A word of advice to other interviewers: if you’re going to chat with Louis Sachar anytime soon, you probably shouldn’t start the conversation with a question about Holes. The Austin-based author is a bit tired of talking about the 1998 novel that garnered much praise and went on to become a hit movie. Not that he doesn’t appreciate the attention. It’s just that eight years have passed since Holes was published, and Sachar is ready to move on to other subjects like his new novel for young readers, Small Steps. Featuring diva Kaira DeLeon, a Beyonce-like pop princess who seems to have it all, her sleazy stepfather-manager, Jerome Paisley, and a pair of Camp Green Lake veterans readers will recognize from Holes, Small Steps is a stylish, timely book, written with all the rhythm and snap of a rap tune. It’s a story about persevering in the face of adversity, and it’s filled with Sachar’s spot-on portrayals of adolescent life. With humor and insight, he depicts the hardships of high school, the demands of peer pressure, and the unique attraction of celebrity to today’s teens.
"It’s exciting to have another novel out," Sachar says, " but there was some pressure as I was writing it. I did feel the shadow of Holes as I was working. I have confidence in my abilities as an author, but I wondered if I could live up to that book. I tried not to think of it in those terms, but given the circumstances, it was difficult."
Sachar has been writing children’s books since 1976. He has published more than 20 titles including the beloved Marvin Redpost books and The Wayside School series to consistent acclaim. But the success of Holes took him by surprise. Winning both the National Book Award and the Newbery Medal in 1999, the book spent more than 150 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. In 2003, a much-praised movie version of the novel was released, with a screenplay by Sachar himself. A cleverly plotted narrative that blends elements of fantasy with a hard-edged realism, Holes tells the story of Stanley Yelnats, a middle-school student convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Sentenced to 18 months at Camp Green Lake a juvenile reform facility in the Texas desert where the boys dig holes as a character-building exercise Stanley gets mixed up in a mystery. He also meets a variety of likeable characters, including a black teen named Theodore Armpit Johnson, whose story Sachar continues in Small Steps.
"I found that Armpit was more interesting to me at this point than, say, Stanley or Zero, whose stories have already been resolved," Sachar says of his decision to add another chapter to Armpit’s life. "I was intrigued by what it would be like for a young guy with a criminal record to have to come home from Camp Green Lake and try to put things back together." Small Steps finds Armpit back home in Austin, trying to stay out of trouble. Tall and burly, he’s the kind of guy people cross the street to avoid. In reality, though, he’s a gentle giant good-hearted, smart and surprisingly shy when it comes to girls. His best friend, Ginny, has cerebral palsy and together, they make an unlikely pair: she is white, 10 years old and smarter than most adults, yet she is a true friend to Armpit unlike his buddy X-Ray (another character from Holes). Taking advantage of Armpit’s generous nature, X-Ray persuades him to provide the financial backing for a ticket-scalping scheme. The tickets in question are to a concert by 17-year-old singing sensation Kaira DeLeon. When Armpit takes Ginny to the show, a mix-up brings them face-to-face with Kaira. Armpit is drawn into the whirlwind of her life and, behind her glamorous facade, finds a lonely girl in need of a friend. But he soon realizes that he must resume his own journey one small step at a time.
"The media tends to portray all teenagers as being very sophisticated, into sex and drugs and alcohol," Sachar says. " That may be a portion of teens today, but there’s even a larger percentage who aren’t into those things and who feel awkward around people of the opposite sex. I wanted the book to have characters who are like that and to show that not all teens are the way the media portrays them." Part of what makes Small Steps so believable and appealing is that its characters do have insecurities, and they aren’t ashamed to let them show. As a sort-of sequel to Holes, the book has enough plot twists and surprises to satisfy Sachar’s many fans. It also has an important message. "I think it’s critical for young people to take things one small step at a time, to persevere. That’s the way I approach my own work," says Sachar, who writes two hours a day and often produces six drafts of a single book. "I tend not to think too much about the big picture, about success," he says. "To me, the biggest success is actually writing the book. That’s where the real joy comes in."