1 We both wake up early and look forward to writing.
2.We both eat our lunch standing up.
3.We both are excited about finding and using primary sources when we’re researching.
4.We both like historical fiction.
These are my conclusions after listening to an interview with her that accompanies her book, Witness. Although several of Hesse’s award–winning books are written in verse, Hesse wrote this short book specifically to be used in the classroom as Readers' Theater.
Suitable for upper elementary and middle school readers, this book tells a little-known segment of American life in the 1920’s. The plot is familiar: Jewish immigrants and a “colored” family are the targets of the KKK’s racial prejudice, hate, and violence. But the setting (rural Vermont) and the characters (eleven people whose lives are affected by the KKK) are unique.
Through sparse language but distinctive voices, the reader hears the unfolding story from each character’s perspective. As a result of this first-person point-of-view, the reader gets inside of Leanora Sutter, a young black girl who is scared and angry when she is teased at school: “At the Klan meeting last night/ the dragons talked about lighting you and your Daddy up to get them some warmth on a cold day” (p.10). The reader journeys inside Sara Chickering, a farmer who takes Leanora in out of the cold but “never had a colored person in my kitchen before.” (p. 12) And the reader feels the pain behind little Esther Hirsch’s observations: “In new York/I did see someone whose poor head/did have a bullet inside it/and he did/have blood everywhere in the street/where he did sleep so still.” (p. 17).
Eleven perspectives on a specific time and place in American history. As a new-to-fiction writer, I’m struggling to clearly communicate one perspective on a different time and place. Clearly, my self-comparison with Karen Hesse produces a very short list.
I highly recommend this book to be used as Readers' Theater as well as in Social Studies classrooms. I listened to it on a CD and although several months have passed, I can still hear the actors’ voices in my head as I reread passages. As I noted in my previous blog about Aleuthian Sparrow; I find Hesse’s word choice and use of imagery outstanding. Treasure this book with your students and for your own reading pleasure.
Karen Hesse, Witness, readers' theater, book on CD, book for boys and girls, Aleutian Sparrow, Social Studies, KKK, Vermont, historical fiction
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