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April 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 7

A Writer for Tweens at Heart: A Conversation with Louis Sachar

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      Tweens everywhere know Louis Sachar. Even if they haven't read about the quirky children and teachers of Wayside School, or blushed along with Bradley Chalkers after he was discovered in the girls' bathroom, they couldn't miss Sachar's 18th book, Holes. Published in 1998, the book earned a Newbery Medal in 1999 and landed on the silver screen in 2003. The book and movie tell the captivating story of a young man who, after being falsely arrested and sent to a detention camp for troubled youth, makes good on a broken promise and forever changes his family's life. Sachar says he writes stories that he likes and thinks will entertain his readers—he has no particular agenda in mind. Nevertheless, Sachar's books offer truths that strike a chord with children and enlighten adults.
      What prompted you to write books for children?
      During my last year in college, I helped out in a nearby elementary school. I did it because it was going to be an easy class—I would earn college credit to just help out in the classroom. However, it soon became my favorite thing to do every day. I just had a great time.
      Because I had always been interested in writing, I decided to try writing a children's book after I graduated from college. I would picture the different kids I knew from that elementary school in my mind, and the stories I made up about them became my first book, Sideways Stories from Wayside School.
      What is it about writing about young people—tweens and teens—that appeals to you?
      I like writing about young people because the future is still wide open to them. Children at that age are full of promise, optimism, and ideals—things that adults don't necessarily have anymore.
      People will often ask me if it's difficult to think like the kids I write for, and I guess I just don't think young people think that much differently than the rest of us. Their world is different—they've got school, home, parents, and teachers to deal with, but it's not that hard for me to put myself in their situations and act as if I were one of them.
      What I do strive for is honesty. I picture my typical reader as reluctant to be taken in by the story, as someone who is very critical and who would see through anything if I try to trick them. So, I try never to be gimmicky. When I'm writing a story, I create situations and describe how I—as the character—would respond under those circumstances.
      Who are some of your favorite authors for tweens?
      I like Katherine Paterson, E. B. White, Lois Lowry—for many of the same reasons I like adult authors: They reach me with their books, they write well, and they don't write down to kids. E. B. White is very funny; Katherine Paterson reminds me of Dickens, she writes so well.
      One of my favorite books is There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom. What was the inspiration for the story?
      It started from a true story that happened to a friend of mine. When he was in the 5th grade, his family had moved in the middle of the school year, so he had to go to a new school. He felt nervous and shy, especially when the teacher asked him to stand in front of the class while she introduced him. When the teacher assigned him a seat, someone said, “Oh, don't sit there, not next to Donnie.” My friend actually didn't care where he sat—he just wanted to escape being in the front of the room. But then the teacher, right out loud, in front of the whole class, said, “Oh, nobody really likes sitting next to Donnie.”
      So, that's how I began the book. I changed Donnie's name to Bradley and then started making up things about Bradley.
      Now, when I wrote the book, I wasn't thinking about sending any particular message to teachers—my focus was on writing Bradley's story. But I imagine that the story can reinforce the idea that you have to look beyond the surface. A teacher I met when I was on tour for Small Steps [Sachar's latest book], for example, told me that she rereads There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom every year before school starts as a reminder not to treat kids that way. So it's possible that the book can have that positive effect: to help adults recognize that the kids who cause problems are likely to have problems themselves.
      Kids can reach the same understanding. I think one of the great things about reading is that it helps readers find empathy for other people, even for someone as outwardly awful as Bradley.
      Bradley Chalkers had a difficult time in school. He got picked on, he picked on others, and the adults were often wary of him. It wasn't a happy time for him. Describe your school experience.
      I was actually mostly happy through elementary school. I had friends. I remember I liked my 6th grade teacher a lot. I wasn't that happy afterward, though. Kids started getting into cliques and I lost a lot of friends. I also became more self-conscious and shy.
      I remember that I wasn't shy in elementary school, and what's interesting is that my experience is fairly typical. When I visit students in 3rd through 5th grade and ask if they have questions, just about every hand goes up in the air. When I visit middle schools, the kids don't seem to have questions anymore, and they don't answer questions. I think that the kids are afraid to raise their hands. They've suddenly become very self-conscious, and they're afraid that they'll look un-cool or stupid in front of their friends.
      I think that's part of growing up, though. Many middle school students I've met are shy and awkward—whether they're in a group or not.

