Top 100 Children’s Novels (#6)
#6 Holes by Louis Sachar (1998)
(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1)(#1) (#1)(#1)(#2)(#2)(#2)(#2) (#2)(#2)(#2)(#2)(#2)(#3) (#3)(#3)(#3)(#3)(#3)(#4) (#4)(#4)(#4)(#4)(#4)(#4) (#5)(#5)(#5)(#5)(#5)(#5) (#6)(#6)(#6)(#6)(#6)(#6) (#7)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#7)(#7) (#7)(#7)(#8)(#8)(#8)(#8) (#8)(#9)(#9)(#9)(#9)(#9) (#9)(#9)(#9)(#10)(#10)(#10) (#10)(#10) – 392 points
Perfect in every way. – Aaron Zenz
Pitch perfect. – Katie Fee, Associate Marketing Manager, Bloomsbury Children’s Books and Walker Books for Young Readers
A perfect story arc with a main character we all feel for, a mystery and a great cast of supporting characters. – Heather Meagher Stanley
Another one of my titles that will be scratching and clawing for the #1 spot on the final list. It is widely considered the best Newbery of all time, simply because it is a perfect book! – DaNae (The Librariest)
WHY? Because there is no lake at Camp Green Lake and Stanley Yelnats spelled backwards is…Stanley Yelnats. There has never been and may never be a book that perfectly combines literary excellence and popularity. – Walter M. Mayes
THIS one at least is definitely Best quality-wise as well as merely Favorite. I’m sort of sad that I can never read it for the first time again, to watch it all come together; but I reread it often enough happily anyway. It’s one of my books-I-read-as-a-writer-so-I-can-learn-how-to-plot-from-it. Unfortunately usually it just puts me into despair that I can never ever possibly create a book as perfectly crafted as all that. – A.M. Weir (Amy’s Library of ROCK)
Read through each one of these comments and one word comes up over and over again. "Perfect". Perfectly crafted, perfectly combines literary excellence and popularity, perfect perfect perfect. I cannot help but agree. Heck, my husband cannot help but agree. We’re Holes fans through and through. It’s also the book that makes me hungry for onions. I know that’s weird, but I get a real craving for them after reading Holes.
The synopsis from the publisher reads, "As further evidence of his family’s bad fortune, which they attribute to a curse on a distant relative, Stanley Yelnats is sent to a hellish boys’ juvenile detention center in the Texas desert. As punishment, the boys here must each dig a hole every day, five feet deep and five feet across. Ultimately, Stanley ‘digs up the truth’ — and through his experience, finds his first real friend, a treasure, and a new sense of himself. Winner of the 1998 National Book Award for young people’s literature, here is a wildly inventive, darkly humorous tale of crime and punishment — and redemption."
Part of the inspiration for the book is explained to Leonard Marcus in Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy. Said former Fuller Brush man Sachar, "when I start a book, I don’t make a plan. I don’t know where I’m going with it. It just try to find something that intrigues me enough to write about it for at least a week. With Holes I began with the camp. That came out of the fact that I had recently moved from San Francisco to Texas, where it’s so hot in summer and summer lasts forever. I was writing about the heat. Lake Travis is not too far from Austin, and I imagined it being so hot that Lake Travis dried up . . . I got the idea for a juvenile correction camp before I had any characters. And I had Stanley’s great-great-grandfather before I ever got to Stanley." Misery breeds creativity. Love it. He then rewrote it five times before giving it to his editor Frances Foster.
On his website, Sachar answers some questions about the book. I particularly like his answer to a question about what was the most difficult thing in Holes to write. "People often ask me how I managed to tie everything together at the end, but that wasn’t the hard part. I knew how everything was going to fit together. The hard part was laying out the strands throughout the story, telling the story of Kate Barlow and of Elya Yelnats and Elya’s son, without it getting in the way of Stanley’s story. The other problem I had occurred when Stanley was digging his hole for the first time. I wanted the reader to feel what a long, miserable experience this is, digging those 5′ by 5′ holes. But how many times can you say, ‘He dug his shovel back into the dirt and lifted out another shovelful?’ My solution was to interweave two stories, bringing more variety to the tale. Stanley’s anxious first days at Camp Green Lake are set off against the story of his ancestor, Elya Yelnats, whose broken promise to a gypsy results indirectly in young Stanley’s bad luck."
The original title of the book was going to be Wrong Time, Wrong Place, Wrong Kid. Holes sounded more serious, however, so that’s what they went with. Good call. Also Kissing Kate Barlow is, understandably, his favorite character.
On my own part, I’m a particular fan of the lizard/pit/warden standoff at the end of the book. I love the movie to pieces, but if I’d been in charge of the music I would’ve put in the standoff theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly there.
The combination of kid-friendly storytelling that children go gaga for and writing so good that it makes adult critics practically pant is rare. So rare that Holes became one of the very few titles out there to win a Newbery and a National Book Award for Young Person’s Literature at the same time. Anita Silvey goes farther and calls the book "a rare winner of the triple crown in children’s literature (National Book Award, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and Newbery Medal)." This almost never happens and when it does it must be for a pretty remarkable book. There was only one Newbery Honor the year Holes came out and that was A Long Way from Chicago (#64 on the top 100 novels countdown).
There was a sequel called Small Steps that followed the character of Armpit. It was a perfectly serviceable book, but any title that had to follow Holes was going to have a pretty hard row to hoe. Slate Magazine talked a bit about it, within the context of Sachar’s other books, here.
- I love these images from a theatrical production of the book at the University of Texas at Austin.
- You can also read my own interview with Mr. Sachar about the book here.
Booklist gave an amusingly critical review saying, "the ending, in which realism gives way to fable, while undeniably) clever, seems to belong in another book entirely, dulling the impact of all that has gone before. These mismatched parts don’t add up to a coherent whole, but they do deliver a fair share of entertaining and sometimes compelling moments."
In contrast, Roger Sutton personally reviewed the book in Horn Book and said, "We haven’t seen a book with this much plot, so suspensefully and expertly deployed, in too long a time. And the ending will make you cheer–for the happiness the Yelnats family finally finds–and cry, for the knowledge of how they lost so much for so long, all in the words of a lullaby. Louis Sachar has long been a great and deserved favorite among children, despite the benign neglect of critics. But Holes is witness to its own theme: what goes around, comes around. Eventually."
School Library Journal was slightly more subdued, saying, "A multitude of colorful characters coupled with the skillful braiding of ethnic folklore, American legend, and contemporary issues is a brilliant achievement. There is no question, kids will love Holes. "
Not many covers for this one, but enough to keep it interesting.
That’s the 10th Anniversary Edition. I’ve always been inordinately fond of its endpapers.
Now the film is quite good. Better than most book to screen adaptations. Part of this may have to do with the fact that Mr. Sachar had a lot of input. The choice of actors is also brilliant (Eartha Kitt = awesome). The sole flaw is that Stanley is not the chubby dude described in the book. Instead they cast Shia LeBeouf, which was fine since he could act (at the time). Little did the world know that this wasn’t to be the last we heard of his shaggy little head.
Zero could stand to be a little less cute too. But who’s counting?
Filed under: Top 100 Children's Novels (2010)
About Betsy Bird
Betsy 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.
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