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Top 100 Children’s Novels #6: Holes by Louis Sachar

#6 Holes by Louis Sachar (1998)
200 points

This book is possibly the most brilliant book ever written. I have tried to read it in hope of learning some tricks about plotting, but instead I just despair that crafting something so brilliant could never, ever be done. It’s just PERFECT. – Amy M. Weir

I read and loved many a Sachar book as a child, and was surprised to learn that he was still writing when this came out. What I found was something that I never would have expected from the writer of A Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom. A book that pays so much respect to its reader’s by allowing for multiple levels of complexity, thematically and formally, that I was tempted to believe that it was too tough for younger reader’s, until I saw the response it got from kids. Just a masterful book on every level. – Mark Flowers

We’re all friends here, so I won’t mince words – Louis Sachar’s 1999 Newbery winner is the closest thing to a perfect book as I’ve ever read. A cast of intriguing characters tied together by an enticing mystery, this is children’s literature at its finest. – Travis Jonker

One of the few books the Newbery Committee actually got right. EVERYONE loves this book (and the movie was well-done, too.) – Jerry Jarrell

Came to it too old to love it completely, but it is an almost perfect book. – Susan Van Metre

Perfect in every way. – Aaron Zenz

Read through each one of these comments and one word comes up over and over again.  “Perfect”.  Perfectly crafted, perfectly combines literary excellence and popularity, perfect perfect perfect.  I cannot help but agree.  Heck, my husband cannot help but agree.  We’re Holes fans through and through.  It’s also the book that makes me hungry for onions. I know that’s weird, but I get a real craving for them after reading Holes.

The synopsis from the publisher reads, “As further evidence of his family’s bad fortune, which they attribute to a curse on a distant relative, Stanley Yelnats is sent to a hellish boys’ juvenile detention center in the Texas desert. As punishment, the boys here must each dig a hole every day, five feet deep and five feet across. Ultimately, Stanley ‘digs up the truth’ — and through his experience, finds his first real friend, a treasure, and a new sense of himself. Winner of the 1998 National Book Award for young people’s literature, here is a wildly inventive, darkly humorous tale of crime and punishment — and redemption.”

Part of the inspiration for the book is explained to Leonard Marcus in Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy. Said former Fuller Brush man Sachar, “when I start a book, I don’t make a plan. I don’t know where I’m going with it. It just try to find something that intrigues me enough to write about it for at least a week. With Holes I began with the camp. That came out of the fact that I had recently moved from San Francisco to Texas, where it’s so hot in summer and summer lasts forever. I was writing about the heat. Lake Travis is not too far from Austin, and I imagined it being so hot that Lake Travis dried up . . . I got the idea for a juvenile correction camp before I had any characters. And I had Stanley’s great-great-grandfather before I ever got to Stanley.” Misery breeds creativity. Love it.  He then rewrote it five times before giving it to his editor Frances Foster.

On his website, Sachar answers some questions about the book.  I particularly like his answer to a question about what was the most difficult thing in Holes to write.  “People often ask me how I managed to tie everything together at the end, but that wasn’t the hard part. I knew how everything was going to fit together. The hard part was laying out the strands throughout the story, telling the story of Kate Barlow and of Elya Yelnats and Elya’s son, without it getting in the way of Stanley’s story. The other problem I had occurred when Stanley was digging his hole for the first time. I wanted the reader to feel what a long, miserable experience this is, digging those 5′ by 5′ holes. But how many times can you say, ‘He dug his shovel back into the dirt and lifted out another shovelful?’ My solution was to interweave two stories, bringing more variety to the tale. Stanley’s anxious first days at Camp Green Lake are set off against the story of his ancestor, Elya Yelnats, whose broken promise to a gypsy results indirectly in young Stanley’s bad luck.”

The original title of the book was going to be Wrong Time, Wrong Place, Wrong Kid. Holes sounded more serious, however, so that’s what they went with. Good call.  Also Kissing Kate Barlow is, understandably, his favorite character.  For my own part, I’m a particular fan of the lizard/pit/warden standoff at the end of the book. I love the movie to pieces, but if I’d been in charge of the music I would’ve put in the standoff theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly there.

