Holes (novel)

Holes is a 1998 young adult novel written by Louis Sachar and first published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The book centers on an unlucky teenage boy named Stanley Yelnats, who is sent to Camp Green Lake, a juvenile corrections facility in a desert in Texas, after being falsely accused of theft. The plot explores the history of the area and how the actions of several characters in the past have affected Stanley's life in the present. These interconnecting stories touch on themes such as racism, homelessness, illiteracy, and arranged marriage.

AuthorLouis Sachar
PublisherFarrar, Straus and Giroux (US)
Bloomsbury (UK)
Ediciones SM (Spain)
Publication date
August 20, 1998
[Fic] 21
LC ClassPZ7.S1185 Ho 1998

The book was both a critical and commercial success. Much of the praise for the book has centered around its complex plot, interesting characters, and representation of people of color and incarcerated youth. It won the 1998 U.S. National Book Award for Young People's Literature and the 1999 Newbery Medal for the year's "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children". In 2012 it was ranked number six among all-time children's novels in a survey published by School Library Journal.

Holes was adapted by Walt Disney Pictures as a feature film of the same name released in 2003. The film received generally positive reviews from critics, grossing $71 million, and was released in conjunction with the book companion Stanley Yelnats's Survival Guide to Camp Green Lake. A sequel to Holes entitled Small Steps was published in 2006 and centers on one of the secondary characters in the novel, Armpit.


Stanley Yelnats IV is a 14-year-old boy from a hard-working but poor family that is allegedly affected by a curse of bad luck, which they blame on Stanley's "no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing great-great-grandfather".[1] Stanley's latest stroke of misfortune occurs when he is wrongfully convicted of stealing a pair of athletic shoes that belonged to a famous baseball player. He is sent to Camp Green Lake, a juvenile corrections facility which is ironically located in the middle of a desert; the lake dried up decades ago. The inmates are assigned to dig one hole each day, five feet wide and five feet deep, which the Warden claims "builds their character". The novel alternates this story with two set in the past, with interrelated but distinct plot lines.

Elya Yelnats

Stanley's Latvian great-great-grandfather, Elya Yelnats, falls in love with a fifteen-year-old girl named Myra. However, her father would rather she married the much older pig farmer Igor, who can offer him his heaviest pig. Elya goes to his friend Madame Zeroni for help. Despite not approving of Myra as a partner, she gives him a tiny piglet, telling him to carry it up a mountain every day, and let it drink from a stream while singing to it. Each time, the pig will grow bigger. Zeroni says that in return, Elya must then carry her up the mountain. She warns him that if he does not do this, his family will be cursed.

Elya follows her directions, and the pig grows large. But after realizing Myra does not care whether she marries him or Igor, Elya leaves in disgust and instead moves to America. He forgets his promise to Zeroni. Though he falls in love and marries, he becomes beset by bad luck. The song that he sang to the pig becomes a lullaby that is passed down among his descendants.

Kissin' Kate

In the year 1888, the town of Green Lake is a flourishing lakeside community. Katherine Barlow, the white local schoolteacher, falls in love with Sam, an African-American onion seller, while rejecting advances from wealthy resident Charles Walker. There is an uproar in the town after Katherine and Sam are seen kissing. Seeing a dangerous mob gather, Katherine finds Sam and they attempt an escape across the lake in Sam's rowboat, but Walker and the mob intercept them with Walker's motorboat. Sam is shot dead, while Katherine is "rescued" against her wishes. From then on, no rain falls upon Green Lake again.

Three days later, Katherine kills the sheriff, in revenge for his refusal to help. She then becomes a prominent outlaw called "Kissin' Kate Barlow". Among her victims are Stanley's great-grandfather. He was left abandoned in the desert, but survived. Later on, she is tracked down by Charles Walker and his wife. They try to force her to reveal where she buried her loot, but she is bitten by a venomous lizard and dies. She taunts them with her last words: "Start digging!"

Camp Green Lake

The Warden allows the inmates the rest of their day off if they find anything "interesting". Stanley begins to suspect the Warden is looking for something. During one dig, he finds one of Barlow's lipstick tubes. He gives it to X-Ray, the ringleader of his group, who pretends to find it the next day. The Warden is excited by the discovery and orders them to enlarge X-Ray's hole. Stanley befriends Zero, a street child and a descendant of Madame Zeroni. Stanley teaches Zero to read in return for Zero digging part of Stanley's holes. This leads to an argument with the other inmates, and then the staff. Zero then flees. The camp staff decide to erase their record of him and let him die in the desert.

