Sachar’s most recent book, “Fuzzy Mud,”
came out in 2015. It’s a bit of a departure—a Times review described
the concept as “kid-lit Crichton.” Two children wander through an
off-limits forest and stumble upon the titular substance: a
lab-engineered energy source made up of tiny organisms, “ergonyms,” that
multiply exponentially, so that one ergonym becomes a billion over the
course of a single day. The ergonyms mutate, producing a public-health
crisis called the Heath Cliff Disaster. The story is intercut with
transcripts of government hearings, in which the dialogue is playful but
the subject dire.

The main character is Tamaya Dhilwaddi, a conscientious fifth grader.
Sachar’s characters are often troublemakers—or, at least, the types of
kids who don’t mind being on the outs. Tamaya, on the other hand,
agonizes over the trouble she might cause her parents. “It seemed to me
that most female main characters in children’s books tend to be these
sassy, funny, outgoing girls,” Sachar told me. “And that’s fine, but I
wanted to write a main character for the girls like my daughter—the
girls who are quiet, who are sometimes overlooked, who just want to
please their teachers.” Tamaya stages a dramatic solo rescue of one of
her classmates and alerts the world to the fuzzy mud’s side effects. She
almost goes blind. “She became, probably, the most heroic character I’ve
ever created,” Sachar said.

We had driven farther north in Austin, to St. Edwards Park, a hidden,
wooded spot bisected by a creek. Sachar put on a bright-yellow baseball
hat, and we trudged through the hip-high weeds of an overgrown hiking
trail. I told him that “Holes” reminded me of “Middlesex,” Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel about fate and subversion; Sachar nodded politely. We
talked about revision, the part of writing he likes best. He doesn’t
read other children’s books, although he thinks of “Charlotte’s Web” as a favorite, and he’s never seriously tried to write fiction for adults.
“I don’t know if I’d be comfortable writing about adults, and sex, and
all that comes with it,” he said.

A sort of good-natured restlessness was emerging from him, the kind you
see in kids who can amuse themselves better on their own. We had
zigzagged slowly up to the top of the trail, and the creek rushed below
us. “It’s getting harder, now that I’m older, to identify with kids,” he
said. “I always thought of them as real people with real problems. I
tried to see the world from their point of view. But now it’s harder not
to see kids how most people see them—as cute little darlings.” He was
working on the first draft of a new book, he said, but it was slow

We spoke again months later; he’d just gotten to the second draft. “When
I get to the third, I’ll be able to say, This is the story,” he said. He
was steering away from his previous book’s dystopia. “The new one is set
in a nice version of our world.” In Austin, he told me that his work
forced him to try to be hopeful. “The world is so open to kids, so full
of possibilities,” he said, as we walked back down the trail. “Lately,
I’m not feeling very optimistic, but maybe that’s just a symptom of
people getting older—they think they’re going to die and the world is
going to fall apart.”

Things are always falling apart in some way in Sachar’s books, and
that’s why I loved them. On my most recent reread of the Wayside School
trilogy, a moment at the end of the second book struck me: the school
closes down, after a misunderstanding involving Mrs. Jewls’s cowbell
brings a herd of cattle into the stairwells and onto the roof. Only
Louis is left in the building, pleading sunup to sundown for the cows to
go home. When the third book opens, Louis is still alone and working.
“Some days it seemed hopeless,” Sachar writes. “But whenever he felt
like quitting, he thought about those poor kids, stuck in those horrible
schools, and he just worked harder.” And then, one day, the cows are
gone; the building is spit-shined. Wayside School reopens, and Louis is
the only one who can still hear the moos.

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