In 2022, the 100th Newbery Medal will be awarded. In the months leading up to that event, I plan to cover all 99 prior winners. I launched this project with some background on the award and with commentary on the first medal winner: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon. Today I take up the 76th recipient: Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.
By 1998, the traditions around the awarding of the Newbery Medal had been long established. A selection committee, all members of ALSC (a division of ALA), works tirelessly all year to read and evaluate the wealth of books published for children in that year. The final decision is made through often grueling meetings during ALA Midwinter and announced on the final day of that conference. In 1998, the committee chose the following:
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse (Scholastic) Honor Books:
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (HarperCollins)
Lily's Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff (Delacorte)
Wringer by Jerry Spinelli (HarperCollins)
Out of the Dust is a novel-in-verse set between January1934 and December1935 in the dust-covered plains of Oklahoma. This work of historical fiction was inspired by a photo (shown on the cover) taken by FSA photographer Walker Evans. Despite Dorothea Lange's work capturing the Dust Bowl and its effects, the photo that spoke to author Karen Hesse is from Evans' work with James Agee in the deep South, collected in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Regardless of her origin, the determination and spirit of Lucille Burroughs (the girl Evans photographed) is what led Karen Hesse to tell the story of Billie Jo Kelby.
Billie Jo is 13 when the book opens, "a redheaded, freckle-faced, narrow-hipped girl" living with her father and mother, who is finally pregnant after years of trying. The book also opens in the middle of terribly hard times on their land. Weeks of drought get broken by days of rain too hard to do anything but damage, and the Kelbys and their neighbors are just barely getting by. But Billie Jo has her music, the piano she and her Ma both have such a talent for, and the money from President Roosevelt's loan program gets them through the worst. Until the real worst happens: a pail of kerosene that Ma mistakes for water leaves both Billie Jo and her Ma burned badly, and after days of suffering, both Ma and the baby die, leaving Billie Jo alone with her fire-ravaged hands, her Daddy, and her anger at him for leaving the pail there by the stove.
The rest of the book does the work that Hesse says is the point: forgiveness. In her acceptance speech, she explained:
It was about forgiveness. The whole book. Every relationship. Not only the relationships between people, but the relationship between people and the land itself.
Over time, Billie Jo learns to forgive her father and herself. She wants nothing more than to escape the dust until she hops a train one day and does it, only to turn around and come right home again. She even forgives the land for being so unforgiving, loving it despite the hardship it brings.
Though it is common enough now, the novel-in-verse was a "new phenomenon in the world of children's literature," according to Joy Alexander. Her 2005 examination of the genre provided a half-dozen or so examples of the form from 1993-1996 with more starting to emerge in 1997. Though not the first, Out of the Dust quickly established itself as a standard-bearer for the form, a position it held for many years. Alexander explains, "in two respects Hesse expands the genre in new directions. Her fiction is based on historical events, so that personal narrative is carefully anchored in place and time and moves toward documentary." The other way Hesse's work stands apart, according to Alexander (and, I would presume, the Newbery committee), is the lyricism of her words.
As a vehicle for a first-person narrative, a novel-in-verse is excellent for the immediate and realistic rendition of voice, but it can devolve into teenage melodrama without a great deal of care. Hesse set the bar for that kind of care. Whether describing the natural surroundings, as in "First Rain,"
I hear the first drops.
Like the tapping of a stranger
at the door of a dream,
the rain changes everything.
It strokes the roof,
streaking the dusty tin,
a concert of rain notes,
spilling from gutters,
gushing through gullies,
soaking into the thirsty earth outside.
or the unexpected joy at "The President's Ball,"
Tonight, for a little while
in the bright hall folks were almost free,
almost free of dust,
almost free of debt,
almost free of fields of withered wheat.
Most of the night I think I smiled.
And twice my father laughed.
Hesse employs the art of free verse while maintaining Billie Jo's voice, like a note struck pure and true. And as Alexander explains, somehow Billie Jo's single voice "allows for a greater sense of outer life along with a deep understanding of the narrator." It is always personal, always through Billie Jo's lens, but her gaze captures the whole of her community and shares it lovingly.
