Inspiration in the Dust

Book Links: April/May 2001 (v.10 no.5)

by Claudi Anne Katz and Sue Ann Kuby

FOCUS ON: Karen Hesse, Out of the Dust. 1997. 227p. Scholastic, $15.95 (0-590-36080-9); paper, $4.99 (0-590-037125-8). Gr. 6-9.

Reading the 1998 Newbery Medal winner Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse is like sifting through fragile snapshots that complete a portrait of a family's desperate attempts to survive in the midst of a natural disaster. The novel traces events in the life of Billie Jo, a young girl growing up in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl from the winter of 1934 to autumn of 1935. The disappointment of failing crops, the discomfort of the invasive dust, the devastation of losing friends forced from their land are softened by simple hopes rooted in the dream that rain might fall tomorrow.

Relief never comes. Dust takes the tiny green apples off the branches of the frail trees. A fiery accident robs Billie Jo of her mother and leaves her injured and unable to play the piano she loves so much. She and her father live like ghosts in the shell of their home while dusty despair drifts against the windows and doors. Slowly time transforms tragedy into redemption, but not before Billie Jo leaves home and her father begins to dig his grave. In the end it is endurance that saves them.

Vibrant descriptions and spirited characters in Out of the Dust furnish an ideal opportunity for a class to study character development. Below we list a reading strategy and discussion questions for each season (chapter). You can use the discussion questions provided or allow the activities to drive discussion. We have found that reading the book chapter by chapter is sufficient to generate interesting topics for discussion. Allow a few days for exploring background material, but otherwise these activities constitute a unit that could be finished in about three weeks. An effective way to build prior knowledge is to invite students to view the film Surviving the Dust Bowl : The American Experience (PBS Home Video, 1998). This documentary provides a fine overview of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl disaster. My students were impressed with the film, and the images in it often reappeared as connections in their responses to the text.

Studying Out of the Dust

Winter 1934: Setting the Scene

Read aloud the first season to be sure that each student understands the main characters and has a clear picture of the setting. Then have students fill out a Venn diagram, two interconnected circles, that aid in comparing ideas. Students put elements from their lives in one circle and circumstances from Billie Jo's in the other. Explore the similarities between Billie Jo's life and their own by noting where the circles intersect. This aspect of character development allows students to observe the connections all human beings share.


What do the "Rules of Dining" (p. 21) tell you about Billie Jo's family? Billie Jo says of Ma, "In the kitchen she is my ma, in the barn and the fields she is my daddy's wife, but in the parlor Ma is something different" (p. 24). What does Billie Jo mean by this? How do Ma's book of poetry and the piano relate to Billie Jo's statement? Compare a piece of text from Out of the Dust to text from another book written as poetry, such as Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff (Holt, 1993). What similarities do you notice? What are the differences? Is one poetry and the other prose written as poetry?

Spring 1934: Pictures from Imagery

Read this season aloud and have students listen for words or phrases that describe the setting. Tape record the reading, and while students listen to the account a second time, ask them to draw images that the text suggests. Afterward, display these drawings and ask students to comment on the qualities of the descriptive language and elements of the setting.


  • Apples, dust, wind, fire, a piano--all of these images are repeated in the text. Why does the author put them there? How do images enhance the story? What would it be like without the 'word pictures'?
  • Describe Billie Jo's relationship with her ma. Does any of it seem familiar? How does playing the piano bring them together while also drawing them apart?

Summer 1934: Moment Mapping

Have students describe Billie Jo by tracing the important events in her life over the course of the narrative using a "moment map," an activity that educator Barry Lane describes in his book After the End (Heinemann, 1993). List the seasons in the book on the bottom edge of the paper and write the most important moments in Billie Jo's life above the seasons in which they take place. Students could add quotations from the book or small pictures that symbolize events. Moment mapping helps students see the big moments in the story and understand how they fit together. Students should continue to add events to their maps as they read the book.


  • Who put the kerosene by the stove?
  • What makes a good neighbor? Are Billie Jo's neighbors good to one another? What are some examples of how her neighbors help one another?