A few days later, Stanley follows Zero and finds him living under the remains of Sam's boat, eating very old jars of Barlow's spiced peaches, which he calls "Sploosh". Stanley notices a mountain resembling a thumbs up sign, and recalls his grandfather claimed to find "refuge on God’s thumb". They journey across the desert and up the mountain, where they discover a field of onions that was once Sam's. The boys eat the onions and find water by digging in the ground, and Stanley sings Madame Zeroni's song to Zero.

They return to camp and dig in the hole Stanley found the lipstick tube, unearthing a suitcase and venomous lizards. The Warden and staff appear and demand they hand it over, but retreat because of the lizards, which are passive to Stanley and Zero (it is implied onions deter them). The Warden is revealed to be Walker's granddaughter. Stanley's attorney appears at the camp, explaining that Stanley has been exonerated. Zero reveals the suitcase belongs to the Yelnats family, stopping the Warden from taking it. Fearing that the Warden will kill Zero if they leave him behind, Stanley refuses to leave unless Zero can come along. The attorney asks for Zero's file, but the camp staff are naturally unable to find it, so Zero is also released.

The suitcase contains financial documents that are worth a small fortune. Stanley's family buy a new house and Zero hires a team of investigators to find his missing mother. Stanley's father makes further money by inventing an antidote to foot odor, made from peaches and onions and named "Sploosh" by Zero. Meanwhile, the drought at Green Lake is brought to an end by rainfall. Camp Green Lake is closed and sold to become a Girl Scouts' camp.


Camp Green Lake

  • Stanley Yelnats IV (also known as "Caveman" by the rest of the campers, but referred to in the book by his proper name): Stanley is a 14-year-old boy who does not have any friends from school and is often picked on by his classmates and the school bully. Stanley's family is cursed with bad luck, and although they do not have much money, they always try to remain hopeful and look on the bright side of things. Stanley shares these traits with his family and, although he does not have a lot of self-confidence, he is not easily depressed, a characteristic that helps him adjust to the horrendous conditions of Camp Green Lake. However, he has a bad habit of blaming his great great grandfather when he gets in trouble. This habit made him impudent.[2] As the book progresses, Stanley slowly gains strength. He identifies the people who threaten him, like the Warden, and while he tries not to get in trouble he also stands up for himself and his friends and family. Stanley rebels for the rights of his friends when he steals Mr. Sir's truck to look for his friend Zero in the dry lake bed.[3]
  • Zero (Hector Zeroni): Zero is known to be the best digger at Camp Green Lake. So often, he is considered to be "stupid" or a mere nothing by the other boys and the counselors at the lake. He lacks an education, meaning he cannot really read or write. However, he is smart and manages to stand for himself in the face of adversity, breaking Mr. Pendanski's nose with a shovel after one too many snide remarks. Typically he is noted as the character that hardly speaks due to the fact that he is wary of those who mock him. He is said to always have a scowl on his face and does not like to answer questions. Zero is shown to be an honest character after becoming close friends with Stanley. Zero is the one who stole the shoes that Stanley was arrested for and accused of stealing. He is the great-great-great-grandson of Madame Zeroni, the woman who put a curse on Stanley's family. He has been homeless for most of his life, as well as being abandoned by his mother at a very young age. Although he suffers quite a bit, he always seems to persevere and come out on top.
  • X-Ray (Rex Washburn): X-Ray is the unofficial head of the boys in Group D. X-Ray decides that Stanley will be called Caveman and fixes the order of the line for water. X-Ray maintains his position as the leader of the boys even though he is one of the smallest and can barely see without his glasses. He convinces Stanley to give him the lipstick tube that Stanley finds in his hole so that he can have the day off instead of Stanley. X-Ray is able to maintain his position at the head of the group through a system of rewards and allies. Every time that Stanley does something nice for X-Ray, X-Ray is nice to Stanley and stands up for him when the other boys pick on him. When Stanley becomes friends with Zero, however, X-Ray's system is threatened and he becomes hostile towards Stanley. His nickname X-ray comes from it being pig Latin of his actual name, Rex.
  • Squid (Alan): Squid is a member of Group D at Camp Green Lake. He is often the one for taunting Stanley for sending and receiving letters to his mother. Just like X-Ray, Squid is very tough but very subservient to X-Ray's rules and directions.
  • Magnet (José): Another member of Group D. Magnet earned his nickname because of his ability to steal, he got into Camp Green Lake for stealing animals from the zoo and refers to his fingers as "little magnets".
  • Armpit (Theodore Johnson): One of X-Ray's close friends at camp, he pushes Stanley when Stanley calls him Theodore. His nickname Armpit is due to him being bitten by a scorpion at camp and the venom travelling up into his armpit, causing him to complain about his armpit hurting.
  • ZigZag (Ricky): Zigzag is described as being the tallest kid of Group D, constantly looking like he has been electrocuted, with frizzy hair. Stanley often thinks he is the weirdest and craziest kid at Camp Green Lake. Zigzag is the one who hit Stanley on the head with a shovel and did not apologise for doing so. Zigzag suffers from paranoia, highlighting his displayed "craziness".
  • Twitch (Brian): A car thief who arrives at camp after Stanley.
  • The Warden (Ms. Walker): Running Camp Green Lake, she is known to be violent, abusive, and quite mean. She uses her power and privilege to get what she wants and make members of the camp do as she pleases. She has hidden cameras, using them to spy on the members of the camp. She is often thought to have hidden cameras in the showers, causing Stanley to be paranoid whenever he takes a shower, rushing out as fast as possible. She wears nail polish traced with rattlesnake venom, and scratches those who displease or go against what she says. She has the members of Camp Green Lake digging holes to look for Kate Barlow's hidden treasure. She is the granddaughter of Charles "Trout" Walker. Her family had been digging the treasure out since her birth, but to no success.
  • Mr. Sir (Marion Sevillo): One of the counselors at Camp Green Lake, he is constantly eating sunflower seeds. He took up this habit after deciding to quit smoking. He is known to be mean and tough.
  • Mr. Pendanski: In Group D at Camp Green Lake Mr. Pendanski is in charge. Mr. Pendanski may seem friendly, but he is just as mean as the Warden and Mr. Sir. He never stops making fun of Zero ever since he has been at the camp, which comes back to bite him when the boy cracks him in the face with a shovel.