In her acceptance speech, Hesse says she never questioned that this book was to be in verse, even though she had left poetry behind as she entered the years of motherhood. And it is this, I must confess, that stuck with me long after I had forgotten the beauty of the language and the story of this family's tragedy. She said,
Part of my mind always listened for my children during those years. And that listening rendered me incapable of writing poetry.
Years after this Newbery medal was awarded, when I had two small children of my own, I would think of these words and the promise they held. The assurance that listening for my children was its own kind of creativity carried me through the years of little writing, and like Hesse, I have found that children will grow, and the words do return. I know this means nothing to the children who are the intended audience of this book, but it means much to me.
But what of those child readers? Where does this book stand for them? I imagine it is accessible though not always engaging. Like so many titles, it likely finds its perfect readers and leaves others cold. Historical fiction is not every young reader's preference, but for that -- and for the hard, heart-heavy stuff -- Hesse refuses to apologize, insisting:
Young readers are asking for substance. They are asking for respect. They are asking for books that challenge, and confirm, and console. They are asking for us to listen to their questions and to help them find their own answers.
Historical fiction ... helps us understand that sometimes the questions are too hard, that sometimes there are no answers, that sometimes there is only forgiveness.
Two of the three honor books from 1998 are fairly forgettable titles from well-celebrated authors. Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted, a fantasy retelling of Cinderella, has remained beloved, so maybe Hesse was only half right. Though her book might not be right for every reader, she is responsible for the launch of a form that has excelled itself countless times, from Elizabeth Acevedo to Nikki Grimes, Kwame Alexander, and countless others. For that, as well as for her words, I am grateful.
Here's how it started. At the 1921 ALA convention, Frederic G. Melcher proposed a new award, an annual medal named for pioneering publisher John Newbery and granted to the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." Melcher's idea was approved, and for the first honoree, the ALA sought nominations from its membership. 212 votes were cast, and a vast majority of them (163) suggested Hendrik Willem van Loon's The Story of Mankind. The next nearest title only received 22 votes. Obviously, this book had set itself apart, had shown itself to be truly distinguished. Here are the full details from that first year:
1922 Medal Winner: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon (Liveright) Honor Books:
The Great Quest by Charles Hawes (Little, Brown)
Cedric the Forester by Bernard Marshall (Appleton)
The Old Tobacco Shop: A True Account of What Befell a Little Boy in Search of Adventure by William Bowen (Macmillan)
The Golden Fleece and The Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles by Padraic Colum (Macmillan)
The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs (Macmillan)
Members of 1922 Newbery Medal Selection Committee: Chair Clara W. Hunt, E. Gertrude Avey, Effie Lenore Power.
January 2022 will mark the 100th anniversary of this award, and in honor of the occasion, I am attempting to read (or reread) all the winning titles, reviewing them with a contemporary eye while providing relevant historical context. I'll start here at the beginning, with van Loon's 400+ page history text, but I have no intention of proceeding in order. With approximately 300 days until the 2022 announcement, reading and researching each one is a daunting task, but here's to trying impossible things!
First, let's interrogate that annotation from ALA. According to John T. Gillespie and Corinne J. Naden's Newbery Companion, the popular vote method was overturned in favor of a selection committee three years after the award's inception, so who are these supposed committee members? Hunt was the 1921 Chair of ALA's Children's Librarian's Section (representing at that time only 4% of ALA's membership). Power was the Superintendent of Work with Children in the Cleveland Public Library, and Avey served as Head of the Children's Department of the Cincinnati Public Library.
These spaces devoted to books for children were relatively new as was, frankly, the idea of publishing books specifically intended to bring children joy. These women were the elected officers for the Children's Librarian's Section for 1922, so they oversaw the process. Irene Smith's excellent A History of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals explains that should there have been a close result in the voting process, "the final choice of the winning book would be left to a jury composed of the officers and four other leading children's librarians." As noted above, no such selection was necessary as van Loon absolutely walked away with this one.
