Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Book of the Week: HOLES by Louis Sachar

Classic books become classic books for a reason and we writers need to pay attention to them if we’re to have any hope of creating our own future classics. That’s why I also just reread The Indian in the Cupbard and Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing (I'll post reviews eventually), and this week I want to talk about Holes.

I once attended a class taught by the wonderful middle grade writer Alan Garinger (click here to read his 7 Question interview), during which he contended Holes was the greatest book for children ever written. Forget Harry Potter, forget Charlotte’s Web, Alan has eyes only for Holes. His own copy was beat up and marked by multiple notes and he claimed that in order to write a successful middle grade novel, future writers had to first read Holes.

Holes was published in 1998, just missing my childhood, and I never got around to reading it nor have I seen the movie. I was skeptical that the book would be such of a much. The title did not impress me nor did I find the concept of boys digging holes in the desert to be particularly enticing. The world needs ditch diggers, it’s true, but why would you want to read a book about them? 

Well, Esteemed Reader, I’m here to tell you that Alan was right. It turns out that a book about digging holes really can be one of the most exciting stories you’ll ever read. I don’t know that it’s better than Harry Potter or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. How can one possibly qualify such a claim and does it really matter? Holes is as good as those books and I say read them all and be grateful there are so many wonderful books in the world. Who cares which is the best?

For those of you who haven’t read the book, Stanley Yelnats is a boy found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to a correctional program ironically named Camp Green Lake. The plot of Holes reminded me quite a bit of Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption. As in that story, there is an evil Warden who torments our hero and forces him to do work against his will for her ill-gotten gain. Stanley even teaches another boy to read ala Andy Dufresne. Rather than tax evasion and book cooking, our eleven-year-old hero is forced to dig holes in the desert. Why is Stanley digging those holes? Well, if I tell you that, it will spoil the novel for you, and Holes is either a book you've read or you need to drop everything and read it right now.

It’s to be a short review this week. Louis Sachar doesn’t need me to promote his work and anyone who knows how I can convince him to answer the 7 Questions is my new best friend. Once I've said a book is as good as Harry Potter, there’s not much point in my heaping more praise or hyperbole upon it.

So I’ll finish up with a thought for writers about another professor I had for another writing class. He was a bitter man who published a small literary novel fifteen years ago and has spent the time since picking at an unfinished manuscript. He actually cried in front of the class the night his agent dropped him.

This man, who shall remain nameless and would never believe I was talking about him anyway (I bumped into him earlier this year and he didn't remember my name), taught very little in the way of practical advice. Mostly, he lectured about how his own writing was better than every other writer out there and I personally witnessed him explaining this to Michael Chabon. He showed movie clips and read only the first pages of our short stories, but his was probably one of the most useful writing classes I've ever been in because this man showed us by example the sort of writer not to be.

The reason I bring this jerk up is because one night in class he said, “I may not be able to write an entire suspense novel better than Tom Clancy, but I can write a better sentence than him.” This is a line that made me laugh then and I've chuckled thinking about it ever since.

Gee, if only people bought and read sentences rather than books, he would outsell Tom Clancy! As that is not the case, he better write some more sentences, say about a book’s worth, and earn the right to brag to Michael Chabon.

Lois Sachar writes a good sentence. He also creates memorable characters I’m still thinking about. He also puts those characters in extreme danger and has them fight to the breaking point to achieve their goals, keeping the reader in constant suspense. He also interweaves important themes about race and class seamlessly through the main narrative, enhancing the work without ever becoming preachy. In fact, I couldn't find one thing in Holes to gripe about. It’s perfect.

My own copy is now beat up and covered in highlights and notes. Alan Garinger says every middle grade writer should read Holes and I agree. But more, I’m never going to listen to another pompous buffoon tell me it is a virtue to specialize in one element of writing. It all needs to be perfect, or as close as I can get it. And it can be done. Holes is proof.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.


  1. Great review, Robert. I am so glad you have this blog that champions middle-grade books. Both classics and new ones. Yay - we need more middle-grade awesomeness, and you are bringing it, ninja!

    Anyway, I laughed about your professor who thought his sentences were so darned wonderful. It reminds me of a neighbor I had once, who found someone to publish his book but wanted him to change a few things. Sadly, he thought his book was perfect as is, and refused. Never got published.

    Keep on doing your interviews and your book reviews. They are great!

  2. Good one, MGN. I just went with my son's 7th grade class to see a play of Sachar's "Stepping Stones," a sequel to Holes and found it riveting. A lot of darkness and light mixed.

    I actually felt sad for the bitter writing professor, though many would say he didn't deserve my pity. The image of crying in front of the class is searing.

  3. Thanks, Linda. And please don't pity the professor, Michael. He was in a dilemma of his own making. Bragging about writing is not writing (neither is blogging about writing, so I’m going to knock this off and crank out today’s pages).

    However, this otherwise disagreeable fellow did give me a useful mental image I keep with me on hard days. He said: “I want you to imagine a construction worker coming onto a site in the morning. He has a cup of coffee, he walks around the site, he rubs his face, he goes away for an hour, comes back, looks at the site, and finally drops his head in his hands and says, ‘I just can’t do it, today.’ If you can’t imagine a construction worker doing this, why should a writer let himself get away with it?”

    Professor Jerk said a lot of unwise things, but I thought that little gem was worth hanging onto. And for what it’s worth, his novel was pretty good. If he ever publishes the follow-up (not likely), I’ll have to read it side by side with Tom Clancy and then we’ll see who writes a good sentence.

  4. I love this one--truly a classic! The movie was pretty good too!

  5. Holes is an amazing piece of literature. I think it teaches kids some very important lessons about friendships. The benefits of forming solid friendships are clearly shown in Holes. Stanley and Zero's friendship lead to their mutual survival and wealth. Even when Stanley's troubles weren't over yet, once he secured Zero's friendship he feels happier than he has ever felt in his life. It also shows kids what a fake friend is - like someone only befriending you when they want something. Thats an important lesson that kids can usually only learn through life experience. I definitely want my kids to read Holes someday.


Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.