Louis Sachar has inspired more than one young adult to tattoo a potato on their ankle.
He’s also responsible for a family who quacks like a duck whenever they see a train with more than 20 cars, an elementary school class who removes their socks before spelling tests, and a small but devoted group of fanfiction writers who write feverish crossover romances about his characters.
(Direct quote from one such story: Wayside School gets some new students, Bella Swan and Edward Cullen that are vampires! Then everyone has lots of drama filled advenchers!)
All are inspired by Sachar’s mega-popular Wayside School series, which aren’t your run-of-the-mill children’s books. Within them, a teacher has a third ear that allows her to read minds. Gravity is taught by throwing computers out windows (much faster than using paper and pencil). And a talking dead rat disguises himself as a student by wearing multiple raincoats.
The series is beloved by children and adults all over the world, and although the first book, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, was published in 1978, the books remain widely read and sold. Since Sideways Stories, Sachar has written 25 more books for children and young adults, including Holes, which won both the National Book Award and the Newbery Medal and was made into a 2003 movie starring Shia LeBeouf. (Sachar wrote the screenplay.)
Many of his early fans are now adults, including this writer, who burned through every Louis Sachar book I could find as a kid. Not simply because they were devilishly funny, but because they were the first books that felt like they were written for me, not at me.
Sachar’s books treat the reader as an intelligent and willing partner, not as an audience member demanding entertainment. They require the reader to think, to respond, and to empathize with characters that feel real and almost creepily lifelike. 2-D action heroes or sassy caricatures need not apply here; only real, grounded human beings.
Sachar never once talks down to his readers. He never breaks character to give a sly wink-and-nod to parents over kids’ heads. His books feel wonderfully genuine, with a sense of childlike joy that has remained steadfast throughout his career.
Sachar shares certain characteristics with his books. His voice is warm, and he is intensely thoughtful. He is mild-mannered and polite, preferring soft-colored sweaters and muted blazers for professional appearances, but will speak firmly and directly to make his point or stand up for his characters. He is serious, but with a gravity and trustworthiness that kids respond to.
At the Boston Book Festival where Sachar was the Kids’ Keynote Speaker, I slipped into the back row and watched as flailing limbs and fidgeting bodies were instantly quieted by Sachar’s voice. Children sat straight-backed, in rapture, as the author spoke about his books. Just like in his novels, Sachar spoke to them. Not about them, not down to them. He had good, worthy things to say. And his young audience responded in kind.
Telling Sideways Stories
Sideways Stories from Wayside School technically began in a high school creative writing class, when Sachar’s teacher assigned the students to write a story for children. Sachar went home and wrote about a wicked teacher who turned students into apples by wiggling her ears and sticking out her tongue.
Sachar’s teacher hated his story, assuming he hadn’t taken the assignment seriously. But Sachar had taken the assignment quite seriously. He liked the story. So years later, when volunteering at an elementary school for college credit, he read it to the students. The kids ate it up. The story would later become the first chapter in Sideways Stories.
After graduating from Berkeley, he became a sweater factory employee by day, children’s book author by night. (After a year, Sachar was fired from his day job; “My enthusiasm for sweaters was insufficient,” he writes in his website biography.)
Sachar enrolled in law school, passed the bar exam, and did part-time legal work while he wrote children’s books. It took nine years until he was able to write full time.
Sachar’s books are written as if crafted in the world’s slowest pressure cooker.
He writes for no more than two hours a day, sometimes only for one if the story is new to him. He goes into his office, sits down at a blank computer screen, and lets his brain wander. He does not outline. He does not plan. For the remaining 22 to 23 hours, he doesn’t really think about the book. But the next day, he sits down and often finds that magic’s happened overnight.
“There’s a part of my brain that’s unconsciously working on it all the time. I know this because I’ll stop writing one morning and just think, ‘Well, I don’t know how I’m going to fix this,’ or ‘I don’t know what’s coming next.’ [Then I’ll] sit down the next morning and suddenly I’ll know. So obviously there’s some part of me that’s thinking about it,” he says.
