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Why Kids Dig Holes

A behind-the-scenes look at ''Holes.'' Time will tell if the best-selling kids' book will be an ace for Disney on screen

Holes | DIG IN (From left) Khleo Thomas, Miguel Castro, Jake M. Smith, LaBeouf, Brenden Jefferson, and Byron Cotton
Image credit: Holes: Tony Barbera
DIG IN (From left) Khleo Thomas, Miguel Castro, Jake M. Smith, LaBeouf, Brenden Jefferson, and Byron Cotton
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Why Kids Dig Holes

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You are to dig one hole each day, including Saturdays and Sundays. Each hole must be five feet deep, and five feet across in every direction. Your shovel is your measuring stick.

If you're not smiling knowingly at the previous paragraph, well, you don't know ''Holes.'' And if you don't know ''Holes,'' you should be smiling. Sheepishly, because you are oblivious to a property that's almost as hot as ''Potter.'' Published in 1998, Louis Sachar's ''Holes'' nabbed both the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award for kid lit. '''Holes' was a phenomenon from the get-go,'' says Beverly Horowitz, VP and publisher of Knopf Delacorte Dell Young Readers Group. ''It had that rare quality that made it seem as if it were a classic as soon as it was published.'' A classic that kids (and not a few adults) actually like: Last week, ''Holes'' was entrenched at No. 11 on the USA Today best-seller list, topping even John Grisham's ''The King of Torts.'' With 2.7 million copies in print, this five-year-old kids' novel is outselling most new fiction.

It's that cultish following that hooked Walden Media. In 2001, Walden, created by educator Micheal Flaherty and former Dimension Films head Cary Granat, had just received hefty backing from billionaire Philip Anschutz. What to do with the booty? They canvassed teachers and students across the country about books they'd most like to see as movies. ''Without question, 'Holes' was off the charts,'' says Flaherty. ''It was always the No. 1 request, right up there with 'Harry Potter.''' (Flaherty knows from cherished kids' books: Walden, which has a two-year distribution deal with Disney, also won the rights to ''Around the World in Eighty Days'' and C.S. Lewis' ''The Chronicles of Narnia.'')

For those who have yet to dig in, may we take this moment to fill in some ''Holes''? Stanley Yelnats, a pudgy palindromic outcast middle schooler, is sent to a work camp for juvenile offenders after being falsely accused of filching sneakers. There, while dodging deadly yellow-spotted lizards, he and his fellow troubled Texans are forced to dig a hole each day. Ostensibly, this will build character. In reality, something fishy's going on. Hint: It involves the flashback stories featuring everything from an Old West teacher who falls in love with a black man to Stanley's no-good, pig-stealing great-great-grandfather.

Sachar, a Berkeley grad whose move to steamy Austin inspired the hellish ''Holes'' locale, wasn't so sure his 17th kids' book (and first runaway hit) should go Hollywood. Not until director Andrew Davis showed up with a resume that included ''Under Siege'' and ''The Fugitive.'' ''He's done a lot of action films and I liked that,'' the author says. ''I was glad there was someone who'd keep it tough as well as gentle.'' Tone deftness was assured when Davis talked Sachar, now 49, into writing the screenplay. ''I wanted his involvement,'' Davis says. ''I wanted him to like the movie.'' Fans who show up for the April 18 opening will see a fairly faithful adaptation. The most controversial change: Stanley is no longer chubby, as the favorite actor turned out to be downright skinny -- Shia LaBeouf, star of the Disney Channel's ''Even Stevens.'' ''I'd [been] pushing for a big kid,'' Sachar says. ''But Shia still conveys the sense of vulnerability, but with a spark.'' LaBeouf (who with his film inmates endured a two-week ''boot camp'' to prep for the California desert shoot) really dug Stanley. ''He goes from not being able to help himself to being able to help everybody around him,'' says the 16-year-old.

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