for your New Year’s resolution to read more children’s lit

Because if that isn’t one of your New Year’s resolutions, it should be.

When I was grading my children’s lit students’ response papers on contemporary realism, for which at least five of them chose to write about Louis Sachar’s Holes, I realized that I had never read this novel, though I had seen the 2003 movie (which is excellent, and which I’ll address shortly).  So during my Christmas break, I decided to spend an afternoon reading it.  Now, I’m pretty sure I’ll use it as an assigned text if I teach the course again next fall.  Let me tell you why Holes is so good.

In slightly over 200 pages, Sachar weaves a five-generation family saga together with a hundred-year-old mystery and the story of a teenage boy’s developing self-esteem and moral consciousness.  In the process, he meaningfully addresses the penal system, homelessness, and race relations in America.  Yet there’s nothing pretentious or alienating about this novel.  It’s exciting, it’s funny, and it’s perfectly pitched toward that elusive reading demographic, elementary to middle school-aged boys.

When I get around to teaching Holes, I’ll have to comb through it to find all the symbolism, parallelism, and other literary devices that Sachar uses in such a not heavy-handed way.  For now, here’s one example: the situational irony.  I love the little detail at the end of the novel that tells us that Camp Green Lake ends up turning into a Girl Scout camp, a wonderful conclusion to all Mr. Sir’s lame jokes about how it isn’t a Girl Scout camp.  As ironic reversals go, this ranks right up there with Haman’s nasty shock in the book of Esther, my current go-to example of situational irony.

I’ll also have to find time in the course to show the movie, which is one of the most faithful page-to-screen adaptations I’ve ever seen (not that I valorize faithfulness; I understand that books and films are two totally different media), probably because Sachar himself wrote the screenplay.  (He also appears in a brief cameo–he’s the balding guy that Sam the Onion Man tells to rub onion juice on his scalp.)  One thing I appreciate about the film is that all the characters from the book are in it; none of them are collapsed together for simplicity’s sake, as so often happens in adaptations.  I also think it’s important that each of the actors who portrays one of the boys in D Tent is the same race as the character in the book, since race is such a major (though relatively subtle) theme in this novel.

The one place where the movie diverges significantly from the book is also one of its areas of strength: the casting of the protagonist, Stanley Yelnats.  Shia LaBeouf plays this role with great sensitivity and humor (whatever he may be now, Shia used to be a really good actor), but he doesn’t fit the novel’s description of Stanley as a very overweight kid.  Stanley’s weight is important to the themes and even the plot of the novel, and it adds painful overtones to scenes that are already emotionally fraught (like when ZigZag tries to force Stanley to eat his cookie).  I wonder if some young fans of the novel were disappointed that the movie didn’t address this element–especially, perhaps, some kids who identified with Stanley.  I was a little disappointed myself, but it’s my only complaint about the film.

In conclusion, you should read Holes, watch the movie, and let me know what you think.  And get working on that New Year’s resolution.

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