Part of this magic happens because Sachar tells no one – not his wife, not his daughter, not his long-standing editor – anything about the book he’s writing. He works in secret. The silence acts like a Petri dish or an incubator, letting his characters grow and evolve in an isolated environment without outside influence. It also gives Sachar laser-sharp focus as well as an incentive to finish the book – if he doesn’t tell the character’s story, no one can.
“It’s like it’s all inside me just kind of trying to get out,” he says. “If I talk about it, it diffuses it, lets it out, and then maybe it wouldn’t be as clear to me, or the characters wouldn’t jump out of the page. The dialogue wouldn’t just jump out [at me] if I talked about it with people and they said, ‘Oh yeah, that part’s good, that part’s…’ It’s better for me to just keep it all bottled up and let the pressure build.”
Layering the story
Sachar spends approximately two years and does five to six drafts on every book. He starts with some small idea, some seed of story, and lets the novel grow from there. For example, with Holes, Sachar started with the setting – a juvenile correctional camp where inmates are forced to dig holes for a villainous, steel-eyed warden who Publishers Weekly calls “perhaps the most terrifying female since Big Nurse.” The reader begins just as Sachar begins: “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.”
“You have to be willing to throw out a lot. You may have spent all this time working on this story and then realize, well, no, the better story is this little aspect of it.”
Sometimes the kindling doesn’t catch and he scraps the entire thing. Sachar says this is essential to being a writer. “You have to be willing to throw out a lot. You may have spent all this time working on this story and then realize, well, no, the better story is this little aspect of it. That’s really where the good stuff is. Just throw out everything else and start with the good stuff,” he says.
His first draft is a slow plod through story, with Sachar feeling his way through plot and character. The end doesn’t have to match the beginning, there are plot holes and inconsistencies, but it’s a start, Sachar says.
“When I finish a first draft, it’s really horrible. I’d be embarrassed to let anyone see it,” he admits. “But it gives me something to work with. And when I go back on the second draft and the third draft, I’ve got some ideas down now that I can play with and build on.”
The next few revisions are spent hammering out plot and deepening character. In later drafts, Sachar turns attention to artistry, retooling and tightening the work.
And the last draft? “I just want it to sparkle. I don’t know how else to put it,” he says. “I make sure nothing is boring, nothing gets tedious, that it just moves quickly.”
In this final draft, Sachar forces himself to finally stop fiddling with plot and dial deep into the telling. He makes himself believe that the story is true, and now it’s simply his job to play a convincing storyteller.
“I spend so much time working on the plot by the end [after] all the revisions, I have to almost force myself to stop and say, ‘I didn’t make this up. It is what happened. And now I just have to tell it, the best way I can,” he says. “And if something seems unbelievable or too much of a stretch, well, it is what happened, so I better make sure it doesn’t come across that way.”
Sachar’s books have evolved since the dead rats and madcap zaniness of Wayside School. The author says he tries to do something new with each book. With Sideways Stories, he “was just trying to be funny,” in his next book Johnny’s in the Basement, he aimed for a full-length novel instead of short stories, and in his third, Someday Angeline, he reached for “more poignancy: less about humor and more about character.”
“As my books have progressed I’ve tried challenging myself in different ways,” he says.
Sachar isn’t afraid to take risks as an author, either. He’s written about lynchings, torture, and racism. His characters include a schizophrenic teen, a girl with cerebral palsy and a teen trying to reset his life after a stay in a juvenile correctional facility.
His latest book, Fuzzy Mud, has vexed critics who try to categorize it. NPR calls the book a “scary eco-bioterror-mystery-thriller-comedy;” Publishers Weekly says it’s a “taut environmental cautionary tale;” while Bookpage.com says it reads like a “middle school version of Contagion.” (Sachar merely contends it’s his first attempt to write a scary book.)
