I was already familiar with Sachar and his alter ego, “Louis the yard teacher,” from the humorous Wayside School series. My children loved all three of those books, particularly the first one, Sideways Stories from Wayside School.
So, I downloaded Holes to my Kindle and started to read it aloud to my children without any further parental due diligence.
Chapter One begins like this:
“There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.
The only trees are two old oaks on the eastern edge of the ‘lake.’ A hammock is stretched between the two trees, and a log cabin stands behind that.
The campers are forbidden to lie in the hammock. It belongs to the Warden. The Warden owns the shade.”
I stopped right there and thought to myself: Dammit. This book is about a juvenile detention facility!
That’s an unusual setting for a middle grade chapter book. In real life, there is nothing fluffy about the juvenile justice system in the United States.
Wanting to avoid this heavy topic, I suggested to my girls that we read a different book and return to Holes later—you know, in about 3-5 years.**
But they were already hooked on the story. I gave in, knowing that at least I’d be able to answer their questions about the setting and the plot as we went along. As I said in Reading Aloud: Ephemeral Entertainment I Wish Would Last Longer:
“It’s so interesting to read books with my kids. Not only is it an opportunity for me to model literacy for them and assess their reading progress, but it also gives me a chance to talk to my children about topics that wouldn’t come up otherwise.”
With Holes, I also got to know my daughters better by witnessing their reactions to the topics in the book.
Holes features teenager Stanley Yelnats, who goes to Camp Green Lake as a result of a family curse attributed to his “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather.” A judge mistakenly finds Stanley responsible for stealing a pair of stinky sneakers that had once belonged to a famous athlete. Now a “delinquent,” Stanley has to go to either Camp Green Lake or prison. Stanley chooses the camp. He’s never been to a camp before.
Unfortunately for Stanley, Camp Green Lake is nothing like summer camp. It’s a cruel program that forces children to dig holes in the desert under the Texas sun. Stanley won’t survive this brutal experience unless he finds a way to break his family’s curse.
Sachar’s Holes has earned many honors, including the Newbery Award in 1999. The Committee Chair called the novel, “As timeless as folklore and as outrageously funny as a tall tale…”
While I agree that Holes has its humorous moments, I wouldn’t call this middle grade novel “outrageously funny.” This book, which even includes a racially-motivated murder, made my soft-hearted daughters cry several times.
First, they were angry about the miscarriage of justice that led to Stanley’s confinement at Camp Green Lake, which included a delayed trial, lack of legal representation, and irrelevant evidence:
“… Stanley’s trial was delayed several months. His parents couldn’t afford a lawyer. ‘You don’t need a lawyer,’ his mother had said. ‘Just tell the truth.’”
“Stanley had a poster [of the athlete who once owned the stinky sneakers] hanging on the wall of his bedroom… It had been taken by the police and was used as evidence of his guilt in the courtroom.”
My daughters have only a vague understanding of what lawyers do — and they are far too young to know about In Re Gault, the 1967 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Constitution guarantees minors the right to legal representation in delinquency proceedings — but they still believe that Stanley deserved to have a lawyer even though his family couldn’t afford one. As my second daughter (younger by six minutes) explained, “Lawyers are there to help people, and Stanley needed help.”
Her twin sister took issue with the relevance of the poster and questioned why this case was prosecuted. She said, “That poster doesn’t mean a thing! I bet tons of kids have the same one in their bedrooms. This crime doesn’t sound very serious to me. It’s just smelly old sneakers.”
I’m joking when I say that my daughters are future public defenders—they’re only seven!—but the way they identified the “holes” in the case against Stanley made my heart swell with pride. This novel has reinforced their belief that everyone in our society deserves to be treated fairly, even those accused of committing crimes.
Second, my daughters were shocked by the brutal conditions at Camp Green Lake, and they became emotional whenever anyone showed kindness to the boys confined there. For example, my second child teared up when Camp Green Lake employee Mr. Pendanski says to Stanley, “[E]veryone makes mistakes. You may have done some bad things, but that doesn’t mean you’re a bad kid.”
We had to revisit those words, which my daughter called “the nicest thing I’ve ever heard,” when Mr. Pendanski shows that he is also capable of doing “some bad things.”
It’s one of many important lessons in this outstanding work of children’s literature.
*Thank you to Maggie from Macarons & Paperbacks for recommending this book.
** According to Amazon, Holes is recommended for children ages 8-12. My twins are 7, but often read books recommended for slightly older children, depending on the subject matter.
***This book is the basis for a 2003 film with the same name. I’ve never seen it.