Holes

Price: $9.99

What is it

Holes is a “young adult mystery comedy novel” that was also made into a movie, about a boy working digging holes in what is essentially a juvenile prison camp. There is a parallel story that takes place exactly 100 years earlier, involving some of the characters’ ancestors.

Who is it for

The target audience is young adolescents, although younger kids will enjoy the movie.

The book and movie have some strong language (e.g. “damn”) and some themes (e.g. homelessness, racism) that may be difficult for younger readers/viewers to process.

Most of the main characters are boys and many of the themes involve the relationships between boys, so I think Holes is essentially a book about and for boys.

What Kids Like

Kids like the honesty. The book is rare in how it depicts events such as bullying, being “the new kid”, and dealing with cruel adults – in a way that is realistic without being cynical. Similarly, characters in the story endure racism and other forms or cruelty in a way seldom seen in children’s literature.

The plot is also very rich, including scenes in the Wild West, a treasure hunt, a mountain climb, wacky inventions, strange characters, and everything is resolved very satisfyingly in the end.

What Parents Like

I like the complexity of the plot, which has enough going on for adults to enjoy (and not just sit through).

And the depictions of bullying, racism, and other themes are really good, sparking interesting conversation.

The audiobook version is very good, read by actor Kerry Beyer, and has been a welcome CD to play in the car.

What the Critics Think

Paraphrased from the Holes Wikipedia entry:

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”. It also won the William Allen White Children’s Book Award in 2001. It was ranked number 6 among all-time children’s novels by School Library Journal in 2012.

The Holes Novel gets 3.9/5 on Goodreads, 5/5 on Common Sense Media, 4.6/5 on Barnes & Noble, and 87% on Google.

The Holes Movie gets 7.1/10 on IMDb, 78% on Rotten Tomatoes, 71% on Metacritic, and 92% on Google.

Concerns/Flaws

There is some strong language and there are some violent scenes.

Who Made it

Holes was written by Louis Sachar, who may be best known for the Wayside School series (Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Wayside School is Falling Down, and Wayside School Gets A Little Stranger) which has since been made into an animated TV series.

The 2003 Disney movie was directed by Andrew Davis and starred Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Patricia Arquette, Tim Blake Nelson and Shia LaBeouf. I thought Jon Voight was just great in his role of “Mr. Sir”. And Shia LaBeouf really shined in his role, with a quality of acting rarely seen in child actors.

The audiobook came out in 2016 and was read by Kerry Beyer.

History

Holes was written in 1998 by Louis Sachar after finishing the third and final novel in his Wayside School series. The Disney movie came out in 2003. Both book and movie seem as fresh and relevant today as they did twenty years ago.

Where Can I Get it

The book is available everywhere.

Amazon’s Audible service has the audiobook

Google has a sample/preview of the book

And the trailer for the movie is on YouTube:

The movie is available for streaming on Amazon

The Roald Dahl Audio Collection

What is it

This 4-CD collection includes Roald Dahl himself reading some of his most-famous stories: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James & the Giant Peach, and Fantastic and Mr. Fox – as well as a couple of his less well-known: The Enormous Crocodile and The Magic Finger

Who is it for

Kids of most ages and adults all seem to like Roald Dahl stories.

What Kids Like

One aspect of Dahl stories that seem to appeal to my kids is the perpetual threat of violence that is largely absent from modern children’s stories. The threat is rarely realized, and when it is, it’s done so in a comical manner, so never crosses the line into gore.

The other appealing aspect for kids is the revenge fantasy element. Almost every Dahl story has a mistreated child who is finally able to strike back at the grown-ups who torment them. Mr. Fox is an exception to that, in that he is a fox, but that is also a tale of revenge, actuated by outwitting the cruel adults.

There is a kind of thruthfulness to Dahl’s language, describing characters and actions in a way that could be described as politically incorrect, but in a refreshingly honest way. Here is the opening of Fantastic Mr. Fox:

Down in the valley there were three farms. The owners of these farms had done well. They were rich men. They were also nasty men. All three of them were about as nasty and mean as any men you could meet. Their names were Farmer Boggis, Farmer Bunce and Farmer Bean.

Boggis was a chicken farmer. He kept thousands of chickens. He was enormously fat. This was because he ate three boiled chickens smothered with dumplings every day for breakfast, lunch and supper.

Bunce was a duck-and-goose farmer. He kept thousands of ducks and geese. He was a kind of pot-bellied dwarf. He was so short his chin would have been underwater in the shallow end of any swimming-pool in the world. His food was doughnuts and goose-livers. He mashed the livers into a disgusting paste and then stuffed the paste into the doughnuts. This diet gave him a tummy-ache and a beastly temper.

Bean was a turkey-and-apple farmer. He kept thousands of turkeys in an orchard full of apple trees. He never ate any food at all. Instead, he drank gallons of strong cider which he made from the apples in his orchard. He was as thin as a pencil and the cleverest of them all.

What Parents Like

Part of what we like is the nostalgia from hearing stories we remember hearing as children, and we like exposing our kids to stories that we consider ‘classics’.

Also, the language Dahl uses is more sophisticated and creative than most other children’s media our kids enjoy, so we like exposing them to that.

This set is perfect for road trips. The stories themselves are about 45 minutes, and each fits on a single CD.

