Tuesday, January 25, 2011

1999: Holes by Louis Sachar

I read Holes, by Louis Sachar, in a college YA literature class, and since then it’s been one of my favorite books ever.  I probably should have saved it for later this year in case I hit a slump and needed a book I knew I liked, but I just couldn’t wait!  It was calling to me.

Holes is the story of Stanley Yelnats, an overweight boy in Texas convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to Camp Green Lake for 18 months of discipline.  On Stanley’s arrival, he discovers that the lake has long ago dried up, leaving a vast hot desert.  The boys at the camp are forced to dig a hole five feet deep and five feet in diameter every day; I’d say “rain or shine,” but it never rains in Camp Green Lake.  The only way to get a day off is to find “something interesting,” and Stanley soon learns that the boys aren’t just digging to improve their character.  The Warden is looking for something special that has been buried in the dirt of the lake.

One of the best elements of this book is the interweaving of many different stories.  Our third-person narrator frequently shifts away from Stanley’s present at Camp Green Lake to tell us not only stories from his past but also stories from his family’s history and Green Lake’s history.  We see what happened to Stanley’s great-great-grandfather Elya Yelnats in Latvia, and why this makes the Yelnats family believe they are cursed.  We learn about Elya’s son Stanley being robbed in the Texas desert and left for dead.  We see Green Lake 110 years ago, when it was a town on the shore of the biggest lake in Texas and home to Katherine Barlow the schoolteacher, Sam the onion man, and the villainous Trout Walker.  We also watch the great outlaw Kissin’ Kate Barlow meet her end.

The immediate benefit of all these mingling stories is that we readers aren’t stuck at dusty, hot Camp Green Lake the entire time; we get to see Stanley’s home, a historic town by a lake, and a beautiful mountain stream.  Another plus is that while Sachar snugly fits these stories together like a jigsaw puzzle, he leaves a few pieces for us readers to put in ourselves.  He doesn’t tell us everything—he gives us a little mental work to do, some little mysteries to solve, and that makes the story even more fascinating. 

Best of all are the thoughtful questions these stories raise for book clubs and school classes to discuss together, or for kids to tangle with on their own.  Stanley believes he and his family were cursed by the actions of his “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather,” and later in the book he feels that perhaps instead it was his destiny to come to Camp Green Lake.  But many of the events in the book occur because of choices that he and the other characters make, and if they hadn’t made them, the outcome of the book—and their lives—would have been much different.  Then again, we also see that the characters are very deeply affected by the actions of past characters; Kate Barlow, Sam the onion man, and even Stanley’s great-grandfather are directly responsible for things that happen to Stanley, his friend Zero, the Warden, and everyone else.

Are the characters ruled by fate, or by their own actions?  The book gives no answers; it’s up to the reader to decide.  Early in the book, Mr. Pendanski, one of the counselors, tells Stanley, “You’re the reason you are here.  You’re responsible for yourself.  You messed up your life and it’s up to you to fix it.  No one else is going to do it for you—for any of you.”  We have all heard this idea of personal responsibility before, but we also know that Stanley really didn’t mess up his life, really didn’t commit the crime for which he was convicted.  This moment is a microcosm of Holes.  Is Stanely there because of the curse, or destiny, or coincidence?  There is plenty of evidence to argue either answer, or rather, for each reader to find an answer that works for him or her.

Another tantalizing issue in the book is that of villains.  Some of the villains in the story are clearly bad, but others elicit conflicting feelings in the reader.  The Warden is at different times kind, intimidating, terrifying, and pitiable.  Mr. Pendanski is friendly, but his treatment of Zero is cruel.  Kissin’ Kate Barlow is the best example of a shades-of-gray villain:  she begins as Miss Katherine Barlow, a highly likeable schoolteacher, and we hurt with her when tragedy strikes.  But her transformation into murderous outlaw is uncomfortable.  We understand why she does what she does…but what she’s doing is robbing and committing murder.

What makes a person bad or good?  Where do we draw the line?  These questions become even more difficult to answer when we consider that our main characters are a group of juvenile delinquents.  They have done wrong and are being punished.  Yet we cheer for them and see them as Good Guys, oppressed by the Bad Guy counselors.  The boys’ Good Guy status is jeopardized, however, by their occasional mistreatment of Stanley.  Even Stanley isn’t always a Good Guy:  he refuses to teach Zero to read, with the lame excuse that digging tires him.  There’s plenty of fodder for thought and discussion in this book about what makes a person good or bad, or if we can even evaluate people with these absolute terms.