The combination of kid-friendly storytelling that children go gaga for and writing so good that it makes adult critics practically pant is rare. So rare that Holes became one of the very few titles out there to win a Newbery and a National Book Award for Young Person’s Literature at the same time.  Anita Silvey goes farther and calls the book “a rare winner of the triple crown in children’s literature (National Book Award, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and Newbery Medal).”  This almost never happens and when it does it must be for a pretty remarkable book. There was only one Newbery Honor the year Holes came out and that was A Long Way from Chicago.

There was a sequel called Small Steps that followed the character of Armpit. It was a perfectly serviceable book, but any title that had to follow Holes was going to have a pretty hard row to hoe.  Slate Magazine talked a bit about it, within the context of Sachar’s other books, here.  There was also a kind of strange sequel in its own right called Stanley Yelnats’ Survival Guide to Camp Green Lake.  SLJ summed it up this way: “At the end of Holes (Farrar, 1998), Camp Green Lake seemed destined to become a Girl Scout camp. However, as Stanley explains, the award-winning book caught the attention of get-tough politicians who liked the notion of hard work and discipline. So, they reopened the infamous juvenile-detention center, rehired the malicious staff, and, of course, reinstituted the hole-digging regimen. As a camp survivor, Stanley tries to provide new inmates with the vital information they will need to endure their sentences-including a discussion of how the system works, hole-construction techniques, and desert wildlife dangers. He enhances his account with anecdotes about his former campmates, elaborating on incidents and characters from Holes. The book is written in pop survival-manual style and even includes sample situations and survival questions, although the answers are often quite unexpected. Familiarity with the original book is essential to appreciating this highly unusual sequel, which both explains and extends the adventure.”

  • I love these images from a theatrical production of the book at the University of Texas at Austin.
  • You can also read my own interview with Mr. Sachar about the book here.

Booklist gave an amusingly critical review saying, “the ending, in which realism gives way to fable, while undeniably) clever, seems to belong in another book entirely, dulling the impact of all that has gone before. These mismatched parts don’t add up to a coherent whole, but they do deliver a fair share of entertaining and sometimes compelling moments.”

In contrast, Roger Sutton personally reviewed the book in Horn Book and said, “We haven’t seen a book with this much plot, so suspensefully and expertly deployed, in too long a time. And the ending will make you cheer–for the happiness the Yelnats family finally finds–and cry, for the knowledge of how they lost so much for so long, all in the words of a lullaby. Louis Sachar has long been a great and deserved favorite among children, despite the benign neglect of critics. But Holes is witness to its own theme: what goes around, comes around. Eventually.”

School Library Journal was slightly more subdued, saying, “A multitude of colorful characters coupled with the skillful braiding of ethnic folklore, American legend, and contemporary issues is a brilliant achievement. There is no question, kids will love Holes. ”

I’m fond of fan covers like this from James BW Lewis or this one.  Not a lot of real ones out there but enough to keep things interesting.

Now the film is quite good.  Better than most book to screen adaptations.  Part of this may have to do with the fact that Mr. Sachar had a lot of input.  The choice of actors is also brilliant (Eartha Kitt = awesome).  The sole flaw is that Stanley is not the chubby dude described in the book.  Instead they cast Shia LeBeouf, which was fine since he could act (at the time).  Little did the world know that this wasn’t to be the last we heard of his shaggy little head.

Zero could stand to be a little less cute too.  But who’s counting?

Here’s a good book talk for the title as well.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Susan Sarandon as the Warden is way up there on my list of Movie Versions of Book Characters That Could Have Walked Straight Out of The Book/My Head. I’m in awe of that. I love the movie in general, but even that movie still has a “The book was still better” issue– but only because the book is JUST THAT GOOD.

  2. The reason the movie was so good is that Louis Sachar wrote the script. They usually take a story clear away from the author and bowdlerize it to the nth degree.

  3. Beverly says:

    I sometimes have discussions with random kids at my library about movies based on books. They, like me, are often purists, and appalled at how little a movie resembles the book. I hold up Sachar for them as a hero, explaining how he stuck to his guns and refused to let them change the plot at all. Why is it that movies that stick closely to the books are always better movies, and ultimately perform better at the box office, but movie corporations assume that all kids like the same things, and doggedly keep changing novels’ stories???

  4. But the Warden is Sigourney Weaver, yes?

  5. This is the book that made me want to be a writer. It inspired and intimidated me all at the same time. It still does! It’s a masterpiece.

  6. THAT’S WHO I MEANT, rams, yes! Sorry. Her.