Newbery Project #16: 1998’s Out of the Dust

Out-of-the-DustYIPES.

No one warned me about this book. The cover made it look depressing enough (that is not a happy kid there), and I knew it was about the Dust Bowl, so I wasn’t expecting a comedy or anything, but COME ON. THIS BOOK.

Out of the Dust is short on plot, it’s mostly a slice-of-life piece about living in Oklahoma in 1934, right after everyone moved out there and started farming like mad on land that couldn’t take it, and we destroyed everything and the state turned into one giant, relentless dust storm. It is a slice of Billie Jo’s life. Billie Joe lives with her mom and dad and she likes to play piano. Oh, and it’s written as a free-verse poem. Also oh: it is punishingly depressing at times.

For a while when I was reading this I was thinking Dear God, this is for CHILDREN?! But once I finished I thought I hadn’t been giving kids enough credit. Kids can totally handle the events in this book. In fact, I’m sure there are a lot who love it. The relationship between kids and sadness in books is a weird and complicated one and, I’m sure, different for every kid. But I think at its most basic level, depressing books let kids feel mature. Kids get to try on feelings for size. One hopes that the kids reading this book have never experienced the abject horror and grief that Billie Jo must have felt during the kerosene incident. Most of them never will (I know I haven’t). But its both an exercise in empathy and a safe test. How would I feel if something truly terrible happened? What does it mean for something truly terrible to happen?

And when you emerge from the other side of this book, still whole, you get to wear a badge of pride that you survived that. We all still read Where The Red Fern Grows and The Fault in Our Stars. We subject ourselves to “uncomfortable feelings” all the time because we want to collectively feel those feelings.

This book also made me watch Ken Burns’s Dust Bowl documentary. Recommended!

Would kids like it? Kids who are ready for (and enjoy) Bridge to Terrabithia and any of the other aforementioned books will love this.

Are there “funny bits”? SWEET LORD, NO.\

Do I understand why it won? The free-verse poetry format is interesting, the Newbery loves historical fiction, it definitely BRINGS THE FEELS. Yeah, I get it.

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