You've never heard of Louis Sachar? Oh, come on. Ask a 9-year-old. He's the guy who wrote Sideways Stories From Wayside School, the 1978 children's book that remains a fixture of every second-grader's backpack. His novel Holes (1998) won him the National Book Award, the Newbery Medal, and a Disney movie adaptation that grossed $67 million. No less a children's literary eminence than Philip Pullman (you've heard of him, right?) wrote that Sachar's work was "unmistakably powerful." Sachar is now embarked on a 12-city book tour with his new novel Small Steps, aimed at preteens and above. Reached by phone in Nashville, he explains the crucial difference between the average book signing, populated by introverted adults, and his book signings, which are attended by rambunctious packs of underage groupies. "When I ask if anybody has any questions," he says, "every hand goes up."
Why all the excitement? Speaking for the older kids in the room, I'll venture that it's because Sachar writes steroidal versions of the young-adult "issue" novels that have been flowering since the late-1970s. Indeed, it was in 1976, while working as an undergraduate teacher's aide in Berkeley, Calif., that Sachar met the children who would inspire Sideways Stories. But it's Sachar's later books, particularly Holes and Small Steps, that read like a Berkeley undergrad's sociology experiment. His child heroes are carefully apportioned by race (white, African-American, Hispanic) and big challenge (obesity, illiteracy, racial profiling). But rather than sort out issues like fairness and doing the right thing in the therapeutic fashion of much young-adult fiction, Sachar pushes his characters into absurdist fantasies. You're often so blown away by his leaps of imagination that you hardly sense the tidy social message.
Holes, for instance, is a child's prison novel. Children's novels often depend in some part on the confinement of their protagonists—whether in algebra class or a dusty old country house—but Sachar takes the conceit to its extreme. His hero, Stanley Yelnats, is shipped to a gulag for juvenile delinquents in the Texas desert. No need for fences—a young escapee would only find himself dodging rattlesnakes and fierce yellow-spotted lizards. One of the joys of Holes is watching Sachar toy with the familiar conventions of prison drama: the hardcase child inmates ("Armpit," "X-Ray"), the sunflower-seed-chompin' guards, and the wrongfully convicted hero who's determined to tough it out. Assigned to a work gang, Stanley and the other inmates trudge into the desert to dig one giant hole per day. An African-American child offers Stanley a deal: He'll help dig Stanley's hole if Stanley will teach him to read. But don't cue the violins just yet—as soon as the other African-American kids get wind of that scheme, they accuse Stanley of being a slave-owner. "The white boy sits around while the black boy does all the work," one sings. I'm guessing these conversations don't happen much at Hogwarts.
Sachar wasn't content to re-imagine Escape From Alcatraz. His prison story also has the qualities of a fable, rich with coincidence and touches of magic realism. Stanley's rotten luck involves a family curse that was set in motion when his great-great grandfather broke a promise to an Egyptian woman. The desert the children dig up has a tumultuous history: Years before, a black man was lynched there because he kissed a white woman in public; the woman, in turn, became a famous Western outlaw who might have buried her treasure there; the treasure, in turn, might have belonged to one of Stanley's relatives; and so forth. When Stanley finally digs in the right spot, the past rushes up to meet the present, and suddenly—well, some adults out there may not have read it yet. For Sachar, the author of titles like There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom (1987), it was his most ambitious and self-consciously literary performance. And despite the obvious morals swirling around, Sachar stuck with the notion that what kids valued was wild imaginative leaps more than sermons.
In Small Steps, Sachar follows two of the prison's ex-cons, Armpitand X-Ray, into Austin, Texas, where they try to resume their lives. If Holes was a child's-eye view of prison life, then Small Steps is a story of work release. And what a place to rehabilitate! As Sachar explained to Texas Monthly, "Austin is to Texas what Berkeley is to California"—its chief liberal enclave and its marshmallow-soft center. The well-meaning Austinites that populate Small Steps are almost too aware of the social stakes."The counselor there told them that the recidivism rate for African-American boys was 73 percent," Sachar writes in the first chapter, an ominous sign of the Big Lessons to come. Unlike Holes, Small Steps is a fairly grounded story. It has no magic realism to leaven its armchair sociology, no family curses to blame for the poor circumstances. Relieved of that, it feels a bit too schematic: racist cops, a "tree-hugger" mayor, a kid with cerebral palsy, everyone counseling everyone else to take "small steps."
In Holes, Sachar never tells us the children's ages—so rich was the fantasy that they could have been anywhere from eight to 18.In Small Steps, he reveals that Armpit and X-Ray are 16, an awkward stop between childhood and adulthood. And it feels as if Sachar's writing, in this case, has hit an uneasy place, too—stuck between the age of pure imagination (where Sachar could let himself go wild) and the world of driver's licenses and halfway houses (where he feels he has to score more explicit social points). Small Steps is Sachar's first lurch toward realism and, as such, it feels a bit like homework. Small steps, Louis. Small steps.