Another great element of this book is that it also addresses racial issues.  The boys in Stanley’s tent are black, white, and Hispanic, and for the most part, this doesn’t figure into their interactions and relationships.  But it becomes an issue when Zero begins to spend an hour each day digging in Stanley’s hole.  This would inevitably frustrate the other boys, but since Stanley is white and Zero is black, they begin to taunt the pair, asking if Zero is Stanley’s slave.  We readers know this isn’t the case, but we can also see from the other boys’ point of view, and it doesn’t look good.  This scene gets interrupted by other events, and Sachar doesn’t give the group of boys a resolution to this conflict, smartly leaving it up to the readers to think about.

The characters in the erstwhile town of Green Lake have a bigger problem with race, however.  When Sam the onion man, who is black, and Katherine the schoolteacher, who is white, express their love with a kiss, the consequences are tragic.  It is very easy for the reader to see how wrong it is to judge people by the color of their skin, especially when in earlier scenes we see the townspeople clamoring to do business with Sam and to learn from Katherine regardless of race.  Yet Sachar is not heavy-handed, and once again leaves it up to the reader to think about.  “You make the decision,” the narrator says.  “Whom did God punish?” 

Sachar’s invitation to his readers to explore so many important issues brings to mind a line in the definitions of the Newbery terms.  In defining the “for children” part of “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,” the ALSC says, “The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.”  This is enormously true of Holes.  The plot may be intricate, but it is deftly written and easy for a young reader to follow.  The characters and their dilemmas may be full of gray areas, but the book is never preachy and gives readers the freedom to make their own decisions.  Also, while my review concentrates on the more serious and thought-provoking aspects of the book, it’s still a lot of fun to read.  There’s plenty to attract a child reader: adventure, stinky shoes, singing to a pig, funny nicknames, deadly lizards, and the fascination of just plain digging a hole (“Every kid in the world wants to dig a great big hole,” says Stanley’s tentmate X-Ray).  This book is most definitely a distinguished contribution to American literature for children.  The theme, plot, characters, and setting are all well-developed, thoughtful, beautifully written, and entertaining to read.

You might like this book if you like…
  • Mysteries
  • Survival stories, especially ones that take place in the desert
  • Stories about the Wild West
  • Contemporary fiction with modern-day kids and modern-day problems
  • A touch of fantasy, or to put it a different way, exercising your “willing suspension of disbelief”
  • A mix of humor and seriousness
  • Mostly male characters (this is a bit of a “guy” book, but girls can definitely still fully appreciate it.)
  • A realistic, imperfect main character
  • The Holes movie
  • A little bit of romance
  • Buried treasure
  • Stories in which a character learns to read
  • Onions

P.S.  I decided to take this opportunity to finally watch the movie version of Holes from 2003.  I was not disappointed!  I usually try to view books and movies-from-books as separate stories told in different languages, but it’s often unavoidable to decide that one incarnation is better than the other.  Gladly, that’s not the case with Holes; it’s an excellent movie that tells the story of Sachar’s book in its own way, with its own strengths.  This is probably because Sachar also wrote the screenplay, and clearly his storytelling abilities extend beyond the novel format.  He made some alterations to certain details in the story, but they are minor, and they suit the big screen translation well.  I felt like I was watching the book come to life, like I was seeing everything I’d created in my imagination play out before my eyes.  I think this is my favorite book-to-movie experience yet.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Newbery News

Sorry for my silence!  I set some new goals for my own writing, and have had little time to write anything else.  I’ll have my next review up very soon—Holes by Louis Sachar.  In the meantime, there’s been plenty of Newbery-related news in the past couple weeks, so I’ll give you the highlights here.
  • First of all, I’ve discovered yet another blogger who’s reading all the Newbery medalists, so I’ll add her to my list on the right.  You can find her at Newbery Quest.
  • Margi Preus, who just won a Newbery Honor for her book Heart of a Samurai, is big news on Japanese TV.  The main character of this novel is based on a real figure in Japanese history, and her novel is a great opportunity for American kids to learn about Japanese culture.  She was filmed back in November for a morning news segment, and soon they’ll be interviewing her again to ask about her Newbery.  The full story is here.

  • You may have already heard about the Today Show debacle.  If not, here’s what happened:  For the past eleven years, NBC’s Today Show has interviewed the winners of the Caldecott and Newbery Medals the morning after their win.  However, this January 11th, Erin Stead and Clare Vanderpool were nowhere to be found on the show.  At first it seemed that the show may have been too busy reporting on the shooting in Tucson, but then people like Monica Edinger noticed that they did have time for an 8-minute interview with Snooki about the book she’d just published.  Various blogs and book sites have now reported on this (here are some reactions at School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, and the blogs Gotta Book and Collecting Children’s Books), and a Facebook page was started to encourage the Today Show to try again. 

