In Liverpool there is only one big question: blue or red? Everton or Liverpool? Rarely has a visiting celebrity got away with saying "both". But Holes author Louis Sachar can do no wrong in the city that has taken to its heart his novel about inheritance, justice, desert heat and digging.
Holes has been selected at the first of five citywide reads, one a year in Liverpool's run-up to Capital of Culture status in 2008. It's written for young people - a perfect read for 10 to 14-year-olds - but is enjoyed by many adults.
So the author, a Beatles fan from Austin, Texas, has split his first morning between the Liverpool LEA study support centres at both football clubs, Reduc@te at Liverpool FC and Extra Time at Everton FC. Up to 6,000 pupils a year from schools with a high take-up of free school meals attend literacy, numeracy and ICT courses at the centres, but for the Reds and the Blues, today is Holes Day.
At Reduc@te, Year 8 and 9 pupils from Anfield community comprehensive have sacrificed a day off (their teachers are having Inset) to hear Louis Sachar read from his just-finished new novel. It's set three years after Holes exposed the secrets of the brutal Camp Green Lake, where young offenders are sentenced to dig a hole a day, and water is power. "But it's not a sequel exactly," he says. "Is it a spin-off, then?" asks a media-savvy young man in the audience. The questions keep coming for the next 24 hours.
Mr Sachar answers them all, grinning with delight, even when he realises that, although Paul McCartney's house is now open to the public, he won't have time to visit it. His welcome was always going to be warmer than Spectator editor Boris Johnson's, but he is bowled over by the enthusiasm of a whole city for his book. "Amazing," he says at regular intervals when asked, constantly, what he thinks about it all.
He answers questions at both football clubs, in classrooms, in the children's hospital and in the vast central reference library, surrounded by librarians in orange boilersuits clutching shovels, under a domed ceiling that makes him sound as if he's shouting from the bottom of a deep hole.
Again and again, with a fresh approach for each child, he explains: that he wrote Holes because he had moved to Texas from San Francisco and couldn't stand the heat; that he had written 18 books set in schools (starting when he worked as a teaching assistant while doing his law degree) and wanted a change; that he had wanted to be a writer since becoming a passionate reader of JD Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut in high school; that he likes Andrew Davies's 2003 film of the book, which the Anfield pupils have just seen and in which he appears briefly in a scene from the old days before the lake dried up; that he likes Sigourney Weaver as the Warden, whom he modelled on a friend from his bridge tournament circuit; that his favourite character is Kissin' Kate Barlow, who turns outlaw when rednecks kill her black lover; that he pities the Warden, although she is a nasty piece of work who paints her nails with rattlesnake venom, because she has served more time at Camp Green Lake than anyone.
Holes was Mr Sachar's breakthrough book, his first to be published in the UK (in 1998); UK sales are now approaching half a million. He may well have been waiting all his life to use his favourite line from the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album, "I guess now they know how many Holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall," referring to his recent appearance at the StoryQuest final in London. St George's Hall, too, if Liverpool has anything to do with it. Plans to blitz the city with the book are set to take off with the launch of the Liverpool Reads website next month.
The Roald Dahl Foundation has funded audiotapes and large print editions for visually impaired students. The charity Arts Business is urging big employers to set up workplace reading groups, there are groups in prisons, libraries and residential homes for the elderly, and three on-air groups on Radio Merseyside. A programme of actors' readings is planned. The CO of a Liverpool Irish Guards unit stationed in Kenya has bought 500 copies.
Artwork is being produced by pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties and adults with mental health conditions. But the first wave of excitement has come from schools.
It was Lisa Darnbrough, English teacher at Campion high school for boys, who spotted the book's potential after working with it at key stage 3 and devised the theme of Underground Liverpool for the citywide read.
She talked to Liverpool's key stage 3 English co-ordinator, Mary Kelso, who was involved in the city council's search for a book that would generate enthusiasm across generations. Miss Kelso didn't know then that Holes had already been promoted citywide in Seattle. "But I knew it was on the shelves of schools all over the city and that exciting work had been done on it, and that it was a book that families could read together."
Emma Gregory, co-ordinator of the Liverpool Reads community programme, fell for the book "because it had so much truth and humour in it, although it helped that it was already well established in schools". Excellence in Cities provided the first funding and more followed.
