- A desert prison-camp for boys in 1998: 12 year old Stanley Yelnats is brought out by bus to be processed, and thinks about all the terrible luck that led him there. He arrives and meets Mr. Sir, who tells him how bad things will be.
As with the last two examples, this is the first novel some kids read on their own, and it’s wildly entertaining, but it’s also steeped in the tragedies of American history. Our white hero is falsely accused and arrested, which is to say that he’s being treated like a black kid, but he eventually realizes that, even in this unfair hellhole, he’s the beneficiary of all kinds of white privilege. Only by doing what he can to atone for his family’s original sin (exploiting and betraying a person of color) can he lift the “curse” that led him there. It’s a powerful tale, and all the more powerful for confronting the youngest of readers with these uncomfortable truths.
So why do we embrace this complex hero? Sachar will eventually complicate our feelings towards Stanley, but only after we intensely bond with him in the opening pages.
Believe: Stanley doesn’t just chalk up his terrible situation to bad luck, he blames his “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather”, which is compelling. He’s got an odd name that makes him unique. He’s overweight (unlike in the movie), and we get a specific example of what that’s like:
- On his last day of school, his math teacher, Mrs. Bell, taught ratios. As an example, she chose the heaviest kid in the class and the lightest kid in the class, and had them weigh themselves. Stanley weighed three times as much as the other boy. Mrs. Bell wrote the ratio on the board, 3:1, unaware of how much embarrassment she had caused both of them.
If you’re a fellow writer, that the sort of example that makes you say, “there’s no way the author made that up, that really happened to the author or somebody he knows,” and those are exactly the sorts of details you want to make your writing come alive.
Care: The very next paragraph is just “Stanley was arrested later that day,” so obviously we’re going to care about his kid.
But let’s talk about another great way to get us to care intensely for any hero: Show that something horrible is about to happen to them, and then show that they naively expect the opposite. The book’s great first paragraph starts us off with an ironic contradiction:
- There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.
Then, after three pages describing the hellishness of the camp, we find out about Stanley:
- Stanley and his parents had tried to pretend that he was just going away to camp for a while, just like rich kids do. When Stanley was younger he used to play with stuffed animals, and pretend the animals were at camp. Camp Fun and Games he called it. Sometimes he’d have them play soccer with a marble. Other times they’d run an obstacle course, or go bungee jumping off a table, tied to broken rubber bands. Now Stanley tried to pretend he was going to Camp Fun and Games. Maybe he’d make some friends, he thought. At least he’d get to swim in the lake.
We don’t know yet that Stanley has been falsely convicted, but we don’t care: This poor kid thinks he’s going to get to swim! Even if he’s killed sixty people, that’s heartbreaking. We will soon find out that our hero is there because of a crime he didn’t commit, but only after the book has established that no one deserves this punishment.
Invest: Like another hero we’ll discuss later, Stanley takes his injustice like a man, which is more impressive in this case since he’s just a boy. He doesn’t protest his innocence to anyone. In fact, he discovers an irony (and ironies are always good): “Nobody had believed him when he said he was innocent. Now, when he said he stole them, nobody believed him either.”
Another point: All of the men in Stanley’s family are convinced that they’re cursed, which can imply a certain lack of personal responsibility, but Sachar lets us know this key information:
- All of them had something else in common. Despite their awful luck, they always remained hopeful. As Stanley’s father liked to say, ‘I learn from failure.’
Pluck is always an essential quality in a hero.
But wait, we’ve seen how Sachar gets us to believe in, care for, and invest in a hero, but Sachar, goes further, and in these opening pages, he also does the same for a villain, all in one paragraph!
Stanley has been driven out to a desert prison camp by a bus driver and guard and he’s being dropped off with a warden. Then the guard notices something:
- ‘That’s a lot of sunflower seeds,’ the bus guard said.
- Stanley noticed a burlap sack filled with sunflower seeds on the floor next to the desk.
- ‘I quit smoking last month,’ said the man in the cowboy hat. He had a tattoo of a rattlesnake on his arm, and as he signed his name, the snake’s rattle seemed to wiggle. ‘I used to smoke a pack a day. Now I eat a sack of these every week.’
So right away, we…
- Believe: Specificity of the sunflower seeds, which is not a detail that I’ve seen in a lot of books.
- Care: Trying to quit smoking and dealing with cravings.
- We even “invest,” though that’s a tricky word for a villain: He’s badass: He’s got a cowboy hat and a rattlesnake tattoo.
With a hero, obviously, we invest our hopes for a happy ending. But with a villain, we also have to “root” for him to be a good villain, and the hat and tattoo do that. Sure enough, further down the page, Stanley gets to know him:
- The man in the cowboy hat spit sunflower seed shells into a wastepaper basket. Then he walked around the desk to Stanley. ‘My name is Mr. Sir,’ he said. ‘Whenever you speak to me you must call me by my name, is that clear?’
- Stanley hesitated. ‘Uh, yes, Mr. Sir,’ he said, though he couldn’t imagine that was really the man’s name.
- ‘You’re not in the Girl Scouts anymore,’ Mr. Sir said.
He then denies Stanley badly-needed water, we’re going to primarily boo-hiss him, but our enmity will be strengthened, not lessened, by our belief in him as a human being and our understanding of his one weakness. This is a real villain, not a fake one, and he’s all the scarier for that.