Louis Sachar: Top of His Class

by Barbara Strickland

 	 	 

Cover art for HolesSince 1978, Austin author Louis Sachar has been creating a body of work -- an oeuvre, if you will -- that has inspired stalwart affection among readers aged seven to 12. Sideways Stories From Wayside School, The Boy Who Lost His Face, There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom, and others, are well-known to many children. Parents, librarians, and teachers have long been aware that even the most stubborn child can be tickled into reading by Sachar's witty stories.

This year, other adults have discovered who Louis Sachar is. In November of 1998, the National Book Foundation awarded the National Book Award for Young People's Literature to Sachar's book, Holes. And in February of this year, Holes received the Newbery Medal (among a host of other awards; see sidebar). The Newbery Medal is awarded by the American Library Association for literary quality, and is the highest honor accorded to children's literature in the United States. Holes, the comically suspenseful story of a boy, a desert, and a generations-old curse, is the first book ever to win both awards in the same year.

To paraphrase another classic of children's literature, it appears that Louis Sachar is having a Really-Good-Just-Dandy-Perfectly-Wonderful year.

"I write mostly for myself. I can never imagine my readers," Sachar says calmly. Sachar, 44, is a soft-voiced, affable man. Photos show him to have irrepressibly curly gray hair. Sachar began writing in 1976, during his final year of undergraduate school at the University of California at Berkeley. He was 25 and working as a teacher's aide at Hillside Elementary School.

"I had always wanted to write," Sachar says, "and I didn't like any of the little stories that they were reading," at Hillside. He began writing his own stories. His first book, Sideways Stories From Wayside School, was completed not long after he graduated from Berkeley. Writing the book was satisfying, but the accomplishment was made even sweeter when Sideways Stories found a publisher during Sachar's first week of law school.

Sachar says that Sideways Stories, about the absurd goings-on at a school built 30 stories high with only one classroom on each floor -- that is, sideways -- was not distributed well when it first appeared, in 1978. The book was difficult for parents and teachers to find. "It never sold very many copies," he says, "but I got lots of fan letters." Even though Sachar was heartened by the attention, supporting himself as a writer still looked like an unlikely proposition.

Sachar did the sensible thing, continuing to work on his law degree and writing on the side. He took and passed the California State Bar Exam. A second book, Johnny's in the Basement, and a third, Someday Angeline, followed Sideways Stories. Meanwhile, the familiar question nagged at him: Should he be a lawyer or a writer? While he continued to doubt, in the end there was really no contest.

"Writing was always my first love," he says. In 1984, he gave up lawyering to write full time. In 1990, his book There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom won several state awards, including the Texas Bluebonnet Award. He moved from California to Austin after traveling to Texas to accept the Bluebonnet Award.

Frances Foster, Sachar's present editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux (FSG), compares his success to that of Roald Dahl, author of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. "Louis was discovered by the children who loved his books, like the Wayside stories. There are books which adults discover and push onto kids -- this was completely the other way around," Foster says. Sachar's popularity with children brought him to the notice of parents, who purchase books, and inevitably to the notice of booksellers and librarians. That popularity has translated into his present success.

Sachar says, "I just try to write books that are fun to read. I figure if I like them, they will too." Fun, he believes, also includes a moral dimension, in the sense of thinking about right and wrong. But mainly, he says, a book written for children should strive to make reading enjoyable. "That's my first goal with all my books, to make reading fun," he says.

Photo of Sachar and his dog, Lucky

Lucky & Louis Sachar in the office where he writes each morning

photograph by Greg Selig

Kids love the books, but they are appreciated by adults, as well. Holes, which was written for ages 12 and up, has received particular praise for its structure, pacing, and use of folklore motifs. Sachar believes he learned to write for children by reading books written for adults. He says that Kurt Vonnegut's Hocus Pocus and William Goldman's The Princess Bride influenced Holes. "I like the way the opening chapters were sort of short and jumpy, and how they led into the story. ... And The Princess Bride had these colorful characters and this bizarre setting, and that's sort of like Holes."

Writing for children, he says, is not very different from writing for adults, and Foster agrees. "There's this sort of adult-centric view that places children's literature below the literature written for adults. But when you think back through the ages, of what has been published for children, the really classic books have all had very high standards of plot and structure and characterization," she says.

The hero of Holes, Stanley Yelnats, has been unfairly incarcerated in a boot camp for juvenile delinquents. Stanley has to dig a 5' by 5' hole each day as part of his punishment. The boot camp, ironically known as Camp Green Lake, is located in a desert that sounds a little bit like West Texas. It's run by the villainous Warden, a mysterious, red-haired woman who enforces her rules with the threat of a scratch from her venom-tipped nails. Outlandishly menacing, the Warden is similar to villains in Sachar's other books, such as the terrible Mrs. Gorf, the substitute teacher who turns rowdy children into apples, and the heartless Miss Nogard, who uses her extrasensory powers to humiliate her students.