Now a group of six Campion boys are writing a play based on Holes. "We call them Lisa's Holes gang," says Deborah Clark, Miss Darnbrough's head of department. The performance will be underground, in the Williamson Tunnels, a subterranean network commissioned by an eccentric philanthropist to provide work for soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars. Now being restored in stages by volunteer diggers, the structure fits the Underground Liverpool theme alongside the Mersey Tunnels, the Cavern Club and the Second World World War Command Centre.
For Louis Sachar's visit, the Campion teachers devised a day of activities for Years 8 and 9 boys with Abigail Williams, manager of the Extra Time study centre at Everton FC. "We met Abigail on a Friday after school to plan what we might do," says Mrs Clarke. "We wanted to make it quick and get home. But we got our second wind and got carried away with ideas. We were there for hours."
On the day, the boys are in groups of goalies, defenders and strikers. Even the Liverpool fans are thrilled to receive a visit from Everton player Lee Carsley and a tour of the ground. But they are clearly as excited about the book as about the football, learning to build a Louis Sachar website and work on illustrations with artist Eleanor Taylor. Miss Darnbrough's session is called The Right Place at the Right Time: the boy at the centre of Holes, Stanley Yelnats, is at Camp Green Lake because, although innocent, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Stanley's family is terminally unlucky because his ancestor was cursed by a gypsy after breaking a promise (although it becomes clear that the descendants of the gypsy are unluckier still).
Miss Darnbrough asks the boys to chart the events that led to Stanley's wrongful arrest (the teacher picked on him, a bully threw his notebook down the toilet, he missed his bus) and work out why every ingredient is essential to the tightly written story. As she puts it: "If you turn up at food technology with no chocolate, you won't have a chocolate cake will you?"
Campion was one of eight schools in the UK to receive extra DfESfunding for social disadvantage in 2002; since then it has more than doubled its percentage of pupils passing five or more higher grade GCSEs from 11 to 24 per cent. The boys have a tradition of being keen readers; an after-school book club was set up with Education Extra funding in 1998.
Mrs Clark is delighted that the pupils have been inspired by Holes. "They are special boys but you have to do a lot of work to persuade them you're on their side, that you're not the thought police. Once they've established that, they're brave and loyal and will try anything."
St Edward's college in the suburbs, Mr Sachar's first stop on his second day, is one of the top five schools in the city in terms of GCSEperformance. Both schools, Miss Kelso says, are united in their enthusiasm. "When we have our writers' day for schools every summer, pupils from all kinds of schools mix together and get on with it. The Holes events will provide another way for that to happen."
Louis Sachar, in his new Beatles Museum baseball cap, enjoys Grace Nolan's performance as the Warden in St Edwards' hot-seating exercise (pupils take turns to be questioned in character about their motivation). "This book is a great hit with boys but we mustn't forget it works for girls too," says Miss Kelso. "There's a girl in this class whose mum and auntie have been reading it with her."
English teacher Louisa McCann worked on Holes with a Year 7 group last year. "By now we're in a frenzy of excitement about it," she says. The current Year 7 is reading it with Miss McCann's colleague Lorraine Devereaux. "We're only a few chapters in, and hitting big questions about justice and punishment."
Expect more big questions from the new book, for the moment called Small Steps. We learn that a graduate of Camp Green Lake, called Armpit (that's where he was stung by a scorpion in his first week), is trying to turn his life around after his release. He has a job (digging trenches for irrigation) and is struggling to finish high school, but Mr Sachar points out that as a young African-American man he has a 73 per cent chance of being re-arrested. "It's a new direction for me. Holes was my first book in which the characters were not all white, middle-class kids, and in Holes it seemed to me that they were all the colour of the dirt, their situation meant the playing field was level. Out in the world, Armpit finds this isn't the case."
The final question for Louis Sachar, one he hasn't been asked before, comes from a girl at Sandfield Park school for pupils with severe physical disabilities: "What gave you the patience to write a book?" He knows the answer to that, and all the teachers in the room understand it. "I just do a bit every day." Small steps.
Holes is published by Bloomsbury Children's Books with a schools hardback edition from Collins Cascades. Bloomsbury also publishes Stanley Yelnats' Survival Guide to Camp Green Lake by Louis Sachar, illustrated by Eleanor Taylor. www.liverpoolreads.com is launched on November 24. The site will include a downloadable guide for teachers of English for speakers of other languages, plus key stage 3 English materials and a guide for reading groups.For details of the wide-ranging programmes at the Extra Time and Reduc@te study support centres, contact Extra Time's Abigail Williams at Abigail.Williams@evertonfc.com or Reduc@te manager Keith White at email@example.com