Stanley Yelnats believes his family is cursed. It all started years ago with his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather and ever since the Yelnats men have had horrible luck. Now Stanley finds himself unjustly convicted of a crime he didn't commit and sent to Camp Green Lake, a boy's detention facility as punishment. Every day, each of the boys staying there must dig a hole exactly five feet across and five feet deep. The staff says it's to build character, but after Stanley find a small gold tube, which greatly interests the Warden, he realizes that they're digging the holes because she's looking for something. He has no idea what kind of treasure might be buried in a dried up lake, but he's determined to figure it out. Along the way, he befriends Zero, another of the boys who is something of an outcast. Together, they try to solve the mystery, which they eventually discover has ties to Stanley's family history. But will they live long enough to let everyone else know what the Warden is really up to?
I've had Holes on my TBR list for many years, ever since it was my son's favorite book when he was around middle school age. I'd been curious as to why it attracted a reluctant reader like him and why he loved it and the movie so much. It may have taken me a long time to get around to reading it, but I'm glad I finally did. Now I understand why my son was so enamored with it. It's the story of Stanley Yelnats who believes that his family is cursed because of his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather. Whether they're actually cursed is up for debate, but they've certainly had a run of bad luck, the most recent of which is Stanley being falsely accused of stealing a valuable pair of sneakers. The judge gives him the choice of going to jail or going to Camp Green Lake, a boy's reform camp. Stanley chooses the camp, thinking it will be the better of the two options, but at camp he quickly discovers that every day each boy is required to dig a hole that is exactly five feet in diameter and five feet deep. The people who run the camp say it builds character, but when he finds a small gold tube, he quickly realizes that the Warden and her cronies are actually looking for something, probably something valuable. Along the way, Stanley also makes friends with a loner nicknamed Zero, whom he teaches how to read. The two boys help each other out, and eventually through a series of misadventures, they finally discover exactly what the Warden is up to.
Stanley's family may be cursed but they're genuinely good people if a bit eccentric. His mom is encouraging, always insisting the curse is just a myth, while his dad is something of a mad scientist, always trying to invent one thing or another. His latest idea is finding a way to recycle old sneakers. So when a pair of shoes falls from the sky, hitting Stanley on the head, he decides to take them home to his dad. Little did he know, though, that the shoes actually belonged to a famous baseball player and that they were going to be auctioned off to benefit a homeless shelter. Of course, the authorities don't believe Stanley's story, which is how he finds himself in hot water and doing time at Camp Green Lake. Stanley is a really good kid, though. In spite of initially being slower than all the other boys, he manages to dig his hole every day without complaint, even though it's hard work in the hot Texas desert. He writes a letter to his mom every week, mostly telling her stories about his time "at camp" so she won't worry about him. He also tries to be nice to the other boys, eventually befriending Zero, the kid no one else seems to care much about. Zero can't read but wants to learn, so they make a deal for Stanley to teach him. Eventually they become the best of friends. I think that Stanley exhibited courage and bravery in a number of different circumstances, which showed the kind of person he really is.
This book is generally aimed at middle graders, and I felt that overall the content was mostly appropriate for its audience. However, your mileage may vary, and there were a few things that might be concerning to some parents. The boys at Camp Green Lake are essentially being used for greedy ends. The camp personnel sometimes mistreat the boys in other ways as well, and there's one scene where a couple of the boys get into a fight. There is one use of a mild profanity and an adult character engages in brief incidental smoking. There are some flashbacks to events of the past that could be somewhat traumatic depending on the sensitivity of the child. In one of these scenes, the lynching of a black man occurs, along with the killing of an innocent animal, and another character murders someone in cold blood in response to this extrajudicial killing. This character then goes on to become an infamous outlaw, reportedly stealing and killing other people. This is all the concerning content I can think of, and most of it is rendered in such a way that it's fairly matter-of-fact, without lingering over details too much. Therefore, I think the book would be fine for most middle graders as long as they wouldn't be overly sensitive to any of the things I mentioned. And there are plenty of positives about the story that would make it good for kids to read such as the themes of friendship and loyalty, and there is some humor to the story as well.
I'm really glad that I finally got around to checking out Holes. It's the winner of the Newberry Medal, the National Book Award, and many other accolades. For that reason and the fact that it had caught the attention of my reluctant reader son, I had high hopes that it would be a good story, and it truly was. Since it's not aimed at adults, there's a certain simplicity in the writing, but at the same time, it tells a fairly complex story that should keep kids on their toes. I enjoyed some of the flashbacks to the past, as we get to learn about Stanley's family history. Initially it only seems to be filling in the blanks on how the Yelnats family became cursed, but eventually everything comes full circle, connecting to the events of the present. I always try to judge kid's books on, not only how I react to them as an adult, but how I might have felt about them as a kid myself. I honestly believe that even though this story might appeal more to boys because of the male protagonists and adventurous storyline that my kid self probably would have approved if it had been around when I was growing up and I'd had a chance to read it then. It's a really fun story full of adventure, mystery, the bonds of friendship, and a little dark humor. I highly recommend it, especially for reluctant readers who just might enjoy it as much as my own son did. It was my first read by Louis Sachar, but it's left me looking forward to checking out the sequel, Small Steps, as well as his other work.
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