As the title so boldly proclaims, this book is an attempt to regale youngsters with The Story of Mankind. It is surprisingly delightful. Well, most of the time. It does drag in spots. And then there's the issue of Africa and her people. Written in the years before 1921, van Loon is almost completely blind to the destructive racism that is present throughout history but hardly mentioned in this history. I will not minimize his blindness. Nor will I defend against the times he describes African people as little more than animals. These times are thankfully few, but the greater issue sits in his silence on (or perhaps his ignorance of?) the many contributions of Africa to our shared global history.
The reason I can still celebrate his book to the extent that I do is that I am certain he would view his work through the same critical lens and be heartbroken. Could he have found himself on the other side of this conversation and looked back along his omissions and condescension, he would roundly condemn them. I believe that because of the book he wrote and all the ways he showed us. I will highlight only a few.
At its most basic, this book claims to be a comprehensive (though shallow) review of humanity, from "the first living cell float[ing] upon the waters of the sea" to The Great War. Late in the book, he offers the following explanation to those who claimed he left out important figures such as the Mongols or Ireland:
There was but one rule. "Did the country or the person in question produce a new idea or perform an original act without which the history of the entire human race would have been different?"
Immediately thereafter, however, he explains that historians have as great a degree of specialization as doctors and should be chosen with the same type of attention. He describes his influences ("old-fashioned liberalism," Darwin, Montaigne, Erasmus, Bach, and others) and clarifies:
I state these few facts deliberately that you may know the personal bias of the man who wrote this history.
Over and over again, van Loon tries to be transparent about his bias. He insists upon ambiguity and uncertainty over pomp and pronouncement. He values science and acknowledges his own weaknesses, when he can see them. But he essentially ignores Africa except to discuss the many ways that continent and its people have been colonized, abused, or exploited. He does condemn slavery but does not acknowledge the ongoing pain for formerly enslaved people in the United States. He understands that slavery was the cause of the U.S. Civil War (unlike my high school history teacher in TN) and that countless colonizers have exploited "the natives" of many lands. But he doesn't grant the humanity of those African people or of the Indigenous people displaced and destroyed time and again.
So why am I convinced he would stand against the omissions of his former narrative? Because he rejects so many of the other elements of power and status that seduced his contemporaries. He mocks the "modern" fascination with being the "biggest" and (unlike other "little histories") gives significant time and space to the superiority of the ancient civilizations of Asia and the myriad things Europeans learned from them. And he writes this:
But when history is something more than a series of flattering speeches addressed to our own glorious ancestors, when to use the words of the German historian Ranke, we try to discover what "actually happened," then much of the past is seen in a very different light.
I want you to learn something more from this history than a mere succession of facts. I want you to approach all historical events in a frame of mind that will take nothing for granted. ... Try to discover the hidden motives behind every action and then you will understand the world around you much better and you will have a greater chance to help others, which (when all is said and done) is the only truly satisfactory way of living.
It is his writing about the idea of history and how to approach it that shows this book to still be valuable. That he has failed as others before and after him have similarly failed is no surprise. He threads throughout his narrative these moments where it is clear that what is important isn't this history but the study of, curiosity about, and reckoning with history. And for me, that is the heart of its success.
The book opens and closes (at least, the original as composed by van Loon; it was amended a few times over the years, including an addition made by his son) with images of perspective. The Foreword offers an extended story of the author as a boy of 12 or 13 being taken to the top of the tower of Old Saint Lawrence in Rotterdam. In itself, this story is wonderful, but as a metaphor it excels. Van Loon explains that history is like that tall tower, not easy to climb, but offering the grandest of views. He says, of his book,
Here I give you the key that will open the door. When you return, you too will understand the reason for my enthusiasm.
And at the end, he suggests that understanding the past can only take you so far. It is also valuable to cast your mind forward and imagine those humans thousands of years from now who will read of your era as but a page or two in their history texts. So much of what feels vital to us will be a mere glimmer if it is mentioned at all. This, too, is a type of perspective.
Van Loon wrote a history. For the most part, it is wry and wise and gentle. Sometimes it is unbearably dull. At times, it is deeply hurtful. It is not a book I could recommend without reservation, but should it now be cast off as unreadable? I do not know. I would recommend it over Gombrich's similar Little History of the World, which takes a much more Eurocentric stance, and I am glad to have read it, here, at the start of a very long journey indeed.