Monday, October 24, 2011

Mainstream Author Highlight: Louis Sachar

My daughter has been asking me to review Louis Sachar's Newbery award-winning novel Holes, for months. Holes is one of her favorite books. She has read it several times a year for the past three years. Sachar is a prolific, widely acclaimed author, and many of his books are popular choices for in-school read-alouds (at least at the school my children attend).

The most compelling reason to read Louis Sachar's books is the way he captures the lives and personalities of children who are disconnected, disillusioned, or disenfranchised. His main characters are usually those for whom the "system" is not working well. Whether they are in school, the juvenile justice system, or working, they often don't fit in with the majority. Sachar's books will appeal especially to reluctant readers and those who have trouble "fitting in." I was surprised my daughter likes Holes so well, since the hero is not particularly cute, funny, or endearing, and the mystery involves deadly, yellow-spotted lizards, poisoned nail polish and a lynching gone wrong.

In Holes, Sachar tells the story of Stanley Yelnats, who is sent to a "camp" for delinquent boys. There, he is made to dig giant holes, every day. Little does Stanley know, the ominous Warden is using the boys to help her solve a mystery. Stanley's story is interspersed with tales of "Kissin' Kate Barlow," a schoolteacher-turned-outlaw. Holes uses Stanley's new-found courage, a one-hundred-year-old mystery and unexpected adventure to raise interesting issues about race, injustice, friendship, and resiliency. The end of the Newbery-award winning novel ties all the story threads together, in a triumphant and satisfying conclusion.

Small Steps takes place after Holes, and revolves around Zero and Armpit (two of the secondary characters in Holes). Appropriate for older readers (14 and up), Small Steps has a particularly profound theme. Since Armpit has been released from Camp Green Lake, he is trying to make the best of his life. He knows, in order to be successful, he must focus on "small steps," instead of getting overwhelmed by the big picture. When Zero finds Armpit and ropes him into a crazy, not-quite-legal scheme, Armpit finds himself having to make choices and face consequences. Slightly more far-fetched than Holes, teens will nevertheless appreciate Armpit's dilemmas, as he is thrust into a friendship with a beautiful, teenage rock star. Teens can learn a lot from Armpit's choices (good and bad). They will also learn a lot from Armpit's close friendship with Ginny, a younger, disabled girl.

There's a Boy in the Girl's Bathroom
should be required reading for all teachers and school counselors, as well as children who need help understanding the "naughty" child in their class. Fifth-grader, Bradley Chalkers is known for being mean and never turning in homework. Sachar expertly gets inside Bradley's head and explores his motivations, ideas, and feelings. Bradley routinely cuts up his homework, punches kids in his class, and tells his counselor he hates her. However, his counselor's persistent kindness works a slow, but definite change in Bradley, and ends as a touching, tear-jerker.

Sachar is also well-known for his Sideways Stories from Wayside School series. The first book is a collection of silly, funny, and bizarre stories about students in an elementary school classroom. The humor is a bit dark--the teacher turns naughty students into apples in order to eat them, and a rat tries to disguise itself as a student--but Sachar clearly empathizes with the students.

What I Like: I like Sachar's unique perspective. Often, books highlight the "good" students, who enjoy school, or they villianize teachers and parents. Sachar does neither, and instead, showcases the good aspects of even the "rough" kids' personalities.

I also like the way Sachar shows realistic choices and their consequences, both positive and negative. All of his books leave lots of room for discussion and learning.

What I Dislike: Some of Sachar's rough or unsavory characters swear in his books for older readers (Holes and Small Steps). Also, God's name is taken in vain occasionally. Alth0ugh the swearing adds a realistic dimension to the characters, it is unnecessary and detracts from the overall positive message of the books.

Also, Sachar's humor takes a little getting used to. It is darker than most children's books.

Overall Rating: Good, due to language, but very good in terms of content.

Age Appeal: Varies--6 to Young Adult

Publisher Info: (Holes) Yearling, 1998; ISBN: 978-0-440-41480-3; Paperback, 233 pages, $6.99

Buy Holes now at for $5.99.

Buy Holes at for $5.04.

Buy Small Steps at for $9.99.

Buy There's a Boy in the Girl's Bathroom at for $6.99.

Buy Sideways Stories at Wayside School at for $5.99.

Special Note: While Holes has been made into a movie, I have not seen it. Also, in Small Steps, teen pop star, Kaira DeLeon, mentions many of her songs are about sex, but she is still a virgin.
PLOT SPOILER AHEAD: In Holes, an African-American man is shot for kissing Kate Barlow (who was intending to marry him).

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Kathy Cassel said...

I believe my daughter mentioned there was swearing in the book, or perhaps it was in the movie Holes.

Erin said...


Thank you so much for reminding me of this. I apologize the initial review posted without mention of the language. The updated review accurately reflects concerns about both "Holes" and "Small Steps." Thank you again, for pointing this out, and thanks for reading CCBR.