- M.C. Thomas
Childhood Favorites: Holes by Louis Sachar
This was my favorite book when I was in elementary school. I must have read it four or five times, and I learned something new about it each time. Masterfully crafted by Louis Sachar, Holes is a book that respects the intelligence of the kids reading it. It was published in 1998 and won a Newbery Medal.
Holes is the story of Stanley Yelnats (read that name backwards), an unpopular teenager who is always in "the wrong place at the wrong time." This is supposedly due to a family curse caused by Stanley's "no-good, dirty, rotten pig-stealing great great grandfather."
Stanley's bad luck gets him arrested, as a pair of World Series-used cleats (meant for a charity auction) literally fell from the sky and hit him on the head. He is sent to Camp Green Lake, a juvenile detention camp in the Texas desert, where the dictatorial warden forces them to do one thing:
Is digging holes in the scorching desert really meant to "build character" as they say? Or is the warden searching for something?
I won't get into spoilers, because those who haven't read Holes have a lot of plot developments and twists to look forward to. But I will talk about what makes this story so great.
This is an obvious one. Every great story has to have memorable characters, and Stanley is a compelling protagonist. We sympathize with him immediately, because we see that everything in his life is stacked against him. He's a non-confrontational kid put into a detention camp with other boys who are assertive and even aggressive. We enjoy rooting for Stanley as he maintains his good heart while also learning to stand up for himself.
The warden is one of the my all-time favorite antagonists. She doesn't physically show up until halfway through the story, but based on how the camp counselors talk about her, the warden's presence is felt from the very beginning. She wears nail polish containing rattlesnake venom and can shut anyone up with a simple, "Excuse me?" The warden is intimidating and unpredictable, but her motives makes perfect sense once you dive into her backstory.
The protagonist and antagonist are well-done, but what sets Holes apart from other stories is how developed and memorable the secondary characters are. Stanley's tent is filled with boys named Armpit, Zigzag, Magnet, X-Ray, Squid, and Zero. They have real names, but only go by their nicknames, which already makes them stick out in the reader's mind. Their personalities and physical descriptions jump off the page. Armpit even has a spin-off novel called Small Steps, also written by Sachar.
There's also the counselors Mr. Sir (is that his real name??) and Mr. Pendanski (pen, dance, key), the mysterious Madame Zeroni, outlaw Kissin' Kate Barlow, and of course, Sam the Onion Man.
Holes has one of the most intriguing plots I've ever read, not just in a children's book, but in any book. While the main storyline follows Stanley and his time at Camp Green Lake, we also jump around different points in time.
Some readers see flashbacks as a no-no, but Sachar utilizes them beautifully. We learn about Elya Yelnats (the no-good, dirty, rotten pig-stealing great great grandfather) and how his quest for love led to the family curse. We see the history of Camp Green Lake and how it deeply connects with the families of both the warden and Stanley. Either of these backstories would make for compelling short-stories on their own. But the way they are seamlessly weaved into the tapestry of this story makes Holes all the more brilliant.
The plot is complex, but laid out in a way that kids can follow. Sachar respects the intelligence of his readers. He also tackles sensitive and relevant topics like bullying and race.
I recommend this book not just to children, but to anyone. It has everything you could want in a story and will leave you wanting to read it again and again.
Have you read Holes and what did you think of it? What is your favorite childhood book? Let me know in the comments!