Karen Hesse: Genius at Work

Do you know Karen Hesse? Her books can take you on a voyage of discovery with Captain Cook, into the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, or turn-of-the-century Russia. A sense of place has always been important to this author. She grew up very quietly in a row house and later an apartment in Baltimore, Maryland. When she wanted a place to be by herself, she had to get creative. Outside, there was an apple tree where she could sit for hours, reading and dreaming. Nearby was the Enoch Pratt Free Library, where she started with Dr. Seuss and kept on going, from picture books to chapter books to novels.

Her father was a collection man, and sometimes Karen would go with him on his rounds. There she met people who were living through tough days of not having enough food on the table or money to pay the bills. Much later, when she wrote her Newbery-winning book, Out of the Dust, she was able to draw on those memories to recreate what it might have been like to live as a struggling farm family during the Great Depression.

Out of the Dust

Her parents divorced when she was young, and when her mother remarried Karen found herself with a beautiful stepsister who was also a terrific dancer. Karen wanted some attention, too, so she soon found her way to the high school stage. She was good, often losing herself in her characters. She went to Towson State University to keep on studying acting, but love changed her plans. After two years, she dropped out to marry Randy Hesse. Soon her husband shipped out for Vietnam War, and she was left behind. She used the time to finish her degree and worked with lots of different jobs. She also began writing. In the late 1970s, she and her husband settled in Vermont where they had two children, Kate and Rachel.

It was ten years from the time she started writing until her first book was published. That first book, Wish on a Unicorn, is a story about a young girl who has too much responsibility on her shoulders as she tries to care for her brother and mentally retarded sister while her mother works at night. Karen worked in the library at the University of Maryland for a while, and she learned a love of research that led her to write Witness.

Letters from Rifka began as a family story. Karen had heard about her relatives who had such a hard time on their way to America. She spent enjoyable hours talking to older members of the family about the past. She then went home with her strands of story and wove them into a remarkable book. Rifka is a pretty Jewish girl who has lived all her life in Ukraine. When her brothers run away from the Russian Army, her whole family must flee so the soldiers won't take vengeance on them. Rifka writes to her cousin Tovah about her fears and hopes as the family struggles to come to America.

Stowaway, the story of Nicholas Young, a runaway butcher's apprentice, is written as if it were his diary. Nicholas, a character drawn from real life, hid away on Captain Cook's ship in 1768. The ship is bound for a three-year voyage of discovery. Nicholas makes both friends and enemies as they sail to the far side of the world. As they watch for the transit of Venus and search for a new continent, they often keep just a fair wind away from utter disaster.

Sometimes the things she reads intrigue and inspires her to begin a book. Karen was reading a magazine during a flight when she saw an article on the Ku Klux Klan… in Vermont! Like most people, she had imagined that the KKK was active only in the Southern states. She wondered how they could have gotten a toe-hold in Vermont, and the wondering led her to create a small town where each of the main characters: a gifted, young black girl, a bright Jewish girl visiting from New York, a concerned doctor, an angry teenage boy, and others have their own voices. In Witness, they tell the town's story of a murderous summer in poetry-short, clear free verse that speaks from the characters' hearts, an idea she got from the classic poetry book, Spoon River Anthology. Karen also used free verse in Out of the Dust, to paint with spare words the emotions of harrowing and hopeful times.

Karen Hesse is one hard working lady. When she first began to write, she had to fit it in around her job and raising a family. She'd get up at two in the morning so she could have a solid four hours for writing. It was difficult, but it gave her the time she needed to learn her craft.

These days, she still gets up early, at least by 5 am because she likes to experience the feeling of a brand new day when anything is still possible. In Something About the Author: Autobiography Series, she wrote:

"I love writing. I can't wait to get to my desk every morning. I wish everyone felt that way about their chosen profession. Writing is not easy. I work for long hours and sometimes all that work disappoints me and I throw it out and begin again…. The thing about writing … until your words become a book you can change them, mold them, shape and reshape them until they look and sound and feel precisely the way you want."

What's new and next for Karen Hesse? In 2002, she received a half a million dollars as part of her MacArthur Fellowship. The MacArthur Foundation had given this "Genius" award to a children's writer only once before.

Want to learn more about Karen Hesse? Check out these resources online.

1998 Newbery Speech for Out of the Dust
A terrific speech about her life and works.

Kidsreads.com: Karen Hesse
Karen tells about her life in her author statement and answers several questions from an interviewer.