Autumn 1934: Fleshing Out a Character

Educator Janet Allen describes this strategy in her book, Yellow Brick Roads (Stenhouse, 2000). Students select a favorite character and use evidence from the book to describe him or her, presenting this information in the form of a full-length drawing of that character. Lines radiating from the drawing connect to written character attributes. The chart helps students visualize character traits faster than they might by writing a series of sentences about the character.


  • Why is the art exhibit so important and so painful for Billie Jo? What does this tell us about her character? What elements of the story does the exhibit bring together?

Winter 1935: Exploring Emotions

As they read this chapter, ask students to focus on the feelings of Billie Jo and her father. Invite them to write a paragraph about the sentiment expressed in this season that supports their representation of characters' emotions with quotations from the text.


  • Billie Jo says her father "spends long days digging" (p. 111). How does the digging represent Billie Jo's relationship with her father? What is the texture of their relationship? What could either of them do to save their fragile family?

Spring 1935: Triple Venn

Students continue their study of characters by using a Triple Venn, three interconnected circles, to demonstrate how the actions of different characters are related. Students often choose Pa, Billie Jo, and Mad Dog, Billie's close friend, and show how each differs from and is aligned with the other.


  • Billie Jo compares her ma to a tumbleweed, while her father "was more like the sod. / Steady, silent, and deep" (p. 202). Is Billie Jo more like her mother or her father in this respect? What image could Billie Jo be compared to?

Summer 1935: Point of View

Ask students to describe the events in the summer of '35 as seen through the eyes of a supporting character. Invite them to add details to their description that only their character would know. Ask students to read the results dramatically without identifying the character telling the story. Have the other students guess the character's identity.


  • Billie Jo says, ". . . if I had any boy court me / it'd be Mad Dog Craddock" (p. 153). How do her feelings about him change as the story progresses? Is he more than a friend to her? What are Mad Dog's feelings? He would be interesting to explore in a Point of View response.
  • Students sometimes comment on the babies that appear and disappear in the story: the Lindbergh baby, Franklin, the Dionne babies, the migrant baby, and the baby abandoned on the church steps. Is there a connection between these babies? Why does the author include them in the story? Why does Billie Jo want to adopt the abandoned baby? Why does her father refuse?
  • Why does the man on the freight train give Billie Jo the photograph of his family?

Autumn 1935: Establishing Theme

Theme is a difficult literary concept to teach. "What does the author want you to learn from this story?" is a great question to initiate a discussion of theme. A picture book that works effectively to guide students to an understanding of this difficult notion is Angels in the Dust by Margot Theis Raven (see bibliography), the story of another girl and her family attempting to survive in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. Roger Essley's drawings help students visualize the enormity of the natural disaster. As the book is read, ask students to listen for recurring images and themes. Following a discussion, have students finish reading Out of the Dust and invite them to write about the life lesson of the novel.

As a final review, have students create a story graph to observe how a character's emotions change over time. The vertical bar of the graph suggests an emotional range, such as sadness to happiness or joy to depression. The baseline of the graph follows the major events of the story.

A bonus of studying Out of the Dust is the perspective it gives students on their own lives. Becca, and eighth grader, reflected, "I liked this book because it made me think about how lucky I am to have what I have. It's also very realistic and shows how it was to live back then. . . . I think the theme for this book is to be thankful for what you've got. Also, it says that life's not always fair, and we have to accept who we are and deal with what happens. We need to take it all in and accept it."

Books about the Great Depression

In addition to reading Out of the Dust, we've developed a collection for independent reading. For other possible titles, see "Dateline USA: The Depression Years" (January 1993 Book Links).


Burch, Robert. Ida Early Comes over the Mountain. 1980. 145p. Puffin, paper, $3.99 (0-14-034534-5).
Gr. 3-6. When Ida Early comes to live with the Suttons, offering to help out for a time, life becomes as exciting as the tall tales she tells. This hilarious book is appropriate for students with low to average reading skills.

