Saturday, April 5, 2008

Louis Sachar

by Louis Sachar
Recommended Age: 10+

This wonderful novella won a Newberry Medal "for distinguished contribution to American Literature for Children." Its main character, Stanley Yelnats IV, is a chubby kid whose family is so unlucky, generation after generation, that they really believe it all goes back to a curse a gypsy woman put on his "no good pig stealing great-great-grandfather."

Stanley's version of the family luck hits him in the form of a pair of sneakers, which fall off a freeway overpass and hit him on the head. The next thing he knows, he's arrested for stealing a pro baseball star's sneakers which were supposed to be auctioned off for charity, and no one believes in his innocence, so he is convicted and sentenced to 18 months (!!!) in a boys' correctional facility called Camp Green Lake.

It's some camp: the counselors carry guns.

It's some Green Lake: located in the middle of a huge Texas desert, in a dry lakebed in which each boy is required to dig a hole five feet deep and five feet around every day.

Poor flabby Stanley, surrounded by juvenile criminals in a somewhat savage pecking order, and overseen by guards ranging from the hypocritical Mr. Pendansky to the ruthless Mr. Sir (who is always saying something to the effect of "This isn't a Girls Scout camp") to the truly monstrous female warden, who is frightening from the very first moment you see her. Stanley Yelnats doesn't stand a chance.

Worse than the scorpions or the rattlesnakes, are the yellow-spotted lizards whose bite is instantly fatal. It hasn't rained there for 100 years, the heat of the sun is brutal, the work is back-breaking, and it seems the reason they're digging holes has less to do with building character and more to do with looking for something. Then, the only real friend Stanley has decides he can't take it anymore and goes walking off into the desert alone.

The book incorporates three or four different interlacing storylines, from different points in history, and brings them together in a richly satisfying way that smacks of "destiny" and "redemption" and "poetic justice." It also shows a soft kid toughening up, then (just as he's starting to really harden), softening again...or rather, becoming a better person, a true friend, and an unexpected hero.

Holes has lots of stuff to delight readers of all ages. It has a sinister conspiracy. It has a youthful friendship in an environment like the polar opposite of Hogwarts (the kid goes from a happy family to the most horrible possible learning environment and social structure). It has suspense, adventure, romance, surprise, coincidences guaranteed to make you either laugh aloud or get choked up, tragedy, and dark comedy. It has a family folk tale embedded in it (about a boy who takes a gypsy woman's advice on how to win the hand of a beautiful girl), it has a bit of western melodrama (about a man who, robbed of his entire fortune by a famous female outlaw, wanders out of the desert weeks later delirious and muttering something about "taking refuge under God's thumb"), it has a beautiful romance turned into a sad mystery by the racial politics of the 19th-century South, it has buried treasure, it has survival drama in the wilderness, it has a hint of the ghost story in it, and it has a woman who tortures her victims by scratching them with fingernails freshly painted in rattlesnake venom. The first time she said, "Excuse me," I felt a chill go down my spine.

YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK. If you're like me you've seen it at stores and may have even been tempted to read it before, but now you know on good authority (mine) that it's good. So get it! Love it! And share it!

And by the way, the 2003 movie based on this book meets my full approval, though I would advise reading the book whether you see the movie or not.

Small Steps
by Louis Sachar
Recommended Age: 13+

In this sequel to the award-winning Holes, a former inmate of Camp Green Lake boys’ correctional facility is taking “small steps” to get his life back on track. Theodore Johnson, also known as Armpit (and NOT because of his body odor) has modest goals: stay out of trouble, finish school, get an honest job, save some money, and lose the name Armpit. It helps that the little neighbor girl with cerebral palsy trusts him. But it isn’t easy for a kid whose skin is the wrong color, living on the wrong side of Austin, Texas, with a slight anger problem and a friend like X-Ray.

Armpit is doing pretty well with most of his small steps. He is attending summer school. He has a landscaping job. He has money in the bank. Then X-Ray comes along and talks Armpit into investing some of his savings in a ticket-scalping scheme. This leads to trouble at a teenage diva’s concert, a backstage pass to meet the beautiful Kaira DeLeon, and some unexpected romance. But it also leads to trouble with the police, trouble with a couple of petty criminals, trouble at work and school, and ultimately trouble with Kaira’s crooked manager, who sees Armpit as the perfect patsy for the murder he needs to cover up his embezzlement...

Once more, Sachar has written a teen novel full of grace and understanding toward the kind of young people some people might cross the street to avoid. He has filled it with romantic tension, foreboding, and suspense, as well as humor and good-natured fun. And, if I can say this much without giving it all away, he has given it a hopeful but not too-perfect ending.

It’s a down-to-earth story, not as mythic as Holes, but it awakens the imagination to such things as the loneliness of fame, the courage of a disabled child, the miraculous power of respect, and small steps one must take to keep one’s balance against the currents of life.

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