Louis Sachar was a 22-year-old economics major at UC Berkeley with a single job prospect after his 1976 graduation: managing the books for a sweater warehouse in Norwalk, Conn. After eight months, he was fired--not for insubordination but "incompetence." Could making money, he wondered, ever be fun?
He knew what he wanted to do. During his senior year in college, Sachar had worked as a teacher's aide in an elementary school and discovered that he liked children. Maybe even that he preferred children to adults. Certainly that he wanted to write books for children.
But Sachar worried about making a living, so after the sweater warehouse debacle, he applied to law school. He mailed his applications at about the same time he mailed a manuscript for a children's book he'd been writing on the side. One week after his classes started at UC Hastings College of the Law, Follett Publishing Co. agreed to release "Sideways Stories From Wayside School," which appeared in 1978. (After Follett went out of business, Sachar sold the rights to the book to Avon, which re-released it in 1985.)
Still, Sachar was not convinced that he could survive by writing children's books. After he graduated from law school, he found part-time legal work and continued to write on the side, experiencing modest success as a children's book author.
Then, in 1998, came Sachar's 18th book, "Holes," the story of a boy who is wrongly accused of theft and sent to a camp for juvenile delinquents. "Holes" has sold more than 1 million copies and has been translated into more than 25 languages. A movie version starring Sigourney Weaver and Jon Voight is scheduled to open in April. The director, Andrew Davis, thinks so much of Sachar that he asked him to write the first draft of the screenplay.
His status as a best-selling author-turned-screenwriter would seem to rank as a major literary achievement, and yet Sachar remains one of the most successful authors you've probably never heard of. Unless you happen to be 10.
Louis Sachar is not a man given to epiphanies. At 48 he is slight, neat and polite, even querulous. We are eating lunch in his personal trailer, parked by a dry lake bed in the Mojave Desert, where "Holes" is being filmed. "You gonna eat that?" he asks, pointing with his fork to the remains on my plate. His 15-year-old daughter, Sherre, who joins us, rolls her eyes. Sachar, who lives with his family in Austin, Texas, has been reading to students in his daughter's classes for years. Sachar remembered his teacher reciting "Charlotte's Web" to his fourth-grade class; when Sherre was in fifth grade, he read "Holes" to her class. The kids ate it up and made Sherre a minor celebrity in her school. "There's nothing like the power of a teacher reading to a class," he says, and Sherre agrees. Then he adds: "I never discuss a book until I've finished writing it, and then Sherre is my first reader." Father and daughter, judging from the conspiratorial looks they exchange, have a close relationship. In fact, Sachar seems much more comfortable talking to children--the boys on the set or his own daughter--than he does to adults.
Perhaps that is the secret of his success. Ask any sentient fourth-, fifth- or sixth-grader about "Holes," and they will tell you that it is one of the best books, if not the best book, that they have ever read. For some young readers, it is the first encounter they have with an author who believes his audience is intelligent and discerning. There's only so much "Goosebumps" and "Mary-Kate & Ashley" kids can read before they start to wonder if characters, like people, are not all good or all bad, and if evil is found in places other than underground lairs and haunted houses.
"I don't compromise, writing for kids," says Sachar. (The very presence of Sherre, who monitors her father's conversations for untruths and hypocrisies, would seem a guarantee of that.) "I never simplify. I don't constrict my vocabulary. If a reader doesn't know the meaning of a word, he can look it up."
"Holes" is set in a juvenile detention camp in the middle of nowhere in Texas. "Camp Green Lake is a camp for bad boys," Sachar writes as the story opens. "If you take a bad boy and make him dig a hole every day in the hot sun, it will turn him into a good boy. That was what some people thought. Stanley Yelnats was given a choice. The judge said, 'You may go to jail, or you may go to Camp Green Lake.' Stanley was from a poor family. He had never been to camp before."
So Stanley joins a parade of boys who are forced to dig holes in the desert that are 5 feet wide and 5 feet deep. But he is not a child who simply accepts his fate; he is determined to find out why.
"Holes" falls into the Brothers Grimm tradition of storytelling. What could be a more depressing setting than a work camp for juvenile delinquents in the desert? What could be more discouraging than a young boy sent there unjustly? What could be more exhilarating than a boy triumphing over generations of injustice? It's a book for young readers who are ready for a story that doesn't flinch or placate or sugarcoat.
"A lot of people forget that kids are dealing with big, deep issues like jealousy and injustice, things they might not have the capacity to process," says Diane Roback, the children's book editor at Publishers Weekly. "A book like 'Holes' helps them sort things out." In September, "Holes," which already had won Newbery and National Book awards, won the first Readers' Choice Award for Teen Books, which was bestowed by the children's magazine Read to celebrate its 50th year of publication. The award was presented to Sachar at St. Thomas the Apostle School on West 15th Street in Central Los Angeles, where several members of the movie cast joined the author onstage.
Actor Shia LaBeouf, who plays Stanley, stood up to answer questions about the movie. "The set in the Mojave Desert was brutal," LaBeouf explained. "It was 120 degrees in the holes! And Louis was there, even on the hottest days. You know why? Because 'Holes' is his baby!"
Sachar sometimes seems surprised by the adulation. "I never imagined that a book could be so popular," he says.
There's a story that is often repeated in the children's book industry, about how Maurice Sendak once attended a cocktail party in New York, during which a man came up to him and said: "You write pretty good. When are you going to start writing for grown-ups?" The inference was clear: Children's books are just not as important as books for adults.
