My middle schoolers love this book, which I think is a feat in itself because I would have guessed that they would have giggled so uncontrollably at a book called Holes that they never would have read it. But Louis Sachar is the kind of author who possesses a child's imagination or at least the ability to create characters and situation children will find appealing.
We read some of Sachar's Wayside School stories the other day, and I was impressed how well their absurdity stood up--like the story about how the teacher brings in Janie-flavored ice cream and everyone loves it but Janie, for whom it tastes like nothing because it's what she tastes all the time. That's just clever enough to make me smile while still being a simple enough twist that a sixth grader can understand it; it manages to be surreal but not random.
Holes, I found, has too few of the moments that make the Wayside stories so enjoyable and relies instead on a Santa's bag of quirks, gimmicks, and nonsensicalities that don't really cohere. It's a shaggy dog story about a kid named Stanley who is wrongly accused of stealing a basketball stars' shoes and is sent to a camp where he's made to dig holes, supposedly to build character but in fact so that he might discover a treasure buried in the area by notorious outlaw Kissin' Kate Barlow. There are poisonous lizards, a kid named Zero, a gypsy curse, a deadly nail polish, and all manner of ridiculous details that might have worked well in the constraints of a short story. In a novel, however, they come off as the literary equivalent of flipping through the channels; though you might catch the conclusion of each show it doesn't mean you've really absorbed the material. Sachar jumps through innumerable hoops to tie the plot together at the end, but the focus that is one of juvenile fiction's strongest traits is sorely lacking.
Of course, you might say that I'm making the mistake of approaching this book as an adult--when, really, the proof of its success is in the fact that it can make a room of hormone-mad seventh graders quiet, if only for a few brief minutes.