Town of Green Lake

  • Katherine Barlow (Kissin' Kate Barlow): Katherine Barlow is a sweet and intelligent woman who teaches in a one-room school house on Green Lake one hundred and ten years before Stanley arrives at Camp Green Lake. She falls in love with Sam, a man who sells onions in the town. Although the rest of the white people in the town are racist and enforce rules that prohibit black people from going to school, Kate, who is white, does not care about the color of a person's skin and she loves Sam for the person that he is. When Kate and Sam kiss, the angry townsfolk kill Sam and destroy her beloved schoolhouse. Kate is devastated by Sam's death and becomes Kissin' Kate Barlow, one of the most feared outlaws in the West. She always leaves her mark by kissing someone when she finishes killing them; if she had only robbed them, she would leave them in the hot desert. She is the outlaw responsible for robbing Stanley Yelnats I (Stanley's ancestor). Kate dies when a yellow spotted lizard bites her foot, but dies laughing because the Walker family will never find her treasure. The lipstick tube that Stanley finds during his second week at Camp Green Lake was owned by Kate Barlow.
  • Sam: Sam is an African-American farmer in the town Green Lake, Texas who grows onions. He believes onions are the cure to everything and makes many remedies from onions. He also has an immense love for his donkey, Mary Lou. His relationship with Kate begins when he exchanges his onions for some jars of peaches. He is murdered in cold blood by Charles "Trout" Walker.
  • Charles "Trout" Walker: Charles "Trout" Walker is an extremely spoiled son of a rich family in Green Lake. He gets upset when Kate denies his request to date her. This adds on to the reason of causing him to lead the townspeople to burn down the schoolhouse and kill Sam. His nickname Trout comes from his foot fungus that causes his feet to smell like dead fish. After Kate leaves to become an outlaw, he marries Linda Miller but his family loses everything after the lake dries up. He is The Warden's grandfather, who upon his death, opens up the juvenile detention camp to increase the efficiency of finding Kate Barlow's hidden treasure.
  • Stanley Yelnats I: Stanley Yelnats I is the son of Elya Yelnats as well as the great-grandfather of Stanley Yelnats IV. He was the one whose treasure was stolen by Kate Barlow while he was moving from New York to California. He is known to have survived by climbing to the top of a thumb-shaped mountain (God's Thumb) which happens to be Sam's old onion field.