Curtis, Christopher Paul. Bud, Not Buddy. 1999. 256p. Delacorte, $16.95 (0-385-32306-9).
Gr. 4-7. Bud Caldwell is on a journey to find his dad. It is 1936 in Flint, Michigan. Bud is being moved from one unsatisfactory foster home to another when he decides to search for Herman E. Calloway, the man mentioned in a flyer his mom left as Bud's inheritance. His adventures provide a look at one boy's survival alone in the Midwest during the Great Depression.

DeFelice, Cynthia. Nowhere to Call Home. 1999. 208p. Farrar, $16 (0-374-35552-5).
Gr. 5-8. When her family's fortune is lost in the crash of 1929 and her father commits suicide, Francis Elizabeth Barrow is forced out of a life of privilege and sent to live with an aunt in Chicago. On an impulse, she buys boys' clothes, cuts her hair, and hops a freight train headed west. She meets Stewpot and takes the road name Frankie Blue. Stewpot becomes her friend and protector, but he cannot shield her from the harsh realities of life on the road. Like all of DeFelice's books, this one is instantly engaging.

Gates, Doris. Blue Willow. Illus. by Paul Lantz. 1940. 172p. Viking, $14.99 (0-670-17557-9); Puffin, paper, $5.99 (0-14-030924-1).
Gr. 4-6. In this Newbery Honor Book, a girl hopes that the new valley her parents have moved to will turn into a real home for her family. Appropriate for students with low to average reading skills.

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. 1960. 323p. HarperCollins, $18 (0-06-019499-5); Warner, paper, $6.99 (0-446-31078-6).
Gr. 7-10. Scout and her brother and their mysterious neighbor encounter the harsh reality of racism in the South during the Great Depression. This book is appropriate for students with above-average reading ability. Students find it challenging but satisfying.

Porter, Tracey. Treasures in the Dust. 1997. 160p. HarperCollins/Joanna Cotler, $15.95 (0-06-027563-4); HarperTrophy, paper, $4.95 (0-06-440770-5).
Gr. 5-7. Life on the Oklahoma Dust Bowl is accurately described in the letters of two 11-year-old girls, Annie and Violet. Annie's family stays in Oklahoma, while Violet's family takes to the road.A beautifully crafted book and a great companion to Out of the Dust, it is perfect for a middle-school students with average reading ability.

Raven, Margot Theis. Angels in the Dust. Illus. by Roger Essley. 1997. 32p. BridgeWater, $15.95 (0-8167-3806-8); paper, $5.95 (0-8167-5608-2).
Gr. 3-6. Based on a true story, this compelling picture book captures the struggle of an Oklahoma family on a Dust Bowl farm in the 1930s. Realistic pastel illustrations in shades of brown and blue show dust storms of boiling dark dirt dwarfing the family on the drought-stricken farmland. Despite overwhelming odds, the family manages to survive.

Snyder, Zilpha Keatley. Cat Running. 1994. 176p. Delacorte, $15.95 (0-385-31056-0); Laurel-Leaf, paper, $4.50 (0-440-41152-1).
Gr. 4-6. Twelve-year-old Cat is the strongest runner in her class until Zane Perkins enters her school. Zane and his family are migrants from Oklahoma desperately seeking work near the California town where Cat lives. At first Cat is disgusted by their ragged clothing and strange accent. But when she gets to know Sammy Perkins, her feelings change to concern and tolerance for the terrible plight of this tragic group. This exciting book is perfect for average middle-level readers.

Taylor, Mildred D. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. 1976; reissued 2001. 296p. Penguin/Phyllis Fogelman, $17.99 (0-8037-2647-3); Puffin, paper, $4.99 (0-14-038451-0).
Gr. 5-10. Set in Mississippi in the 1930s, this Newbery Medal winner focuses on an African American girl named Cassie, whose family struggles to preserve their integrity in the midst of social intolerance. The author's Let the Circle Be Unbroken (Dial, 1981) is also worth noting.