Sachar has become a master at turning unlikely subjects into wildly engaging YA novels. His favorite book he’s written, The Cardturner, is about bridge. No, not bridges. Bridge, as in the card game your aging aunt plays with nursing home cronies.
The genius of Sachar’s prose is that it’s so plain and unshowy you don’t realize the daredevil artistry until it’s too late.
And the book isn’t merely about bridge. It contains full-fledged chapters detailing the nuances of a particular bridge hand.
“The book feels like one long, deadpan dare, as though Sachar has made a bet with himself that he can make the most boring setting thrilling,” writes Frank Cottrell Boyce in a review for The Guardian. “The genius of Sachar’s prose is that it’s so plain and unshowy you don’t realize the daredevil artistry until it’s too late. You don’t know you’ve been cut in half until you try to walk away.”
(The deadpan dare worked, by the way. Sachar, who with 4200 masterpoints is just a few years away from becoming a Diamond Life Master in competitive bridge, has indeed met young players on the circuit who say they were inspired to learn the game after reading The Cardturner.)
Letting freak flags fly
Perhaps these risks pay off because everything Sachar writes is decidedly driven by character. Dialogue comes naturally because he hears characters’ voices clearly; all humor is grounded in story and based on character.
“I never put in things [like] ‘Well, this is stupid, but kids will think it’s funny,” he tells me. “I don’t just stick jokes in the book just to make a laugh.”
From Sideways Stories to Fuzzy Mud, Sachar says that one theme in all his books has remained the same: It’s okay to be you. Don’t fake it, don’t hide it, don’t force yourself into someone else’s groove. Accept who you are, and not who other people decide you are, he says.
“I think kids, even more than adults, feel they want to fit in. There’s this real fear of not fitting in, that everyone else is included and you’re not. I think just about all kids feel that way,” he says. “They can identify with that. And it’s an important life lesson, to learn to trust and believe in yourself.”
Young readers deserve richly drawn characters, compelling plots and a strong narrative voice just as much as older ones.
Sachar has said in interviews that he writes for kids because the world is wide open to them; they lack the cynicism and jaded attitudes that plague older audiences. Yet he maintains that writing for kids isn’t much different than writing for adults. Young readers deserve richly drawn characters, compelling plots and a strong narrative voice just as much as older ones.
It’s a tricky balance, writing for kids. “You write what you like, and try to make it accessible for the reader. But it’s more than that. It’s making it fun for the reader without talking down to the reader,” he says.
As we near the end of our interview, I ask Sachar if he has any advice for would-be kidlit authors. At this point, we’ve been on the phone for quite some time. Sachar’s home phone has rung in the background, his answers have gotten shorter, and I know he’s gearing up for a national bridge tournament in Denver.
He answers it’s the same things we’ve already talked about: Respect your reader, develop your characters, be willing to rewrite, and doubly willing to throw out what isn’t working. Then there’s a pause, and he says this, strongly, with deep-set conviction:
“As an adult, you see a bunch of kids and you think, ‘Oh! How sweet! How darling! How cute! I want to tell a story to these cute, adorable kids!’ But you have to remember: Kids don’t see themselves as cute or adorable. They see themselves as real people with real problems. And even though their problems might seem insignificant or silly from an adult perspective, they’re very real to kids. So you have to get into that mindset and not treat them like they’re little adorable human beings, but as real, caring, smart, sensitive people.”
This is why his books are so popular with younger audiences, I think: He plays in their sandbox. He takes their anxieties, embarrassments, and nightmares and spins them into something that is both exciting and inviting.
But something else happens when you read his work. You laugh, certainly; you might cry, you might cheer, you might need to stay up late with your furry blanket tented over your book and flashlight. But you’ll finish this book, written with a skilled hand for such caring, smart, sensitive people, and find you’re inspired to live tomorrow a little smarter, a little more caring, with a more sensitive heart to the world around you.
Or you may be inspired to go out and get a tattoo of a potato on your ankle. The choice is yours, and is not a mutually exclusive one.
Nicki Porter is senior editor for The Writer. Originally Published