LOUIS SACHAR’S DISLIKE of the summer heat kindled the writing of 1998’s best Texas book. Holes chronicles life at a hellish boot camp for juvenile delinquents, whose punishment is the endless digging of holes under a grueling sun, and the novel has won a slew of kudos for the Austin author, most notably a National Book Award. The kicker is that, despite having sold 225,000 copies in hardcover, it’s a children’s book. Sachar is a household name to millions of schoolkids, but few adults knew of him before the success of Holes.
The 45-year-old Sachar, who was born in New York and grew up in California, has written twenty books but is best known for his wacky series about a thirty-story elementary school with one classroom per floor. He published the first tale, Sideways Stories From Wayside School, at age 24, after signing up for an education course his senior year at Berkeley because “it sounded easy—helping out a teacher at school.” To his surprise, it became his favorite class: “After the heavy world of the Berkeley campus, I loved seeing those bright, chipper faces.” For some reason, “the first book really hit in Texas,” he recalls. “I got lots of mail from kids in Houston, Dallas, all over.” One batch of letters came from fifth graders at Davis Elementary in Plano, where, he says, “some of the girls had written things like, ‘Our cute, single teacher thinks you’re really great!’” He obligingly showed up for a signing and fell not for the cute, single teacher but for the cute, single counselor, Carla Askew. They married, and she eventually persuaded him to move to Texas. He still answers all his fan mail—fifty or more letters a week during the school year. Most relate to the Wayside School series, of which some seven million copies are in print.
Although Holes is Sachar’s first young-adult novel, it has much in common with his works for little kids. His main characters are empathetic misfits—bookworms, klutzes, class clowns. Silliness abounds—for example, the hero of Holes is the palindromically named Stanley Yelnats—but scariness balances it out, with a gypsy curse and monsters aplenty. Sachar even wonders if international readers (Holes has been translated into fifteen languages) “believe that poisonous yellow-spotted lizards really exist in Texas.” The book also boasts a remarkably tightly woven plot; Sachar leaves not one thread untucked at novel’s end. About all Holes is missing, in fact, is an adult audience. So listen to your inner child, and dig in.