Karen Hesse: The Rest is History, by Katherine Pierpont
This Newbery Award-winning author has a knack for recovering the little-known stories of the past and making them resonate once again
Karen Hesse has been hearing voices for a long time. Many have whispered to her from the pages of the long-forgotten family photo albums she collects, while others have called to her from within one of history's little-known stories that she's found in the hundreds of books lining the shelves of her home office in Brattleboro, VT. Luckily for us, there has always been one voice in particular that has made itself heard over all the rest – the voice of her fifth-grade teacher telling her she was born to be a writer.
When we visited Karen last September, we found her curled up in a chair on her front porch, engaged in one of her favorite activities — reading.
Even though her goal of becoming a full-time writer has been a long time coming, Karen told us that she's always written "in and around the edges" of the various jobs she's held and also became part of a writing group long before she started getting published. Her unwavering belief in herself as a writer carried her through the years – right up to the fateful morning in 1998 when she learned she had won the Newbery Award for her book Out of the Dust (Scholastic, 1997). The rest, as they say, is history.
A golden embrace. "I fainted when they called," she remembered with a laugh. "I was a voracious reader growing up, so to suddenly find myself in the same league as the Newbery medalists was overwhelming, and continues to be." The idea for Out of the Dust was actually born from her picture book, Come On, Rain! (Scholastic, 1999). When she presented a draft of Come 0n, Rain! to her writers group, they encouraged her to further explore why the characters were so desperate for rain. Her research lead her to reading more about the Dust Bowl years of the Great Depression. The more she read, the more a voice began needling Karen to tell her story. Once again, Karen paid attention and Billie Jo, the 14-year-old narrator of Out of the Dust emerged. To this day, Karen's face lights up when she talks about winning the Newbery for this remarkable novel in verse. "The sense of being held up and buoyed by librarians and teachers and the reading community — it was like this huge golden embrace," she said.
Staying honest. As a meticulous researcher and lover of things from the past, some of Karen Hesse's most well-loved stories have tugged at her sleeve (and heart) in a variety of different ways. The idea for Witness (Scholastic, 2001) came to her after reading an article in an airline magazine about the Ku Klux Klan's presence in Vermont in the 1920's. When she arrived back home, she was shocked to find that this was in fact a "real" story from the vaults of history.
Karen sits at her desk where she can be found all day on Sundays, answering fan mail.
Because so many of her books deal with these often forgotten historical tales, Karen immerses herself in everything and anything she can get her hands on about that period. "When I was working on Witness, I read Carl Sandburg and plays and fiction and newspapers and magazines that were written then. I also try to listen to music that was written during that period – anything I can do to get a sense of what it was like to be there," she said.
"When I finish a first draft, I'll go through my photo collections and look for a visual representation of the character," Karen told us. When writing Witness, which is entirely in verse, Karen created what she called an "image board," where she carefully laid out each character's photograph and labeled it with his or her name, characteristics, etc. "I would look at the photograph as I was writing and say, ‘Would you say it that way or would you do this?' The image keeps me honest and it made it possible for me to keep all of my characters very distinct," she said.
Digging deeper. Karen also employed the use of verse to tell the difficult story of Vera in Aleutian Sparrow (Simon & Schuster, 2003). Once again, Karen delved into an underrepresented period in our history to relay the story of the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands in 1942. She had only learned of this piece of history after a long-awaited trip she took to Alaska to visit schools. Everywhere she went, kids were asking her to write a story about Alaska. Karen had laughed off the suggestion until she visited a local bookstore and read about the Aleutians. "I thought, 'Now that's a story I've never heard before,' " she told us.
During World War II, the native people of the remote Aleutian Islands, including our narrator Vera, were relocated to camps on the mainland in Alaska so that U.S. troops could be stationed on the islands. When the Aleuts returned home from the war, after many had died of sickness and starvation, they found their villages had been destroyed by the U.S. troops.
For her research on this book, Karen was able to interview Aleuts as well as men who had served in the military at that time so she could realistically capture the evacuation and relocation of the Aleuts and what it did to them. "It was such a compelling story, I didn't want it to be lost forever," Karen commented.
Getting the call. When we met with Karen this past September, we talked in her home office that was once the unfinished attic of the beautiful Victorian home she shares with her husband, Randy (their daughters Kate and Rachel are in graduate school and college). Here she can lay out the dozens of photographs she uses to clearly visualize a character or read one of the books from her jam-packed bookshelves that Randy made for her or sit at her desk and answer fan mail. She dedicates most of her time, however, to writing and researching. Her research process can take anywhere from six months to a year prior to the point when Karen can actually sit down and begin to write. Once she gets started, she told us, she quite literally cannot stop.
Her latest project (due out this fall) is a picture book called Cats of Krasinski Square (Scholastic, 2004), illustrated by Wendy Watson, a friend from Karen's writing group. The story came from a newspaper article (we won't divulge any details!) that Karen came across during her research for Aleutian Sparrow.
In the meantime, Karen Hesse can be found with an ear carefully tuned to listen for the voices of future characters, eager to tell her their stories. We're certain she'll get another call soon.
Katherine Pierpont, associate editor Teaching K-8 magazine.