Mid-1800s Latvia

  • Elya Yelnats: Elya is the great-great-grandfather of Stanley. He is often referred to as his "no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather", constantly being blamed for everything that goes wrong in Stanley's life. He is considered to be the reason why the Yelnats family has such bad luck. After he fell in love with the woman in Latvia, he travels to America, forgetting to go through with the promise he made to an old woman named Madame Zeroni. This causes generations of bad luck to trickle down the Yelnats family tree. However, he does pass down an important song that Madame Zeroni taught him in Latvia.
  • Madame Zeroni: Madame Zeroni is the great-great-great-grandmother of Hector Zeroni (Zero). She is great friends with Elya Yelnats, and she gives him a pig. Because Elya breaks his promise of carrying her to the top of the mountain, she is considered to be the one who put a "curse" on the Yelnats family.
  • Myra Menke: Myra is the most beautiful girl in the Latvian village of Elya and Madame Zeroni. Madame Zeroni compares her to a flowerpot. Myra's father promised to award her hand in marriage to whichever suitor can raise the fattest pig. When the pigs were the same size, Myra asked Elya and Igor Barkov to guess a number between 1 and 10, showing her inability to make her own decisions.
  • Igor Barkov: Igor was Elya's competitor for the hand of Myra Menke. He was already old and fat, but was a successful pig farmer.

Minor characters

  • Mr. Yelnats (Stanley Yelnats III): Mr. Yelnats is Stanley's father. He is an inventor and quite smart, but extremely unlucky. He attempts to discover a way to recycle old sneakers and because of this, the Yelnats' apartment smells bad. However, he eventually discovers a cure to ridding foot odor and is able to hire a lawyer, Ms. Morengo, to get Stanley out of Camp Green Lake.
  • Mrs. Yelnats: Mrs. Yelnats is Stanley's mother. She does not believe in curses but always points out the terrible luck that the Yelnats have.
  • Barf Bag (Louis): An inmate who left Camp Green Lake before Stanley arrived. He deliberately got a rattlesnake to bite him in order to be hospitalized.


Camp Green Lake is located on a dried-up lake in the U.S. state of Texas.[4] The name is a false description, as the area is a parched, barren desert. The only weather is scorching sun. No rain has fallen since the day Sam was murdered. The only plants mentioned are two oak trees in front of the Warden's cabin; the book notes that "the Warden owns the shade." The abandoned town of Green Lake is located by the side of the lakebed. Camp Green Lake is a juvenile detention center, where inmates spend most of their time digging holes. The majority of the book alternates between the present day story of Stanley Yelnats, the story of Elya Yelnats in Latvia (mid-1800s) and the story of Katherine Barlow in the town of Green Lake (about a generation later). Later chapters focus less on the past stories.

Literary Elements

Fairy Tales

The themes typical of a folk or fairy tale are present throughout the novel, notable in both Stanley and Elya's narratives.[5][6] Elya must go on an adventure to win his love's approval and prove his own worth and he is eventually placed under a witch's curse. Stanley's bad luck is blamed on the curse left on his great-great-grandfather and the Yelnats family easily believes in the power of this curse.[5] Both Stanley and Elya are similar to fairy tale characters and are morally good, heroic protagonists who must overcome the challenges predestined for them.[6] Both story lines are accompanied by a magic that is seen in the mountain stream, Madame Zeroni's song, and the healing power of the onions. Each of these elements in Holes mirror elements frequently found in fairy tales.[5]


Throughout the novel, names act as a theme that allows the characters to disassociate their lives at Camp Green Lake from their lives back in the real world. Names also demonstrate irony—Camp Green Lake is not actually a camp, it's located in a desert, and there is no lake. The "campers" all label themselves differently and identify with names such as Armpit and X-Ray and the guards are referred to as counselors. One of the counselors is referred to by the boys as "Mom", representing the absent parents at Camp Green Lake.[7] Only the woman in charge is referred to in a prison-like way and is called "Warden". The different names allow the boys to bond and form a team based in their hatred for their work and the counselors.[8] Many of the characters also have names that connect them to their family history, like the passing down of "Stanley Yelnats" and Zero's last name of Zeroni, and remind them how the actions of their ancestors affect their modern-day lives.[6] Stanley is the fourth "Stanley Yelnats" in his family, a name that is passed down due to its palindromic nature and adds to the connection to family history.[6]



Labor is seen throughout the novel as the children are forced to dig holes while at Camp Green Lake. This theme is unusual in children's literature as many authors portray children as carefree and without responsibility.[9] If they do engage in work, it is synonymous with play. Critic Maria Nikolajeva contends that Holes is set apart through the not just manual, but forced labor Stanley and the other campers do daily.[9] This is first referenced at the beginning of the book when the purpose of the camp is stated: "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".[10]

Public reception

Holes has won numerous awards, most notably the 1998 U.S. National Book Award for Young People's Literature[11] and the 1999 Newbery Medal for the year's "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children".[12] It also won the William Allen White Children's Book Award in 2001.[13] It continues to be well received by critics and was ranked number 6 among all-time children's novels by School Library Journal in 2012.[14]