Turner, Ann. Dust for Dinner. Illus. by Robert Barrett. 1995. 64p. HarperTrophy, paper, $3.95 (0-06-444225-X).
Gr. 2-4. Young Jake narrates this story of his family leaving their Oklahoma home to search for work on the road. They find that living out of their car is not easy and work is hard to find. This chapter book provides the least skilled readers in the class with independent reading material they can master. Often skilled readers join less-skilled readers and read Dust for Dinner as well.


Stanley, Jerry. Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp. 1992. 86p. Crown, $15.99 (0-517-58781-5); paper, $9.95 (0-517-88094-6).
Gr. 4-8. This is a true account of a school built by students living in an emergency farm labor camp set up for migrant workers in California during the Dust Bowl days. The story is told through photographs, personal accounts, and clear, easy-to-read text.

Wormser, Richard. Growing Up in the Great Depression. 1994. 128p. Atheneum, $15.95 (0-689-31711-5).
Gr. 6-12. Drawing on interviews, letters, personal accounts, and black-and-white photographs, Wormser creates a vividly detailed narrative of what it was like to be young in the U.S. during the 1930s. This is our favorite resource book because it contains primary sources quoted to support each detail of the Depression experience from a child's point of view.

Magazine Connection

It is worth browsing book sales for the September 1984 issue of National Geographic (vol. 166, no. 3), which contains two articles with excellent background information on the Dust Bowl. "Beyond the Dust Bowl" by William Howarth and Chris Johns follows the trail from the High Plains to California of the Okies and others during the Great Depression. "Do We Treat Our Soil Like Dirt?" by Boyd Gibbons and Steven C. Wilson uncovers the causes of dust bowls. This article would serve as an excellent science connection.

Video Connection

  • The Grapes of Wrath. 1940. 129min. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, $14.98 (86162102431).
    Directed by John Ford, this film version of John Steinbeck's novel follows the Joad family as they migrate from Oklahoma to California to escape the Dust Bowl.
  • Sullivan's Travels. 1941. 90min. MCA Home Video, $14.98 (96898055130).
    In this biting satire set in the Depression, a disillusioned Hollywood director takes to the road as a hobo in order to discover how the other half lives.

Web Sites

The American Memories photo collection from the Library of Congress Archives is a real find. We were able to locate the actual family of the girl whose picture appears on the cover of Out of the Dust in a collection of the photographs by Walker Evans. There are other photographs in this collection that reflect many of the paintings in Margot Theis Raven's picture book Angels in the Dust. These photographs may be found at the Library of Congress Web site: Click on the photographs and then go to Depression Era and World War II.

Extra Credit

Enhance the study of Out of the Dust by assigning any of the following research topics mentioned in the book:

  • rabbit drives (p. 6)
  • Moving from Oklahoma to California (p. 8)
  • President Roosevelt's Birthday Ball (p. 15, 115)
  • Warm Springs Foundation (p. 15)
  • Dionne quintuplets (p. 57)
  • teens "on the road" (p. 58)
  • grasshopper plague (p. 68)
  • soil conservation (p. 75)
  • Volcano in Kilauea, Hawaii (p. 79)
  • cereus plant (p. 81)
  • dust pneumonia (p. 140, 149)
  • Lindbergh baby kidnapping (p. 145)
  • Photographers--James Kingsbury (p. 170), Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans
  • Federal Emergency Relief Association (p. 172)
  • Civilian Conservation Corps (p. 181)
  • riding the rails (p. 197)
  • Dust Bowl migrant camps (p. 199)
  • adult hobos (p. 200)
  • prices during the Depression
  • schools in Oklahoma in the 1930s
  • Amelia Earhart
  • Eleanor Roosevelt

Claudia Anne Katz teaches eighth grade at Highland Middle School in Libertyville, Illinois. She is the past-president of the Middle School Special Interest Group of the International Reading Association and a past-president of the Illinois Reading Association. She has been teaching for 36 years. Sue Ann Kuby also teaches eighth grade in Libertyville, Illinois. She coauthored the middle school column in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy from 1996 to 1998 with Claudia Katz.