Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Out of the Dust

Biblio Bits Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, Scholastic Press, 1997 (ISBN 0590360809)

Reading Level/Interest Age Ages 11-14

Genre Poetic narrative, Historical fiction

Plot Summary
This 1998 Newbery Award winner introduces fourteen year-old Billie Jo Kelby, a girl living in the Oklahoma dustbowl in the 1930s. Billie Jo narrates the story through spare, poetic free verse, and conveys a story of struggle and devastation, small victories and hope. The Kelby’s own a piano, which is unusual for a family of their position, and both Billie Jo and her mother play, though in differing styles. When Billie Jo loses her mother and newborn brother after a fire, she and her father must recover from their grief and forge a new relationship. Billie Jo’s hands have also been badly burned, which means she cannot play the piano without pain. This is an engaging portrait of personal triumph, set in a unique time and place.

Critical Evaluation
Hesse succeeds in drawing a vivid portrait of this period of hardship from American history; the land itself and the weather play important supporting roles in this story. Each entry includes a title with a month and year; sections are marked by the seasons, which underscores the importance of the land and growing periods at this time and in this place. There is a lot of white space on the pages, and though it "looks" like a book of poetry the narrative element and character development makes a strong, and sometimes suspenseful, plot that will carry readers along. This could also be a good historical fiction selection for a reluctant reader.

Reader's Annotation
Sometimes just the act of living is courageous. When Billie Jo is responsible for a terrible accident, she loses her mother, her baby brother, and her music. What will her new life be like, with just her dad, surviving the Great Depression?

Author Information
Karen Hesse was born in 1952 and grew up in Baltimore (MD). She credits her fifth-grade teacher with encouraging her love of language and writing, and though she worked at a variety of jobs, she "never gave up dreaming about publication" (Scholastic, n.d.). Hesse currently lives in Vermont with her husband and two daughters. (Information in this author biography is from her official site at Scholastic.)

Challenge issues
Bleak and devastating, in keeping with the historical time period, and some references to the dancehalls. Nothing explicit, however.

Booktalking Ideas
I would want to give listeners a feeling for the vastness and importance of the landscape and land in this book. The land is sometimes fickle, untrustworthy, difficult, and punishing. I would choose to put this in a booktalk with other engaging, historical books from various time periods. But it could also fit as an obvious choice with books on the Great Depression, both fiction and nonfiction. Showing some of Dorothea Lange's or Walker Evans' photographs could round out a presentation.

Curriculum Ties
Well, it's an obvious choice for a historical fiction unit in a language arts class, as well as for a social studies class on the Great Depression; it's a deeply atmospheric book that offers insight into the life of a real girl living during this time. But it could also be a great book for small literature circles or book groups since there is so much that is said and unsaid on the pages, giving readers a lot to discuss.

Why this book?
This book was the first that brought poetic narrative for young adults to my attention. There's something about the spareness of the page and the words that makes for a powerful impact on a reader. Since then, others have experimented with the genre including Sharon Creech and Sonja Sones.

Newbery Award, 1998; Scott O'Dell Historical Fiction Award; Booklist Editor's Choice, Books for Older Readers; ALA Notable Children's Books, 1998; School Library Journal Best Books, 1997.

Rockport Public Library owns?

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