11/19/02
Karen Hesse
    by John Cech

Karen Hesse has just won one of the MacArthur "genius" awards for her books for children and yong adults. There is a great deal to celebrate in this announcement -- a truly gifted writer has received her due, and that's the most important thing. But this is also the first time that this prestigious award has been made to someone who writes for young people. The icing on the cake is that this comes just in time for Children's Book Week, which means that Ms. Hesse's works could well become the readings in all of our households for the next week -- in fact, for some time.

What you'll find if you haven't encountered Ms. Hesse's work yet, is a series of powerful, moving experiences. Witness, one of her more recent books, is a novel in verse told like a choral play through the voices of eleven different characters and their experience of a Ku Klux Klan-provoked racial indicident in a small Vermont town in 1924. Letters from Rifka, one of Ms. Hesse's earlier works, is the fictionalized story (told through letters) of her great aunt's flight, as a young girl, from the anti-semitism and turmoil of revolution in Russia to America at the beginning of the twentieth century. In Stowaway, which appeared this past spring, Ms. Hesse works with the diary form to narrate the exciting adventures of eleven-year-old Nicholas Young who hides himself on the ship of Captain Cook and becomes one of the few crew members to make the entire famous and dangerous voyage around the world. Nicholas was, in fact, an actual stowaway on Cook's Endeavor, but little is known about him. It's the perfect situation for a writer, of course: to create an entire person out of just a few fragmentary details.

But then again, one has to have found the story to write about, and this can take some doing. "I haunt bookstores, conduct interviews, comb the shelves of libraries, read articles, study, probe, and sift." Ms. Hesse wrote in a recent autobiographical sketch. She went on: "Every day I absorb mountains of details, most of which are quite interesting. But every now and then something totally captivates me, breaks my heart, takes my breath away. Those are the details that become my books." Her 1998 Newberry-award-winning novel, Out of the Dust, which is set in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl of the Great Depression grew out of an exploration of such details. Ms. Hesse had become curious about how people had reacted during times of drought, , when it literally stopped raining in parts of the Great Plains for yearsand this lead her back to the 1930s.

Yet none of this can really explain the mysterious alchemy of Hesse's work, how a handfull of facts or a pile of dust can lead to her poetry. But that, of course, is what geniuses are all about.

Copyright 2002 John Cech

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