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Top 100 Picture Books #29: Miss Nelson is Missing! by Harry Allard, illustrated by James Marshall

#29 Miss Nelson is Missing! by Harry Allard, illustrated by James Marshall (1977)
56 points

Oh, that clever Miss Nelson. She certainly fooled me, and I read this book countless times in childhood trying to figure out just how she pulled it off. Miss Viola Swamp is the best alter ego ever. – Katie Ahearn

The kind of crazy thing is that Miss Nelson is Missing! was the only Miss Nelson book to be nominated in any way, shape, or form. I can understand not loving Miss Nelson Has a Field Day, but since my first introduction to Viola Swamp came via Miss Nelson is Back on a Reading Rainbow segment I expected at least one person to mention her.  No dice.  Crazier still, I just checked the last poll and the same thing happened last time.  Clearly I’m the only person in the world with any affection for that book.

The synopsis from my review describes this book this way: “As the book points out immediately, the kids in Room 207 were the worst behaved class in the whole school. They were rude and nasty and they didn’t pay any attention to their sweet-natured teacher Miss Nelson. One day, however, Miss Nelson does not come to school. In her place is the nasty, mean, foul-tempered witch Miss Viola Swamp. A true crone through and through, Miss Swamp immediately whips the children into shape. They are crushed by homework and forced to do work that’s exceedingly difficult. It’s not too long after Miss Swamp’s arrival that the children start yearning for the lovely Miss Nelson. Unfortunately, no one seems to be able to find her. Finally, one day Miss Nelson comes back and the class is as well behaved as it can be. Only the telltale black dress hanging in her closet suggests that there may be more to the class’s transformation than initially meets the eye.”

According to 100 Best Books for Children, the story behind Miss Nelson is Missing is that one day Harry Allard called up James Marshall at three in the morning and yelled at him, “Miss Nelson is missing!”.  Marshall pretty much took it from there.  The book goes on to say, “A more-than-generous individual, Marshall gave Allard the title of author on their books.  Actually, for their collaborations, Allard often provided the story ideas, but Marshall, a consummate wordsmith, crafted each line of the text with as much care as he drew each image.”

Once a year Columbia University plays host to a children’s festival, and New York Public Library is usually on hand to sign kids and parents up for library cards.  Three years ago I was available to do my fair share of work.  We had a number of different hand stamps available for the kiddies, and on one of them was the cold hard stare of Miss Viola Swamp.  You’d be surprised how popular that one turned out to be.  Not the Mouse from If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.  Not Frances from Bread and Jam for Frances.  Nope.  Kids may not wish to be in Miss Swamp’s classes, but they are more than willing to proudly sport her image on the backs of their sweaty little hands.

Said Booklist of the title: “Rarely has the golden rule been so effectively interpreted for children.”

Here’s a clip from the animated version of the tale:

And in case you didn’t believe me about the Reading Rainbow thing (forgive the newfangled updated opening):

And for the stage play . . .

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Ben Collinsworth says

    I cannot be the only person who remembers a teacher pulling this one out as a cautionary tale the day before leaving us with a substitute. I completed a kindergarten practicum with a teacher who even drafted a letter to her class from Viola Swamp after they’d been particularly rotten, threatening to visit if they didn’t straighten up. As the teacher summed up the kids’ reaction, “Tears. Tears and tears and tears. But then they got a lot of writing done.”

  2. I still can’t believe I left this off my list. This was (outside of the Arthur books) my absolute favorite book in first grade. I read it over and over and over again. It’s still one of my favorites to share with kids. I do a mean Viola Swamp. 🙂

  3. Kids and teachers alike love it! This new film version starring kindergarteners is awesome!