Celebrated author Louis Sachar, winner of a National Book Award and the 1999 Newbery Medal for his novel Holes, is also recognized for his ever-popular story There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom, his "Wayside School" series for middle graders, and his "Marvin Redpost" chapter books for younger readers. Sachar's trademark is a humorous and realistic portrayal and exploration of relationships and feelings; his story lines characteristically chart the efforts of his various characters to discover and then assert their young identities. Sachar's male and female protagonists struggle and learn to cope with the world—with not a little help from the funny bone—just as Sachar himself had to finally decide his own true professional identity: lawyer or writer?
Born in East Meadow, New York, Sachar moved with his family at age nine to Orange County, California, at a time when orange groves were still plentiful there. He was a good student and excelled in math, but it was not until high school that he fell in love with reading. Sachar attended college at Antioch in Ohio his first year, but upon the death of his father he returned to California to be close to his mother. Going to school at Berkeley, he majored in economics, but also took creative writing courses and continued to indulge his voracious reading habits. At one point in his studies, enchanted with Russian literature, he decided to learn the language so he could read these novels in their original version. "After taking a year of Russian," he once commented, "I realized it was still Greek to me. A week into the semester I dropped out of Russian V and tried to figure out what other class I should take instead."
At this point, serendipity intruded into Sachar's life. An elementary school girl was handing out leaflets at his campus in the hopes of recruiting teachers' aides. Such work would earn him three college credits, enough to make up for the dropped language class. Without really thinking about it, Sachar took one of the leaflets and signed on as a teacher's aide. "Prior to that time I had no interest whatsoever in kids," Sachar once said. "It turned out to be not only my favorite class, but also the most important class I took during my college career." His interaction with the school kids was heightened when he became the lunchtime supervisor, and was known affectionately as "Louis, the Yard Teacher."
At about this same time, Sachar was reading In Our Town, a series of very short, interrelated stories by Damon Runyon, which gave him the idea of doing the same sort of treatment for a fictionalized school called Wayside. "All the kids are named after the kids I knew at the school where I worked," Sachar once commented. He even put himself in the book as the character Louis the Yard Teacher. "I probably had more fun writing that book than any of my others, because it was just a hobby then, and I never truly expected to be published."
After he graduated from college, Sachar continued working on his thirty short stories about Wayside School, and finally sent off the finished manuscript at the same time he was applying to law schools. "My first book was accepted for publication during my first week at University of California, beginning a six-year struggle over trying to decide between being an author or a lawyer," Sachar once said. The book was a mild success with young readers, making Sachar's deliberations more difficult. After graduating from law school and passing the bar, Sachar proceeded to both write and practice law part time. He continued working in this manner through his next several books, until he was established enough as an author to write full time.
Sideways Stories from Wayside School tells the tale of an elementary school thirty stories high, each classroom stacked on top of the other. There is a broad cast of characters, from school clown to bully to the favorite teacher, Mrs. Jewls. Sachar provides vignettes from many points of view which add up to a zany take on school days. Less episodic is Sachar's second book, Johnny's in the Basement, the story of eleven-year-old Johnny Laxatayl who owns a fantastic bottle-cap collection, his claim to fame. Johnny's punning last name is intentional, for the boy looks something like a dog; however, he "lacks a tail." After his eleventh birthday, Johnny's parents suddenly push responsibilities on him in the form of dancing lessons and their plan for him to sell his prized cap collection, for which he receives $86.33. Johnny and his new friend, Valerie, blow the money on meaningless junk, "a preadolescent way to show contempt for adults' exploitation," according to School Library Journal contributor Jack Forman. Joan McGrath, writing in Emergency Librarian, found the book "full of sly humor." Publishers Weekly called Johnny's in the Basement "another corker" and concluded that "all the many characters in the story are superbly realized, particularly Johnny's eldritch little sister."
Sachar's third novel, Someday Angeline, is told with "unaffected humor and linguistic art" which "invest the story of Angeline Persepolis with pure magic," according to a Publishers Weekly critic. Angeline is eight with an I.Q. that soars off the charts, but this genius aspect has made her an outsider at school. Her mother is dead and her teacher loves to embarrass the precocious child. But Angeline finds another loner, Gary Boone, known as Goon, as well as a friendly teacher, Miss Turbone (Mr. Bone to the pun-loving Sachar), who "gladden" her life and support her through tough times in a book that readers will not want to see end, according to a commentator in Publishers Weekly. Booklist's Ilene Cooper noted that children will enjoy "the sense of fun ... and the feeling of hope that comes shining through." Gary "Goon" Boone makes another appearance in Sachar's Dogs Don't Tell Jokes.
Sachar's fourth book was the work of several years, both in writing and in placing it with a publisher. Despite the troubles Sachar had with it, There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom is still one of his most popular and most well-known books. Sachar intended in this work to tell the story of the transformation of a fifth grade bully from both the point of view of the bullyish outcast in question, Bradley Chalkers, and also from the point of view of the new kid, Jeff Fishkin, who befriends Bradley. Publishers wanted Sachar to stick with Bradley's point of view, so publication was delayed with rewrites. The wait and extra work, however, were worth it. The recipient of over a dozen state awards, There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom charmed critics and readers alike. A Kirkus Reviews critic called the "fall and rise of Bradley Chalkers, class bully" a "humorous, immensely appealing story," and noted that Bradley's transformation, under the tutelage of his shaky new friend and the school counselor, "is beautiful to see." Writing in School Library Journal, David Gale called the novel "unusual, witty, and satisfying," and added that Sachar "ably captures both middle-grade angst and joy." Sam Leaton Sebesta dubbed Sachar's book "a triumph" in The Reading Teacher.