      A Writer for Tweens at Heart: A Conversation with Louis Sachar

      “We'll get you at lunch, Chalkers,” Robbie whispered as Bradley returned to class. “You're late,” said Mrs. Ebbel. He sat at his desk—last seat, last row—and looked at the chart on the wall next to him. Of course there was no gold star next to his name. He had already done three things wrong: First, he had knocked over a girl and made her cry. Second, he was late getting back to class. And third and worst of all, his name was Bradley Chalkers. As long as his name was Bradley Chalkers, he'd never get a gold star. They don't give gold stars to monsters.

      From There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom by Louis Sachar, copyright © 1987 by Louis Sachar. Jacket art copyright © 1987 by Richard Williams. Used by permission of Random House Children's Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

      You're a parent. What were your hopes for your daughter as she went off to school?
      I hoped when she went off to elementary school—and I still hope—that her teachers will encourage her learning in positive ways and that she fits in and makes friends. Even though most of my books are about it being OK for kids not to fit in, I still worry about my daughter because I know how painful it can be to not be accepted.
      And for the most part, she did fit in. Like me, she did a lot better in elementary than in middle school, but she was back on track in high school. She's in college now, majoring in biology.
      In one way, I think school was more of a challenge for my daughter because she always felt she had to fight being known as Louis Sachar's daughter. As a result, she shied away from writing because she didn't want to have to be compared with me.
      Still, she is a good writer. In fact, when she went to college, her English teacher told her what a good writer she was—and that English teacher didn't know anything about Louis Sachar. So it made my daughter stop and think, “Maybe I can write.” It was great for her self-esteem.
      It must have been difficult for you to realize that your daughter had to cope with your fame. Was that one of the reasons you dealt with that issue in your most recent book, Small Steps?
      If my decision to write about fame came from anywhere, it was probably from my working on a movie for three years and my brush with the lure of Hollywood.
      I was very lucky. The director asked me to write the screenplay for Holes, and he was open to my ideas. There were still frustrating times, of course, and there were things they did that I didn't necessarily agree with, but overall, I'm pleased with the way the movie turned out.
      It helped that it was never my idea that the movie had to be the book—you could never capture the book entirely, anyway. So my goal in writing the screenplay was that it had to be a good movie.
      A number of people ask, “How does it feel to have your book come to life?” I don't feel that at all. My book was already alive, and this was something different.
      Were you surprised by Holes' success?
      Well, my success came about somewhat slowly—I've been writing for more than 30 years now. My first book was published by a small publisher, and it wasn't widely distributed. I was surprised because I received lots of fan letters, but most of them would say, “Where can I get this book?” What I discovered was that my book would be popular wherever it would go—it just didn't go very many places.
      The three Wayside School books and There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom eventually became extremely popular, so I thought I had achieved what there was to achieve in the way of writing children's books. As a result, I was surprised by Holes and how it seemed to eclipse all that.
      In reference to Holes, one of our young readers wondered why you would want to write a book in which the adults were so mean and so many bad things happened to the kids. [See below for more questions from tweens.] How do you respond to questions like that?
      Well, if the adults were kind and nurturing and nothing happened to the kids, it would be a pretty dull book. Many of the characters I write about overcome adversity—that's what helps make it a good story. Kids are at the mercy of adults, so it creates tension when you have an adult who in some way or another is mean.
      A lot of my adults are good characters, too. I don't want to give the impression that none of my adult characters are nice!
      Being a writer was always a goal you had. What advice would you give children who are now just beginning to think of what careers they might like to pursue?
      I would say that the most important thing for kids to do is to find something they really like to do, and not to worry about how much money they make doing it. That's hard to do and not everyone can find jobs they like to do, but if you can, do it well and you'll be happy.
      Another reason to really like what you do is that it takes a lot of perseverance to do it well. When I'm writing my books, for instance, they always seem impossible.
      I had lots of doubts about Holes when I was writing it; who is going to be interested in reading about a kid who just digs holes all day? Would all that shifting around in time confuse the reader? I wasn't just constantly writing that book thinking, “Oh, this is going to be a great success!” It was a struggle—as are all of my books. There's always a point where I think, “Well, I've really wasted a lot of time, but I'm halfway there, so I might as well finish it.” Plus, I remember that that's how I felt about every one of my other books, and that somehow, I'm always happy with it when I've finished it.

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