Monday, September 3, 2007

Holes (1999)

I don’t have a lot to add to the great reviews by Bekah, Alicia, Sandy D., and Moni, of the wonderful 1999 winner, Holes.

I was particularly intrigued by the setting, being from Texas myself, and did a little research on that. In his Newbery acceptance speech, author Louis Sachar said that he moved from San Francisco to Austin, Texas, in 1991. “Anybody who ever has tried to do yard work in Texas in July can easily imagine Hell to be place where you are required to dig a hole five feet deep and five feet across day after day under the brutal Texas sun. … this story to me has always been about a place, Camp Green Lake--where there was no lake, and hardly anything was green. I thought of the place first. The characters and plot grew out of that place.”

West Texas has playa lakes, which are usually dry but can hold water after significant rainfall. One of the largest of these is Big Lake, which is a little closer to Austin (on the western edge of the Edwards Plateau, a big peach-growing area in Texas – Austin is at the eastern edge). Today Big Lake is a dry depression most of the time, but it formerly held at least some water, fed by springs that have since been pumped dry. The nearby town dates back to the 1880s. Wild onions are also pretty common in this part of Texas.

I also found an interesting article about Holes winning the Newbery by Tim Wadham (then the acting manager of the Pleasant Grove Branch of Dallas Public Library, and a member of the 1998 Newbery Committee), called “Plot Does Matter” in the July/August 1999 issue of Horn Book Magazine:

For some time, I have been bemoaning the dearth of truly imaginative realistic fiction for children. I've seen too many realistic books that masquerade as children's books but are really a type of adult fiction at heart, showing off what Philip Pullman described in his Carnegie Medal acceptance speech as the authors' “dazzling skill with wordplay" ahead of virtually everything else. They ape the tendency in adult literary fiction (as opposed to genre fiction) to place plot on the bottom rung of the ladder of importance while authors cut what Pullman describes as "artistic capers for the amusement of [their] sophisticated readers." I don't necessarily mean that these books have no plot; it's just that the plot is sidelined because other elements take precedence. On the other extreme from plotless language exercises are books with a plot, but, alas, the same plot as dozens of other books. In much recent children's fiction, plot has become a paint-by-numbers affair: boy/girl suffers abuse from/change in personality by/ loss of parent/pet/best friend/sibling/home and copes by running away/withdrawing, etc. Anyone who cares to delve a bit into realistic children's fiction published in the last three to five years will begin to see a numbing sameness to the "stories." I do not mean to dismiss the seriousness of any of the social problems portrayed in these books when experienced by a child in real life, or the positive impact such a book might make on a child. Nor do I imply that there have not been notable books, both realistic fiction and fantasy, over the past few decades where plot has been placed at the forefront. I am saying, along with Philip Pullman, that children need stories. Children need books, as he says, "where the story is at the center of the writer's attention, where the plot actually matters."

He goes on to add, “It somehow feels like Newbery winners from two or more decades ago, such as E. L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game. These are both books in which the plot does matter.” I thought this was interesting because it seems these three books have been particularly well-liked, particularly by their target audiences.

I listened to the audiobook read by actor Kerry Beyer, who is originally from Texas. I thought he did a marvelous job giving each character a different voice – I especially loved the soft but deadly rendering of the Warden!


Juliette said...

Thank you for that Amanda, interesting as I am reading Holes at present. I love some of the desriptions and you live in Texas! I am really enjoying it so far.

Alicia said...

Thanks so much for the extra information. Very interesting thoughts from Pullman (and I'm inclined to agree, though I am only giving my immediate reaction). And the prevalance of wild onions and "temporary" lakes in Texas helps me believe the story. I thought the setting was too over-the-top.

Perhaps because my only visit to Texas was in the delightful beginning of April.

Sandy D. said...

Texas *is* unbelievably over-the-top. ;-)