Over the last three years, Americans have spent about $25 billion annually on books; in 2001, nearly $2 billion of that was spent on juvenile books, including children's and young adult books in hardcover and paperback. But with the exception of the "Harry Potter" books, which have sold nearly 175 million copies worldwide in hard and softcover, most children's books have not received the kind of attention that's given to mediocre adult fiction. "For all our big talk, children remain disenfranchised," says Paula Quint, president of the Children's Book Council in New York.
One of the factors distinguishing the children's market is that books for kids typically sell at a different pace than adult fiction. Sachar explains: "An author like Michael Crichton might sell a million books in the two months after publication. I, on the other hand, might sell 100,000 copies a year for 20 years" as new generations of readers come along. He cites E.B. White and Dr. Seuss as examples of other perennial sellers.
"I'm not doing so badly," says Sachar. "If all my books did as well as 'Holes' I'd be a very rich man."
If a children's book does well, it's usually because kids are buzzing about it, or because it's used in classrooms or as source material for movies. Awards don't hurt either. The Newbery Medal, first awarded in 1922, and the Caldecott Medal, first offered in 1938, are the most prestigious in children's literature. They are selected by members of the American Library Assn., which means that sales are practically guaranteed by libraries around the country.
The children's market is starting to show signs of a transformation. In recent years, institutional sales to schools and libraries have decreased, and retail sales have increased. Independent children's bookstores are on the rise, as are sales at warehouse stores such as Costco. For publishers, this means a stronger impulse to sell "front list," or new titles, given the rapid turnover at price clubs and the heavy reliance on bestseller lists as opposed to word of mouth.
Does this mean that children's authors will be better paid and better known? Despite the promise of change in the market, it's still rare for a children's writer to receive the six-figure advances in the world of adult literature. And even if a publisher thinks he or she has a potential hit, it's unusual to see first printings of more than 100,000. Late last year, Scholastic (publisher of the "Harry Potter" series) released a book called "The Thief Lord," a bestseller in Germany, with predictions of big success in the United States. The initial print runs were for 175,000, a figure made possible by the success of books such as "Harry Potter" and "Holes." But no one in the small circles of children's publishing believes that writers such as Sachar will get the Leno/Letterman/Couric treatment anytime soon.
On the set of "Holes," Sigourney Weaver wanders by, followed by an assistant holding an umbrella over her head. But Weaver, who plays the camp warden, and Jon Voight, who plays Mr. Sir, described by Sachar as the warden's right-hand man, are not the main attraction. That distinction goes to the group of seven boys dressed in orange jumpsuits who play the delinquents at Camp Green Lake. They have, in 10 weeks of shooting, become a kind of family. They jive and roughhouse between takes, attend mandatory school in various trailers and joke about who is the best looking, the best actor, the best anything.
Khleo Thomas, who plays Zero, the youngest boy at Camp Green Lake, has a wide smile and a personality that says: "Take me home." Max Kasch, who plays Zig-Zag, one of the fiercer delinquents, says his character reminds him of his own childhood in rural America. "It's been easy to fall into character," he says. "Too easy." LaBeouf, as Stanley, has a lopsided grin and an aw-shucks but smart-alecky demeanor that adds just the right amount of juice to his character. It's clear that they all adore Sachar.
"I spent a lot of time with the actors telling them their character's back story," the writer says. "Sometimes we'd make one up together so that each actor could come at the part from his own experience and imagination. Many of the characters have become much fuller, as a result, than they were in the book."
Sachar walks around the set, staying in the background, sitting behind director Andrew Davis and the cameras. "This movie business is strange," Sachar admits. "Suddenly you're part of a group and not just a lone writer."
But Davis knows Sachar's value. "We chose him to write the script because, frankly, I wanted his name on it," he says. "God knows it will be changed a million times, but at least as the first writer he'll get credit."
Weeks after the filming is over, Sachar sits onstage at St. Thomas the Apostle School, waiting to receive the Readers' Choice Award. There's an awkward moment when the principal announces that the cast members are running a little late. When the administrator leaves the podium, Sachar is left staring at the kids in the audience, who immediately begin doing what kids do when they wait--they make noise. Clutching their copies of the book for him to sign, mugging for the TV crews, they forget the real-live author sitting in front of them. Sachar quietly sidles over to the edge of the platform and exits stage left. He seems uncomfortable with the fame; he wants to deliver his message and go home.
"What I've learned, and what I tell kids, is that you have to do what you like to do. It took me so long to learn this. I had a perfectly good degree, but I wasn't happy. It's just not worth it to pursue security above all else. Of course, that's easy for me to say." Sachar grins, and for the first time something slightly malicious, or maybe just mischievous, seems to play around the corners of his eyes behind his round glasses.
Many children's book authors appear to have "I am nice" halos in neon over their heads. But Sachar is not "nice," and he is not a "children's book writer." He's just a writer.
"I identify most with Stanley," Sachar says in a weak moment, after being asked repeatedly to dredge up something from his childhood that inspired "Holes." Many of the book's plot points seem drawn from Sachar's childhood memories. Stanley is wrongfully accused of stealing a sneaker that fell from the sky; Sachar's father once sold shoes from the 78th floor of the Empire State Building. The Yelnats suffer from a curse first put on them back in the old country; Sachar's family emigrated from Latvia.
Indeed, it would be hard to peel Stanley off Sachar. He has the same weight of the world on his shoulders--and the same barely noticeable inner strength to shove it off.