    I’m definitely unhappy about The Snub, but I don’t know what I can say about this that hasn’t already been said more eloquently by many people.  No, wait, I do have one thing to say:  stop beating up on Snooki.  No, it’s not fair that she got to talk about her book and the winners of the oldest and most well-known children’s book awards didn’t.  But it’s not Snooki’s fault, it’s NBC’s.  They decided whom to put on the air.  So let's all Like the Facebook group, direct our frustration at NBC, and leave Snooki alone.  (I'd like it if we could all stop ragging on her book so much, too.  I think we're safe in saying it's probably not a good book, but perhaps it'll introduce some new readers to books, and bring the two circles of this Venn diagram closer together.  Maybe Snooki herself will be inspired to try a third book.)

Friday, January 14, 2011

2007 Honor: Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson

I’ve been wanting to read Hattie Big Sky for a long time.  I mean, just look at the cover!  It’s gorgeous!  Doesn’t it look like this girl is about to have all kinds of adventure?  In Technicolor?  Reading Sarah Plain and Tall seemed like the perfect opportunity to read this book and learn a bit more about homesteading.  However, it wasn’t what I expected.  I didn’t love it like I thought I would.  But it has a shiny sticker on it, so that means it’s reallyreally good, right?  Yes, and we’ll get to that in a moment; today I'll start a discussion that I know I’ll be continuing throughout this year.

Service flags are frequently seen in Hattie Big Sky.
Hattie Big Sky is the story of 16-year-old Hattie Inez Brooks, an orphan who is hot-potatoed among her relatives until she learns that her uncle has died and left her his Montana homestead claim.  She travels out west to prove up on the claim and finally have a home of her own.  Her 1918 is spent building a fence and cultivating her property; making friends, who become closer than her real family; writing to the boy she secretly crushes on as he fights in France; penning articles on her homesteading life for the paper of her most recent “hometown”; and trying to protect her property and friends from the local wildlife, the Spanish flu, and the truly terrifying Dawson County Council of Defense.  This last is a group of local men who attempt to root out disloyalty and Germans wherever they can—often focusing on Hattie’s incredibly kind German-born neighbor, Karl Mueller, and his American wife and step-children.

Hattie's train ride to Montana took several days.
This book is a richly detailed portrayal of both homesteading life and America during WWI.  I don’t know much about either, but judging from the Acknowledgments at the beginning of the book and the Author’s Note and Further Reading at the end, Kirby Larson performed lots and lots and lots and lots of research, which makes me feel that I can really trust what she’s written.  The title character is based on Larson’s own great-grandmother, the real Hattie Inez Brooks, which only reinforces my trust in her research.  I occasionally wondered how much of the book was fiction and how much was fact, but that didn't really distract me from enjoying the story.

Hattie uses a stone boat to move supplies around her farm.
 The atmosphere of fear that Larson writes about is another terrific element of this book.  Everyone is afraid for their loved ones fighting overseas, and for the boys who may be drafted next.  Many people are also afraid of spies and disloyalty in their own hometown, and still others are afraid of what the disloyalty-fearing will do next.  The men on the Council of Defense intimidate and bully everyone around them, going so far as to beat a man in the middle of town and to commit arson.  The palpable fear throughout this book is expertly portrayed, and reminiscent of many other times in human history—including the present—when fearful people have gained too much power over others.  Larson writes in her Author’s Note that she began the book in 2003, and found parallels in her research to current events like the renaming of French fries as Freedom fries.  Reading the book in 2010, I couldn't help but see the Tea Party in the Council of Defense.  

Hattie exchanges letters with Charlie, stationed in France.
Hattie's reaction to the fear surrounding her on all sides is very real, and certainly admirable.  She behaves how I would want to behave in her situation.  Identifying with Hattie, especially through her fear, is easy to do in this book.  She's a very likeable and interesting character.  However, identifying with her makes the ending of the book difficult:  Hattie does not get the ending I wanted for her.  While this initially pissed me off, it is a true ending.  It’s good to see a character learn to solve problems and carry on, to get through the really hard times, and to create new dreams for herself.  I think we need to read about such characters once in a while—at least, I do.

Hattie's shocks of wheat must stand in the fields to dry.
I said at the beginning of the post that I did not love this book.  I think it is a very, very good book, but it's not quite the book for me.  For me, many of the characters were a little too black-and-white for my liking.  I found it a little annoying how some people were so thoroughly good and others so thoroughly bad.  I also struggled a little with the plot.  It felt, at times, more biographical than fictional, with a bit of randomness to the events in Hattie’s homesteading year.  This was most evident near the end of the story, when the Spanish flu crops up almost out of nowhere, swells to huge proportions, and has terrible consequences. I know that in real life, pandemics are like that:  they appear in a community and then spread and destroy rapidly.  But in the case of Hattie Big Sky, the flu just seemed to grab the reins of the story and drive off with it.   

