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25 august 2014

Holes was the book that got me interested in the Newbery Medal – or rather, got me re-interested.

I got my copy of Holes in 1999 at Chicago's great Unabridged Bookstore, which, then as now, goes in for the "staff picks" method of marketing more than any other bookshop I've been in. Some fin-de-siècle staffer was touting Holes like there was no tomorrow. I bought it almost in spite of the Newbery sticker on the dust jacket; I had snottily presumed that Medal books must be relentlessly mediocre.

I was actually kind of right about that; Newbery Medal winners vary greatly in quality, the average one being far from the best children's book of its year. As I've noted before, an annual award needs some benefit of the doubt: nobody is going to infallibly predict future classics on strict deadline. The only thing that really tarnishes the Newbery Medal more than any other annual gong is that its books are granted classic status perpetually, and don't always live up to it.

I didn't really know that in 1999. When I was an actual child, I read only two Newbery Medal winners. Oddly enough, and far from deliberately, they were the first two: Hendrik Willem van Loon's Story of Mankind (1922) and Hugh Lofting's Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (1923). I read all the Doctor Dolittle books, for that matter: I had a lovely slipcase set of paperback editions, and they spoke to the infant armchair ethologist in me. The Story of Mankind still passed for high-middlebrow culture in the 1960s, the kind of thing cultured children would read while waiting to grow old enough to start ordering volumes of Will and Ariel Durant via the coupons in the back of better magazines. I have no idea how either of these 1920s classics would hold up today, and it may be a while before I find out.

Holes grabbed me in 1999, and holds up brilliantly 15 years later. It had the marks of a classic from the beginning. Louis Sachar combines archetype and innovation in a unique suspension. Despite its success, there aren't many books like it; despite Sachar's creds as a series writer, it hasn't begotten a series of its own. (There's a follow-up novel called Small Steps, much less well-known, and not even so much a sequel as a spin-off.) Holes is one of those novels where everything falls into place, where you believe, for the space of a couple of hundred pages, that you're reading something put together long before in literary history, a fiction with a kind of inevitability about it.

Holes is part chain-gang tale, part Western, part gang-of-misfits story. It's like a pre-teen version of Cat Ballou meets The Defiant Ones, with scraps of other genres (immigrant saga, gypsy romance, Robinsonade) tossed in for good measure. Or bad. It's not a promising mix, and I can't imagine it was easy to pitch to a publisher.

Holes has lots of fairy-tale elements, including pervasive violence that is a degree sharper and more graphic than one tends to see in children's novels. That tension between the fantastic and the realistic is at the heart of the book's success. It's about the all-too-real tough love that the juvenile justice system imposes on young offenders. But it puts its protagonist into his intolerable prison in the goofiest, least possible way. Stanley Yelnats is sentenced to dig holes in the desert because he stole (though he didn't steal) a famous smelly pair of sneakers.

The novel can thus offer an appropriately trenchant critique of mass incarceration, while providing an escapist adventure story full of treasure hunts, poisonous lizards, elixirous onions, kissing bandits, and the time it never rained. It can comment on race in America while bracketing that commentary into a legendary past and a present full of wacky characters named Armpit and Zigzag.

The plot of the novel is both detailed and deft, every loose end interwoven and accounted for like the laces that hold together the book's ubiquitous sneakers. And yet one barely sees the construction at all, till a detail introduced chapters earlier suddenly turns into a crucial plot point.

There aren't many books like Holes, as I've said, but that's partly by definition. If the sui generis becomes formulaic, it ceases to be sui generis. You can't demand lots more like it without getting tired of the original. But its balances would be hard to achieve in any genre. Once in a while there's an imaginative work that gets everything right with confident panache. Instead of wishing for more of them, we should just enjoy the ones we have.

Sachar, Louis. Holes. New York: Farrar, 1998.