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Sam and Dave Dig a Hole: 09/10/15
Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett is a 2015 Caldecott honor book but it's one of those books that's a bit of a head scratcher. Before I explain why, let me tell you a story.
I grew up in a suburb of San Diego that was built on the tops of hills that define the contours of Rose Canyon. When the suburb was originally planned, there were lots of major boulevards designed to cut through the valleys and connect the neighborhood with its neighbors.
Many of those plans fell through as the Baby Boom's birth rate dwindled, leaving a primarily linear navigation scheme shaped around one large cross on the major directions of the compass. The other streets dwindled off it into small circles that lead to dead ends at canyon trails, cul du sacs, or looped in on themselves.
But there is one road that seemed like a magical short cut to bi-pass the traffic of the main drag through town. It started at the junior high and ended (after going in a straight line, or at least it appeared straight a half mile down the same road at the elementary school.
Straight lines, I knew, don't cross a second time. So to my juvenile mind, if my parents took the short cut and then took the long way home, we had to be in an alternate universe that just looked very similar. There was no other way to explain it.
It wasn't until I was older and I borrowed my Grandmother's Thomas Guide road atlas that I realized they were three roads: Radcliffe, Syracuse, and Stadium that have a couple gentle curves where they connect. As a passenger, distracted by drawing or reading, I just didn't notice the curves!
So back to Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. Sam and Dave are bored and decide to dig a hole to look for something interesting. They go one way and then another, and then at angles and never manage to find anything. As readers we are privy to what they can't see through the dirt. We can see ever larger diamonds as they go.
And then... and then... the bottom drops out, literally. Sam and Dave and their dog take a tumble and end up home.
Well... Sam and Dave were digging. So the curved road solution isn't really an option here, is it?
Now, take a look at the home a the start of the book and at the end of the book. What kinds of flowers are there? What kind of fruit tree? What kind of weather vane?
Here's the thing. The pay off is so subtle that most people (of all ages) miss the punchline until it's explained to them. And it's not enough of a trip to get people talking — not like the mind bending 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's two boys digging holes for pages and pages and pages. The set up, while cute on the first missed diamond, is boring!
So when the plot (such as it is) takes a wrong turn at Albuquerque, readers seem mostly relieved to be done with the book. Then if an initiated reader shows them the trick, the look at the first and last pages, and ooh and ahh, appreciatively. But that appreciation isn't enough to want to re-read the book right away.