Hattie's young neighbor, Chase, is full of farming advice.
To be honest, this isn’t really a plot-driven story; it’s character-driven, a study of how Hattie and her neighbors grow and change and relate to each other and to the land they’re trying to live on.  And judging by how I felt about this book, I think I enjoy plot-driven stories more.  Early in the book, Hattie learns the criteria for proving up on her claim:  set 480 rods of fence, cultivate 1/8th of her claim (40 acres), pay a $37.75 fee for the paperwork on the claim, and do all of this in about ten months.  I was eager to see these criteria driving the story, to see Hattie struggling each day to build her fence and plant her crops, to see what different troubles would arise and how she would outsmart them to keep building her homestead.  But while we do learn a little bit about how she builds a fence and plants and harvests crops, the bulk of the narrative is filled with Hattie’s interactions with the people around her, and I was a bit frustrated.

Hattie and Perilee bond while they quilt.
It’s tempting, when we don’t like a book, to decide that it’s just a bad book.  This is easy to do because there are bad books in the world.  “There are very poor writers who somehow get published,” writes Newbery Honor-winning author Shannon Hale on her blog.  “But for the most part,” she reminds us, “every novel in your bookstore was written by a passionate person who wrote the very best book she could.”  This is from Hale’s August 31, 2008 post, one of many in a topic to which she often returns: How to Be a Reader.  This particular post really challenged the way I think about the books I read.  I’m a lifelong reader and I know what’s good, I tell myself.  So if I don’t like a book, that means it’s not good, right?  Not necessarily.  Hale writes that an author only does 50% of the storytelling, and the reader does the other 50%.  “There's no way I can control the story you tell yourself from my book,” she says.  “Your own experiences, preferences, prejudices, mood at the moment, current events in your life, needs and wants influence how you read my every word.”  As I wrote above, I wanted a story a bit different from the one Hattie Big Sky told.  I didn’t realize this right away, though.  When I finished the book, I could only focus on the things I didn’t like about it, and for about one minute I considered it a bad book. 

But it has shiny medal on the cover!  That means a team of librarians discussed it for many, many hours over the course of days, and decided that it was one of the most distinguished contributions to literature for children in 2007.  So what went wrong for me?  Hale writes, “the author didn't fail you--the author just wrote a story that didn't click with your internal reader at this point in your life.”  I had to investigate why I didn’t like certain elements of this book, and what I had wanted instead (hence my mention above of my preference for a plot-driven story and a happy ending).  I also had to focus on the parts of the book that are done well—and these parts are in the majority!—to make sure that I wasn’t being overly critical of the book.  I must admit, I was angry as I first read Hale’s post so long ago.  I think I can tell when a book is bad! I argued in my head.  I’m an English Major and I’m real smart!  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized she’s right.  I can’t imagine that anyone would set out to write a bad book.  It is highly likely that each writer is trying to write the best book he or she can.  When a book doesn’t fit my preferences, that doesn’t mean it’s bad.  Yes, this makes evaluating whether a book really is good or bad much harder, but it also means that I’m labeling far fewer books as bad, and that’s a good thing.  This is why, at the end of my reviews so far, I’ve been suggesting the types of people that might like each book.  Not everyone will like every book, so this is my attempt to guide people to the ones they will probably like…and to help them get something good out of the ones they may not like.

Who should give this book a try?
The end of World War I is cause for celebration.
People who like history.  People who like historical fiction.  People who are interested in learning more about American life during World War I.  People who want to learn more about homesteading.  People who like the Laura Ingalls Wilder books or other pioneer stories.  Kids who are studying WWI in Social Studies.  Kids who are studying any other war, including our current ones.  People who like books with farming communities like Anne of Green Gables.  People who will not be too upset by an early-1900s view of animals, both domestic and wild, and how they should be treated on a farm (some scenes may be hard for my vegetarian and vegan pals to read; even I was a little bothered).  People who like resourceful, creative, quick-thinking characters who get themselves out of scrapes.  People who like characters who are brave in spite of their fears.  People who like oddball characters who completely disregard societal norms (you’ll love Rooster Jim and Leafie Purvis!).  People who like cats—Hattie has an interesting one.  People who like a smidge of romance.  People who like hard work (please tell me I’m not the only one who thinks building a fence or planting crops sounds like fun!).  People who like the idea of finding a new dream for yourself, no matter if that happens in the beginning of the book, the middle, the end, or all three.

Important Thing:  The photographs used in this post, as in the Sarah, Plain and Tall review, come from the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalogue, and Shorpy, a website for historic photos.  (Click on the caption to go to the photo's location online.)  Searching through all the history on these sites is a really fascinating way to spend an afternoon--wish these had been around when I was still in school doing projects for history class!