Saturday, September 11, 2010

Classroom Book Review: Out of the Dust

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
Pages: 240
Genre:  YA Historical Fiction/Poetry
Pub. Date: October 1, 1997
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Goodreads says, "Like the Oklahoma dust bowl from which she came, 14-year-old narrator Billie Jo writes in sparse, free-floating verse. In this compelling, immediate journal, Billie Jo reveals the grim domestic realities of living during the years of constant dust storms: That hopes--like the crops--blow away in the night like skittering tumbleweeds. That trucks, tractors, even Billie Jo's beloved piano, can suddenly be buried beneath drifts of dust. Perhaps swallowing all that grit is what gives Billie Jo--our strong, endearing, rough-cut heroine--the stoic courage to face the death of her mother after a hideous accident that also leaves her piano-playing hands in pain and permanently scarred. Meanwhile, Billie Jo's silent, windblown father is literally decaying with grief and skin cancer before her very eyes. When she decides to flee the lingering ghosts and dust of her homestead and jump a train west, she discovers a simple but profound truth about herself and her plight. There are no tight, sentimental endings here--just a steady ember of hope that brightens Karen Hesse's exquisitely written and mournful tale. Hesse won the 1998 Newbery Award for this elegantly crafted, gut-wrenching novel, and her fans won't want to miss."

Billie Jo writes her journal in free verse poetry about living with the dust. It covers everything and takes over her life.  On top of that, her life is changed for the worse when there is an accident that kills her mother and brother, leaving her father behind to pick up the pieces.  Billie Jo's father is all she has left, but he is in a state of despair as farmer's lives were not only changed forever by the dust, but also the Great Depression.  Billie Jo tries to summon enough courage and strength to face another day.  Like most, she thinks about leaving it all behind and going out west.  Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust is a powerful novel that captures the horrific events of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl.  

I adore the free verse poetry in this book.  I remember the first time I read it, I was blown away.  In fact, this was the first book I read that was entirely free verse poetry.  Hesse's writing is brilliant and I'm sure many would agree as this book won the Newbery Medal in 1998.  As I was reading this book, like Billie Jo, I felt smothered by the dust.  Through Hesse's poetry, she paints such a vivid tale that won't be easily forgotten.  

This book is in invaluable resource when teaching a Great Depression unit.  I know many students that read this book and then wanted to learn more about the Dust Bowl.  It definitely spawns an interest on a topic that many middle school students never even heard of initially.  For me, that demonstrates the power of engaging historical fiction.

Simply said, this book is intense and is always a classroom favorite for students who enjoy historical fiction as well as poetry.  Because Hesse wrote this novel in free verse, I feel it made it even more powerful and truly captured Billie Jo's thoughts and feelings.  Many critics feel that this novel is too depressing, but the topic is the Dust Bowl not Disney World. Sometimes we have to read about life changing events and all aren't going to be cartoons and rainbows. Yes, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl is gut-wrenching, but this novel, ultimately, is about hope, strength and the courage to move on.  


  1. I love this book, too. I have a set for my classroom and sometimes teach it if I'm going to head towards the Great Depression and the 1930's. I also love Witness by the same author.

  2. That is an intense story. I'm not sure I can make myself read it. It's so tragic and "Grapes of Wrath-y." I think someone will have to force me to read it. I guess I am a wimp!

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  4. I have a copy of this book leftover from my children. One of them had to read it for school. I will have to dig it out and read it too.


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