Betsy Hearne of The New York Times applauded the novel's integration of mystery and humor that manages to keep Holes light and fresh, and she characterizes it as a "family read-aloud."[15] Roger Sutton of The Horn Book Magazine called Sachar's declarative style effective, and argues that it helped make the novel more poignant. Sutton appreciated the positive ending and the suspense that leads the reader to it.[16]

Film adaptation

In 2003, Walt Disney Pictures released a film version of Holes, which was directed by Andrew Davis and written by Louis Sachar.[17]


Two companion novels have followed Holes: Stanley Yelnats' Survival Guide to Camp Green Lake (2003) and Small Steps (2006).[18]

Stanley Yelnats's Survival Guide to Camp Green Lake

As Louis Sachar states: "Should you ever find yourself at Camp Green Lake—or somewhere similar—this is the guide for you." Written from Stanley's point of view, the book offers advice on everything from scorpions, rattlesnakes, yellow-spotted lizards, etc.[19]

Small Steps

In this sequel to Holes, former inmate Armpit is now 17 and struggling with the challenges facing an African American teenager with a criminal history. A new friendship with Ginny, who has cerebral palsy, a reunion with former friend X-Ray, a ticket-scalping scheme, a beautiful pop singer, and a frame-up all test Armpit’s resolve to "Just take small steps and keep moving forward".[20]


  1. Sachar, Louis (2000). Holes. New York: Yearling Books. p. 7. ISBN 978-0440414803.
  2. "Holes Q & A". www.Louissachar.com. Retrieved January 17, 2017.
  3. Sachar, Louis (1998). "Holes", p. 103. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 30 November 2015.
  4. Sachar, Louis (2000). Holes. New York: Yearling. p. 1. ISBN 978-0440414803.
  5. Mascia, Elizabeth G. (2001). "Holes: Folklore Redux". The ALAN Review. 28 (2): 51. doi:10.21061/alan.v28i2.a.11.
  6. Pinsent, Pat (2002-09-01). "Fate and Fortune in a Modern Fairy Tale: Louis Sachar's Holes". Children's Literature in Education. 33 (3): 203–212. doi:10.1023/A:1019682032315. ISSN 0045-6713.
  7. Møllegaard, Kirsten (2010-08-13). "Haunting and History in Louis Sachar's Holes". Western American Literature. 45 (2): 138–161. doi:10.1353/wal.0.0117. ISSN 1948-7142.
  8. Wallin, Marie (January 2008). "Literacy and the Power of the Law: Louis Sachar's Holes and Lemony Snicket's A Bad Beginning". Angles on the English Speaking World. 8: 101–110 via EBSCOhost.
  9. Nikolajeva, Maria (2002). ""A Dream of Complete Idleness": Depiction of Labor in Children's Fiction". The Lion and the Unicorn. 26.3: 305–321. doi:10.1353/uni.2002.0031.
  10. Sachar, Louis (1998). Holes. New York: Dell Yearling. p. 5.
  11. "1998 National Book Awards Winners and Finalists, The National Book Foundation". www.nationalbook.org. Retrieved 2018-04-27.
  12. "Author Louis Sachar wins 1999 Newbery Medal;Illustrator Mary Azarian wins Caldecott Medal". News and Press Center. 2007-02-26. Retrieved 2018-04-27.
  13. "Past Winners - William Allen White Children's Book Awards | Emporia State University". www.emporia.edu. Retrieved 2018-05-02.
  14. "School Library Journal Top 100 Children's Novels, 2012 Poll | Book awards | LibraryThing". www.librarything.com. Retrieved 2018-05-02.
  15. Hearne, Betsy (1998). "He Didn't Do It". The New York Times.
  16. Sutton, Roger (September 1, 1998). "Review of Holes". The Horn Book.
  17. Holes at the Internet Movie Database
  18. Small Steps: Summary and book reviews of Small Steps by Louis Sachar
  19. Sachar, Louis. "Stanley Yelnats's Survival Guide to Camp Green Lake". Louis Sachar. Archived from the original on 2015-09-23. Retrieved 2015. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  20. Sachar, Louis. "Louis Sachar: Booklist". Louis Sachar. Louis Sachar. Archived from the original on 2015-10-05. Retrieved 2015. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
Preceded by
Out of the Dust
Newbery Medal recipient
Succeeded by
Bud, Not Buddy
Preceded by
New category
Winner of the
William Allen White Children's Book Award
Grades 6–8

Succeeded by
Bud, Not Buddy
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