediately (pp. 106-08).
However, the fifth graders continue their contest for a second day as they had originally agreed. They decide that singing isn’t talking, so they can practice songs in music class. But they abide by the thee-word limit in all of their other courses. Most of the teachers work around the contest rules constructively.
When Principal Hiatt returns from an off-campus meeting to patrol the cafeteria, she is furious that the silence competition has continued, despite her orders. After she bullies Dave during lunch with her bullhorn, he stands up to her (chapter 18, pp. 127-31). He proclaims, “I do not have to talk now if I don’t want to. This is our lunch time. None of us have to talk!” And he yells to his classmates, “You have the right to remain silent!” (p. 130). Then Dave folds his arms, all of the fifth graders do likewise, and they all start to clap, hoot, and whoop (pp 130-31).
Principal Hiatt summons Dave to her office. He is worried that he has gotten into terrible trouble. However, they both apologize to one another, and Dave invites her to join the contest (chapter 19, pp. 133-38). She agrees and apologizes to the entire fifth-grade class. Principal Hiatt calls another assembly and declares a no-talking competition for the whole school among different grades, except for the kindergartners (chapter 20, pp. 139-41).
In the final pages of this novel, Clements focuses on the conclusion of the fifth-grade contest. Dave is worried because his reply to Principal Hiatt’s bullying the previous day had lost the boys’ team 27 points. But in the closing minute of the competition, Lynsey makes a short speech in the quiet cafeteria, praising both teams and the solidarity of the students (chapter 20, p. 143). Her 27-word address results in a tied score for the boys and girls.
Both Dave and Lynsey have come to respect one another, and all of the other fifth graders have also gained mutual respect. They have learned a lot from their days of silence about human language and communication skills. Ironically, this battle of the sexes concludes with noisy talking, but underneath the racket is a very peaceful new understanding and appreciation.
No Talking is an original and humorous short novel designed for readers from eight to twelve years old. Both boys and girls will find the no-talking contest appealing. Clements develops the main characters well and consistently sustains suspense about who will win the competition. No Talking has many good similes, such as the comparison of the fifth-grade lunch period before the contest to “feeding time at the zoo” (chapter 8, p. 41) and the comparison of two students giving a joint class report in three-word sentences during the contest to “passing the narration back and forth like a Ping-Pong ball” (chapter 17, p. 119).
The novel has some weaknesses. Certainly, some teachers deal with unruly students better than others. However, when Clements portrays the only male teacher at Laketon Elementary School as the faculty member who handles the no-talking contest most creatively, the novel develops a sexist tilt.
Also, the opening chapters of No Talking create suspense in an annoying fashion: Clements keeps repeating the concept “but this isn’t the time to tell about that” (chapter 1, p. 1; see also p. 2; chapter 2, p. 9). Clements returns to this strategy in the final chapter (chapter 20, p. 142).
Finally, No Talking could use some editing to eliminate extra commas, the overuse of the preposition like when the context requires the conjunction as, etc.
I highly recommend this novel for families, schools, and libraries. Parents, teachers, and librarians can discuss issues like language use and gender rivalry with young people.
Clements, Andrew. No Talking. Illus. Mark Elliott. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2007. 144 pages.