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Monday, Feb. 17, 2003

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"Holes," "Love That Dog"


"Holes," Louis Sachar, Bloomsbury; 2000; 233 pp.

It's hard to say why life is so downright unfair to some children. Take Stanley Yelnats: He gets bullied at school and is ignored by his teachers. And then one day, he gets hit on the head by a pair of sneakers that seems to fall out of the sky. He doesn't know that they've been stolen from a baseball star, but because the cops find him with the sneakers, he gets arrested for theft and sent off to Camp Green Lake.

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Green Lake is supposed to be a character-building juvenile detention center, but all Stanley seems to be building is great mounds of earth as he scoops mud out of the dry ground. His assignment, like that of the other boys at camp, is to dig holes "five feet deep, five feet across," all day, every day. The warden claims the digging will reform them, but there's something they're not being told. Now Stanley must dig up the truth about Camp Green Lake.

Perhaps Stanley's unfortunate situation has something to do with the chain of bad luck his family has suffered ever since his great-great-grandfather broke a promise to an old Egyptian woman called Madame Zeroni.

It would seem that Green Lake is cursed as well. Now a barren wasteland, it was once the largest lake in Texas. A century ago a town flourished around the lake and the town's popular schoolteacher, Katherine Barlow, was renowned for her peach preserves. But something turned Katherine Barlow into Kissin' Kate Barlow, the most feared outlaw in all the West. The peach trees died, the lake dried up and poisonous yellow-spotted lizards moved in.

This is the hostile environment in which Stanley finds himself, the victim of a grownup world's warped idea of "reform": Take a bad boy, make him dig a hole in the burning sun every day, all day, and he'll turn into a good boy.

There are many strands woven together in this tale of a young boy doing time in his desert prison. Perhaps it is Stanley's destiny to uncover the connections, reverse his family curse and change his luck.

While this story criticizes the way an adult world treats its young, it is also a moving story of courage and survival. Beautiful things often grow in the most sterile conditions, however, such as Stanley's friendship with an illiterate boy called Zero, and his resolve to find a way out of Green Lake -- for both of them.

Told with simplicity and honesty, yet peppered with a sly humor that you can't quite put your finger on, this is highly recommended for young readers who want an entertaining but intelligent read.

A warm thank you to the sixth-graders of Nishimachi International School for recommending this book. For kids 10 years and above. Available at Kinokuniya, Shinjuku (03) 3354-0131 and at Tower Records Shibuya 7F (03) 3496-3661

"Love That Dog," Sharon Creech, Bloomsbury; 2002; 86 pp.

Kids of all ages should read this to discover how imaginative writing can flout all the rules to make us think in challenging new ways.

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Is this book A l o n g poem? Because the lines are SHORT don't rhyme (Most of the time)

Is this book a novel? Or a diary?

Whatever it is, it makes you think -- by using its form to express its content. It looks like poetry and tells the story of a little boy, Jack, sitting in his teacher Mrs. Stretchberry's poetry class and thinking for the first time -- what makes a poem a poem? He starts out missing the point entirely -- why does the bloke in Robert Frost's poem have to go for miles before he can sleep? (All the poems Stretchberry teaches are printed at the back of the book.)

But slowly he begins to see how the words in a good poem make pictures appear in your head. Reluctantly, he writes of what he knows -- his yellow dog, Skye -- and paints his own word-pictures. He evolves from being the anonymous class poet who's not confident that his words are "poetic" enough into an energetic story-teller who tells us about how much he loves Skye.

He's not telling us a typical story, though. It's a sort of poem, remember? Instead of a neat plotline and recognizable characters, all you have are images and the loose associations that tie them together. You're left to do most of the work, but this also gives you the freedom to make your own connections.

Jack ends up meeting one of the poets he has studied in Stretchberry's class -- and finds (to his utter surprise) that a poet isn't necessarily a dull fellow with "a little too much time on his hands." A good poet has a distinct voice -- his ideas flow through his words. Jack finds a voice for himself -- tongue-in-cheek, irreverant, inquisitive -- his "poem" proving that you don't need that many words to express yourself, that less is more.

We often read books only for the story they have to tell, but that's only half of it. How a book is written is every bit as important as what it has to say. This modestly sized writing experiment -- poem, novel, diary, whatever -- is a fantastic way to discover just how incredibly elastic language can be. Learn to use it well and there's no limit to what you can do with it.

For children 8 years and above. Available at Kinokuniya, Shinjuku (03) 3354-0131 and at Tower Records Shibuya 7F (03) 3496-3661


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