This month’s book for my personal Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 1998 award-winner, the middle-grade verse novel, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. This novel also won the 1998 Newbery Medal!
Before I began my challenge to read and learn from each of the Scott O’Dell Award books, I thought I had read a lot of historical fiction. Yet, I realized I’d read only four of the award books. Out of the Dust was one of the few I had read previously.
I’m glad I re-read it, though. I had forgotten much.
In this novel, 14-year-old Billie Jo and her family live on a farm in Oklahoma during the mid-1930s–The Dust Bowl.
Billie Jo loves to play “fierce piano” and earns dimes by performing with local musicians. Meanwhile, her parents try to keep their wheat and their two apple trees alive amidst drought and dust storms. But, when an accident injures Billie Jo’s hands and leads to the death of her mother and baby brother, Billie Jo and her father struggle to survive their grief and heal their own relationship.
Dust Bowl dinosaurs–I have read a lot about the Depression and the Dust Bowl, but Hesse’s story mentioned one detail that was new to me, yet one that has special appeal in my family.
In 1931, the fossils of a dinosaur–an apatosaurus–were discovered very close to the setting of the novel. From 1935-1942, the U.S. government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) program funded the excavation of thousands of fossils from the Black Mesa area. The program provided jobs for area men, but because of the lack of funding and the involvement of paleontologists, most of the fossils ended up in storage until the mid-1980s.
Verse novels–This was the first, and so far, the only verse novel selected as a Scott O’Dell Award-winner. I believe it was also the first verse novel I ever read. Since then I’ve read other verse novels–some contemporary, but many historical fiction.
A verse novel is a complete story comprised of a poem, or collection of poems. The poetry may take various forms, such as concrete poems, sonnets, haiku, free verse, etc.
Verse novels are often spare in description, and heavy in white space. This gives a fast pace to the novels that appeals to many readers, especially to readers who are intimidated by reading–whether through struggling with reading or learning a new language–but also readers who are put off by long chunks of text.
Verse novels are a wonderful vehicle for historical fiction. As a generalization, historical fiction introduces readers to a past time period, unknown events, unfamiliar lifestyles, and different ways of thinking. Therefore, historical fiction tends include lots of description so readers can immerse themselves in the worlds of those novels.
But with verse novels’ emphases on the central story and imagery/poetic language, the story draws the readers in without them realizing it.
For example, Hesse drops lots of details about the Depression and the Dust Bowl, but she gives few explanations. She focuses on how it affects Billie Jo thinks or feels about it, and gives just enough info for the reader to understand what Billie Jo is saying. These little hints may also pique the readers’ curiosity, causing the readers to research on their own.
Also, much of the imagery of Billie Jo’s story is centered on dust, so readers don’t really need a lot of description of the dust. They “see” the dust through Billie Jo’s point of view and poetic voice.
I don’t think like a poet. Poetry intimidates me. But, I enjoy reading verse novels. It’s the stories and imagery that grab me, and later I marvel over the poetry.
For more info:
My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: THE STORM IN THE BARN by Matt Phelan–The 2010 Scott O’Dell Award book also set during the Dust Bowl.
Join me April 26 for my next challenge book, the 2000 winner, Two Suns in the Sky by Miriam Bat-Ami.
What kids’ stories of the Depression have you read? How about historical verse novels?