Sachar based the Warden on a woman he knows, although he is quick to say, "But she's not nasty like the Warden, not at all. She's very nice." Everything else in the story -- the basketball player Clyde "Sweetfeet" Livingston (who has very smelly feet), the morally ambiguous Mr. Pendanski, the outlaw Kissin' Kate Barlow, and the lethal yellow-spotted lizards that can kill a boy in seconds -- he says came completely out of his own imagination. Sachar revs up his interest in a story by concocting new and unexpected events, the more fantastic the better.

Sachar has a gift for weaving these often goofy elements together so that they make for tight, interesting reading. The pleasure lies in watching the bits of story accumulate, at first in a way that seems haphazard, but quickly takes on direction and purpose. Thus, in Holes, Stanley's great-grandfather, the first Stanley Yelnats, is robbed by the vengeful Kissin' Kate Barlow, who later in the story is revealed as the lovely schoolteacher Katharine Barlow. The history of how grief and anger transformed her into an outlaw, and led to the drought that cursed the prosperous town of Green Lake, parallels the story of the Yelnats curse that began with young Stanley's "no-good, pig-stealing great-great-grandfather." Sachar says that he encountered two difficulties at the book's beginning. "I wanted to put the background in about Stanley's great-great-grandfather, and I didn't want to just all of a sudden in the middle of the story just go, 'Okay, now here's what happened to Stanley's great-great-grandfather.'

"And then the other problem I had was when Stanley was digging his hole for the first time. I wanted the reader to feel what a long, miserable experience this is, digging this 5' by 5' hole. But how many times can you say, 'He dug his shovel back into the dirt and lifted out another shovelful?'" Sachar arrived at his solution by interweaving the two stories. 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.

While Holes is charming and even wistfully sweet, it's also a little darker, and a little scarier, than his other books. Sachar says that he was surprised when his daughter, Sherre, who was in fourth grade when Holes came out, told him that the Warden was frightening. "I never really thought of [the Warden] as scary. Rattlesnake venom -- well, you know, it's almost cartoonish. It's like a character in Batman or something," he muses.

In both theme and complexity, Holes is a book suitable for children slightly older than the elementary school set who have enjoyed Sachar's previous books, such as the Marvin Redpost series. The Marvin Redpost stories feature the humorous predicaments of an eight-year-old boy. A book like Marvin Redpost: Is He a Girl? is simply written and relatively short, taking four to six months to finish. In contrast, Holes took a year and a half to complete. Sachar put the book through five rewrites before he put it into the hands of his editor.

Sachar's dog Tippy with a copy of Holes
Tippy observing Holes

photograph by Greg Selig

Sachar says that he's not sure if he's still as satisfied with the book as he was before it was published. He says that he won't know until he looks at it again. "I get a real clear vision at different parts of a book -- I know how I'm going to handle this problem, I know what I'm going to do here. And then I kind of get lost." He adds, "I'm always amazed when I finish a book and realize, 'Hey, this actually is what I set out to do.'"

"Amazed" is a word that Sachar uses often. But of the awards and the national recognition, he says quietly, "Well, I suppose it's nice to get recognition from people who," and he pauses as if searching for the right word, "matter. In a sense." Is it possible that 20 years of fan letters from children and their parents slightly outweigh a couple of national awards? Apples and oranges, he says. "They're both nice."

And the prestige of the Newbery does have a special cachet. Not only is it the highest mark of approval possible in the world of children's literature, but Barbara Thomas, owner of Toad Hall Children's Bookstore and former president of the American Booksellers Association, says that the Newbery Medal has a great impact on sales of a children's book. "Parents look for that, just like they look for the Caldecott [the medal awarded to illustrators of children's books]. [Holes] will always have that stamp of quality that says to customers 'Here's something special,'" she says. In addition, interest in obtaining the movie rights to Holes, already high, has recently increased, though Sachar reports that no final deal has been made.

Meanwhile, Louis Sachar's life in North Austin sails calmly on, seemingly untroubled by the stress that success is rumored to bring. He lives with his wife Carla, whom he met in California while working at Hillside School, his 12-year-old daughter Sherre, and two mixed-breed dogs, Lucky and Tippy, the only creatures allowed into his office each morning while he's writing. FSG asked Sachar to write a short autobiography, and in it he describes his work environment: "I'm sitting in my office, which is located over the garage of my house in Austin, Texas. My dogs, Lucky and Tippy, are here with me. They are the only people allowed in my office when I'm writing. Lucky seems to understand that. He growls at my wife or my daughter if they try to enter. Maybe he hears me growling on the inside." So Sachar writes, takes the dogs to the vet, and plays tournament bridge. In between flying to accept awards on the East and West Coasts, he has written three more books about Marvin Redpost, the first one of which comes out this month.

"The title," Sachar says, "is Marvin Redpost, Class President." What's it about? "The President of the United States comes to visit his class," he says simply, like a regular working guy talking about his job. Like a writer, however, he refuses to divulge anything more about what happens to poor Marvin. "I guess you'll just have to, um, read the book."

Regarding everything else -- the awards, the honors, the interviews, the movie deal -- well, he seems to sum it all up in one sentence.

"I try not to get too excited," he says.