Holes by Louis Sachar
Published by Scholastic on September 2, 2000
Series: Holes #1
Genres: Adventure, Children's, Fiction, Middle Grade, Young Adult
Length: 233 pages Source: Scholastic Book Fair
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Stanley tries to dig up the truth in this inventive and darkly humorous tale of crime and punishment—and redemption.
Stanley Yelnats is under a curse. A curse that began with his no-good-dirty-rotten- pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather and has since followed generations of Yelnats. Now Stanley has been unjustly sent to a boys' detention center, Camp Green Lake, where the warden makes the boys "build character" by spending all day, every day, digging holes: five feet wide and five feet deep. It doesn't take long for Stanley to realize there's more than character improvement going on at Camp Green Lake. The boys are digging holes because the warden is looking for something. Stanley tries to dig up the truth in this inventive and darkly humorous tale of crime and punishment—and redemption.
Holes was required reading when I was in fourth grade, and I gotta be honest, it still holds up 20 years later.
This book tells the impossible story of Stanley Yelnats IV, who is sent to prison because he was convicted of stealing a pair of charity auction shoes from a homeless shelter. He’s put away pretty swiftly, sent to attend Camp Green Lake for juvenile delinquents. The state hopes it will help him build characters.
Of course, it’s really all the fault of his dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather.
At Camp Green Lake, the boys each dig a five-by-five foot hole. Not because they’re looking for something! Nope. Because it builds character. Puh-lease.
There are a lot of holes in Holes. For one, Stanley is put away without much evidence and as far as I can tell, he’s not even assigned a lawyer by the court. Plus the odds of running into the descendant of the woman who cursed his family? Zero (pun intended). But all this – this is where I remind myself that this is a middle grade novel and it’s supposed to be light. No need for me to dig into the realism – goodness knows, its intended audience won’t.
There are a few cringe-worthy moments. There are exactly four instances in Holes where Sachar uses offensive racial terms. He refers to Madame Zeroni as an “old Egyptian woman” and says that the Yelnats family was cursed by a “Gypsy”. Both these terms could be easily stripped away without affecting the turnout of the book, and it would prevent the perpetuation of an offensive racial stereotype. Additionally, Sam is called “Negro” twice. Sam’s storylines are from over 100 years ago, and the term would be accurate, but I’d still say it isn’t wholly necessary.
I don’t think this is enough to throw the book on the bonfire. I think we need to look at this as educated adults, and educate future generations to be better.
Honestly, Louis Sachar has some racial commentary in Holes that I’m really impressed by, despite the above moments. There’s a moment when Stanley is looking at the boys of group D and acknowledges that there’s three black boys, three white boys, and one hispanic boy, but “on the Lake, they were all the same rusty brown of dirt”. How many MG novels do you know of that include racial commentary that aren’t specifically about racism? Now roll back, how many MG books from the 90s do you know of that do that?
The characters are very well developed for MG – Stanely is conscious about his size, worried about his social place. He has regrets and cares about his mother and is willing to help people. He’s not a fearless hero. He’s flawed and relatable. Zero, who barely speaks until 70% of the way through the book, is given just enough time so the reader can come to the conclusion that he is a sweet cinnamon roll who must be loved. Even the other boys have distinct personalities.
As for the story? It’s still fun. It’s simple, but there’s a sweet love story in the flashbacks, and a good friendship between Zero and Stanley. The villains have different levels of evil, most of them you can still be a bit sympathetic for (even though you don’t want them to win). Besides, curse stories are always fun. While this book will appeal more to younger crowds, picking it up for a nostalgia read was a delight.
I think Holes is getting a little dated to be taught in schools (the low-tech world makes it less relatable for a modern audience) but I still think young bookworms can get a lot of it. And the film is still a solid choice for family movie night.
Oh. And if you like the way Louis Sachar weaves important social themes into books for young people, you have to check out Small Steps. It’s the sequel to Holes and it’s absolutely FANTASTIC.
Holes stays on the shelf.
Hands down, this is a book worth owning.
It takes up so little space on my shelf, and it’s definitely a nostalgia book. But, as you know from Paperquake, I won’t keep books JUST because of nostalgia. Ultimately, it’s a fun story. I love curse-breaking books, and good friendship stories, and good historical fiction, and this is all three. It’s may not be age appropriate for me, but frankly… I don’t care.
A good book is a good book.