Published in 1997 by Scholastic, Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust has won the Newbery Medal, the Scott O’Dell Award, and places on numerous "best" lists from the American Library Association, School Library Journal, and others. Like Hesse’s more recent Witness, the book is narrated entirely in free verseunrhymed, unmetered poetry. The paperback and hardcover editions are both 240 pages; Out of the Dust is also available in large-print and audio editions. The book is appropriate for children who read at about the sixth-grade level.
Fourteen-year-old Billie Jo lives in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl in the depths of the Great Depression. The dust storms that kill the wheat on which her family depends for its livelihood might have been enough challenge, but then a tragic fire kills Billie Jo’s mother and newborn brother. With badly burned hands and an equally scarred spirit, Billie Jo can no longer play pianothe one thing that brought joy and purpose into her bleak life. She and her already distant father grow even farther apart; yet just when Billie Jo seems to give up hope, she begins to find her way back to wholeness.
Karen Hesse, a native of Baltimore, says that she wanted to be a writer since her fifth-grade teacher encouraged her talent. Like many would-be authors, she worked at many different kinds of jobs while writing on the side. Her first book, Wish on a Unicorn, was published in 1991. She writes both young adult novels and books for younger children. She says that the idea for Out of the Dust came from her writers’ group: When she was working on her picture book Come on, Rain!, the group wanted to know why the characters wanted rain so badly, and thus she started researching people’s reactions to droughts.
Children will need some background on the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Start as usual by exploring what they already know. PBS’s map and timeline for its documentary "Surviving the Dust Bowl" can help supplement this knowledgeas can the film itself. "Voices from the Dust Bowl" from the Library of Congress American Memory project offers primary documents, including songs.
Before you start the discussion, enjoy some of the poems as poetry. Depending on your time frame, you can read one or two poems aloud yourself, or, if you can give the children time to prepare, ask each one to pick a poem to read aloud at another session. The reader may also want to say why he or she picked this poem.
When you’re ready for discussion, these questions may help you get started.
If you want more help with your book club discussion, several commercial guides are available, including one from the book’s publisher, Scholastic.
Extension activities can allow your book club to explore Out of the Dust in more depth.
Of the desserts Miss Freeland bakes from apples and "Something Sweet from Moonshine," apple pandowdy is the easiest to makeand probably least familiar to contemporary children. If you don’t feel like baking, just serve apples!