These are also very convenient for bedtime. MP3 players or streaming via the phone is convenient, but with those devices there is always the temptation to see what else is on the device. With CDs, there isn’t a choice.

What the Critics Think

I don’t think this particular anthology has won any awards, but Dahl and his books have won plenty (Here’s a list)

Concerns/Flaws

There is some harsh language, when adult characters belittle the children in the stories, calling them “stupid” and “worthless”. The language itself is not graphic, but it can be shocking for kids who are only used to the gentle language of Sesame Street, for example.

Who Made it

Roald Dahl is most famous for writing the story, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” that has since been made into multiple movies. He also wrote Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, Danny the Champion of the World, Matilda, The BFG, The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, The Twits, The Witches, and several others. Many of his stories have been made into movies.

There’s a lot more about the author at this fan site.

History

Dahl did most of his writing in the 1960s and 1970s

James & the Giant Peach 1961
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 1964
The Magic Finger 1966
Fantastic and Mr. Fox 1970
The Enormous Crocodile 1978

Where Can I Get it

The CDs are available at libraries or to buy online. You can get them streaming for free with an Amazon Audible subscription, and some libraries offer them as downloads through the Libby app.

Geronimo Stilton

I had never heard of Geronimo Stilton before having kids, and just randomly stumbled across these CDs at the library when planning a road trip. These were a big hit and we started playing them in the evening at bedtime.

The concept is that Geronimo Stilton is a mouse and a newspaper editor who winds up in zany adventures with his sister and nephew and others. Geronimo is a bit of a nebbish and a reluctant hero, making the stories comical.

There are something like 30 stories that have been read and recorded on CDs, in collections of 2 or 3. The narrator of the first few CDs is Edward Herrmann and of the others is Bill Lobley. Lobley in particular is a very skilled voice actor and he makes the characters and story very entertaining, enough to engage parents as well as children.

It turns out that Geronimo Stilton is practically a media empire, with dozens of chapter books, comic books, graphic novels, audio CDs, and a TV cartoon. It was fun for our kids to hear the stories first on audio, and later to read the comic versions, putting faces to the characters they had become familiar with.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that our kids spend more time with Geronimo Stilton stories than any other single thing, including Lego and Minecraft.

The appeal is still a bit of a mystery to me, but I think part of it is the set of main characters, which is different from characters in most American media. Geronimo Stilton is translated from the original Italian, and some of that European perspective comes through. Specifically, most current American children’s media either has all characters be equally genial and pleasant, or has all characters be equally snarky.

Mostly gone are the days of Winnie the Pooh, when the main character (Winnie) was funny because he was so stupid, but other characters were very distinct: Eeyore the grumpy one, Rabbit the fussy one, etc. Compare that to most Dreamworks or Disney movies now where everyone makes wisecrack remarks but are mostly interchangeable with each other.

Geronimo Stilton is more in the older form, with a central hero (Geronimo), a sidekick (his nephew Benjamin), comic relief (his cousin Trap), and the girl (his sister Thea). This form was the standard for American movies and TV for decades. But G.S. twists the form. Geronimo is timid, not heroic. The kid (Benjamin) is not obnoxious and in fact everyone likes him. He’s smart and reliable. And Thea, the girl, is actually the boldest, most courageous and decisive, as well as the most athletic of the group. Even Trap, the comic relief subverts the trope by saving much of his ridicule for the hero.

Even though the characters are mostly male, the character of Thea is a good role model for girls. She likes fashion, but not obsessively so. She is portrayed as attractive (I think. She is a mouse after all) but not in an idle princess kind of way.

We love us some Geronimo Stilton. If were to have another kid, I would lobby for “Geronimo” as a middle name.

The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster

I have met many, many adults who consider this book their favorite book of all time, even though they haven’t read it in twenty or thirty years. And I have met even more adults who have never heard of it.

The story is ultimately an adventure story, with the main character traveling in a strange land, meeting interesting characters along the way, some of whom join him. They stumble upon an epic quest and have to confront many challenges before saving the day and returning home.

But that is just the core plot. The real joy is the metaphor and wordplay. Many concepts are treated literally: Milo physically jumps to the land of Conclusions; The Spelling Bee and Humbug are large talking insects; The princesses Rhyme and Reason have been imprisoned. Milo begins the story bored, but over the course of the tale he learns that motivation and curiosity are the tools you need to help people and solve big problems.

The actor David Hyde Pierce (perhaps best known for the character Niles Crane from the TV show Frasier) recorded an audiobook version that is very well done and a good pick for a long car ride. It sounds trite to say, but it is one that the whole family can enjoy.

There was even an animated movie made in 1970 that captures much of the whimsy of the story, but doesn’t compare to reading the book and imagining the characters and hearing the wordplay in your own head.

The Phantom Tollbooth in Wikipedia

The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me – Roald Dahl

This is a Roald Dahl story I hadn’t heard before, certainly much less-well-known than “James and the Giant Peach” or “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. It also doesn’t have the undercurrent of terror and threat of violence that most Dahl stories have.

Some animals have a window-washing business and a kid joins them.

The kids liked it and particularly enjoyed the audio cd performed by actor Richard E. Grant.

The audio runs 42:30.