Sixth Grade Secrets follows in the same vein of preadolescent social problems when Laura starts a secret club known as Pig City, whose members must confess secrets to each other to insure they keep the existence of the club between them. When a rival club, Monkey Town, springs up, suddenly secrets abound in a "witty, well-paced story" that "shows off [Sachar's] impeccable ear for classroom banter," according to a review in Publishers Weekly. Booklist's Ilene Cooper praised Sachar's "plotting with twists" that will "hold readers' attentions." With The Boy Who Lost His Face, Sachar ventured further into junior high and young-adult territory, using more mature language, some of which his publishers ultimately convinced him to tone down. In this work, David, the protagonist, has a fling with the in-crowd, only to learn in the end that there are more rewarding friendships to be pursued.
Letters from fans of his first book of stories convinced Sachar to return to his tales from Wayside School with Wayside School Is Falling Down and Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School. Lee Galda, writing in The Reading Teacher, maintained that "humorous is the best way" to describe the former title, a "zany novel [which] will be cheered" by its audience. Once again, Sachar's humorous take on school life and his use of short chapters make for a perfect book to share in oral reading. Reviewing Wayside School Is Falling Down, Carolyn Phelan of Booklist remarked that "Sachar's humor is right on target for middle-grade readers," with episodes from the school cafeteria to a lesson in gravity from Mrs. Jewls when she drops a computer out the window. Phelan concluded: "Children will recognize Sachar as a writer who knows their territory and entertains them well." Sachar drew on his own love for math with the brainteasers gathered in Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School, and in Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger, he once again returned to the thirty-story school with thirty new self-contained tales that relate what happens during Mrs. Jewls's absence on maternity leave. Deborah Stevenson, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, called the book "smart, funny, and widely appealing," while a Kirkus Reviews commentator noted that "Sachar proves once again that he is a master of all things childish."
Sachar has also written a series of stories for younger readers, the "Marvin Redpost" chapter books, featuring Marvin of course, whose problems include nose-picking, questions about his identity, and troubles with his teacher. In the first title in the series, Marvin Redpost: Kidnapped at Birth?, nine-year-old Marvin, the only redhead in his family, thinks he was stolen from his real parents at birth. Marvin's friends agree that his concerns are quite valid, prompting the boy to confront his parents with his suspicions and urge them to get a blood test to prove him wrong. School Library Journal contributor Kenneth E. Kowen noted that the book is written almost totally in dialogue, praising the work as "fast paced, easy to read, and full of humor." Kowen concluded that Sachar's story "deals with issues of friendship, school, and being different, all handled with the author's typical light touch." Nose-picking gets the Sachar treatment in Marvin Redpost: Why Pick on Me?, in which Marvin is unjustly accused of picking his nose and becomes a social outcast as a result. Stevenson had high praise for this beginning chapter book in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, noting that Sachar, "a consistently talented writer of books for grade-school readers," circumvented the usual cutesy pitfalls of writing easy-readers "to produce a tour de force of the genre, a trim tome of energy, hilarity, and wisdom." Marvin gets in trouble again when he is entrusted with the care of his vacationing teacher's dog, Waldo, in Marvin Redpost: Alone in His Teacher's House. Waldo refuses to eat and eventually dies, leaving Marvin to deal with his feelings of guilt. Sachar has written seven titles in this series that has captured the hearts of young readers.
A departure for Sachar is his 1998 novel, Holes. Sachar's humor and ear for dialogue are in evidence here as in his other books, but at 235 pages, Holes weighs in as a real YA novel. The story of Stanley Yelnats, whose name, a palindrome, can be spelled backward and forward, the award-winning Holes earned a featured review in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, as Roger Sutton concluded: "We haven't seen a book with this much plot, so suspensefully and expertly deployed, in too long a time." In the novel, Stanley is wrongly accused of stealing a pair of sneakers and is sent to Texas's Camp Green Lake for bad boys as punishment. There the harsh female warden assigns him the task—along with other boys held there—of digging five-feet-deep holes in the camp's dried-up lake bed. A Publishers Weekly critic, calling the book "a wry and loopy novel," asserted: "Just when it seems as though this is going to be a weird YA cross between One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Cool Hand Luke, the story takes off—along with Stanley" as he and his new buddy, Zero, manage to escape. What follows, the Publishers Weekly commentator added, is a "dazzling blend of social commentary, tall tale and magic realism," as Stanley goes about getting rid of the Yelnats curse that has plagued his family for three generations. School Library Journal contributor Alison Follos also praised Sachar's novel, maintaining: "A multitude of colorful characters coupled with the skillful braiding of ethnic folklore, American legend, and contemporary issues is a brilliant achievement. There is no question, kids will love Holes."
Whether pushing the bounds of the YA format, entertaining with the goofy goings-on at Wayside School, or following Marvin through the rocky shoals of third grade, Sachar "has shown himself a writer of humor and heart," as Sutton characterized him in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. His many fans can only be happy that the legal profession was spared one more suit, and that the world of books gained a creator of wide range and depth.
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