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.