Books by Karen Hesse

NIGHT JOB by Karen Hesse
Released: Sept. 11, 2018

"An endearing story conveying a satisfying sense of a job well done. (Picture book. 4-8)"
A little boy accompanies his single-parent father to his evening job as the custodian at a large middle school in this serene, evocative story. Read full book review >
SAFEKEEPING by Karen Hesse
Released: Sept. 18, 2012

"Hesse offers some of her best in lavish descriptions of nature and mood, all overlaid with a social message, but this might be of more interest to adults than to teens. (Speculative fiction. 14 & up)"
Billed as "a novel of tomorrow," this account of a privileged teenager who returns from a goodwill trip in Haiti to a changed America disappoints. Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 1, 2008

An immigrant family's tale, Impressionistic glimpses of street children living under the Brooklyn Bridge and vintage newspaper excerpts braid themselves together to form this spellbinding novel. The newly arrived Michtoms (based on fact) are the lucky ones, rising from shopkeepers to successful teddy-bear manufacturers. The travails of their neighbors and extended family, the city's human flotsam under the bridge and a "Radiant Boy" who is a "death omen ghost" represent the brutal side of the "golden land." Fourteen-year-old Joe Michtom tells his own story, establishing the story's central theme of letting go: of old possessions, secrets, mistakes that limit freedom. He is also central to the mystery behind the "Radiant Boy" buried under the bridge, whose "ghost" terrorizes the street children who live there. In this tale of Dickensian contrasts in kindness and cruelty, Brooklyn comes alive with the details of time and place, but it is the shadow of pain and transcendence cast symbolically by the bridge that haunts and compels. Another work of enduring excellence from Hesse. (author's note) (Historical fiction. 10-14) Read full book review >
SPUDS by Karen Hesse
by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Wendy Watson
Released: Sept. 1, 2008

Ma is working late shifts but there doesn't ever seem to be enough to eat. So one frosty night Jack and Maybelle put little Eddie in a wagon with some empty sacks and sneak into a farmer's field to liberate the potatoes that are just lying there. As they load their prizes, they dream of all the mouthwatering ways Ma might cook the potatoes. Imagine their shock and disappointment when they realize that their sacks held very few potatoes and a load of stones. Ma makes them take everything back to the farmer, who kindly allows them to keep it all, saying they had helped by removing the stones. Thus they get their "fry-up" after all, but they also get some valuable lessons in integrity and compassion. Hesse uses country dialect to set the mood of tender nostalgia. The Depression-era setting is never specifically mentioned, but is conveyed entirely through the details in Watson's mixed-media illustrations, rendered in soft, muted earth tones that perfectly complement the text. A sweet, gentle tale. (Picture book. 5-9) Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 1, 2005

"The Ugly Duckling" was the story of Andersen's life. Unattractive as a boy and subjected to teasing and taunting, he grew up to be a fabulously accomplished writer, courted by royalty and befriended by literary luminaries of his time. "First you have a terribly hard time, and then you become famous," he said. This volume, a fitting celebration of the bicentennial of Andersen's birth, is a perfect match of evocative, poetic text and sumptuous watercolor and pen-and-ink illustrations. Brief chapters, each page with an illustration, illustrate pivotal moments in the author's life. The text ends as Andersen leaves Odense, Denmark, for Copenhagen, the end of one story of his life and the beginning of another. This will be a natural for reading aloud when introducing children to his stories. A perfect gem. (afterword, bibliography, illustrator's note) (Nonfiction. 7-10)Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 1, 2004

A young Jewish girl and her sister, "passing" as Polish in WWII Warsaw, plot to sneak food, brought by collaborating train passengers, into the ghetto. Their scheme is jeopardized when the Gestapo meets the train with dogs that sniff out both smugglers and contraband food. To foil the Nazis, the sisters gather up the feral cats of Krasinski Square in baskets. They release the cats as a distraction to the dogs, thus allowing the food to be smuggled into the ghetto. Skilled pacing renders the cat solution a satisfyingly subversive surprise while Watson's illustration of the flummoxed Nazis underscores the ensuing chaos. The illustrations, with their soft but firm line and monochromatic sepia-toned palette, have an appropriate retro look. Among the great historical avalanche of Holocaust stories, Hesse has found a little-known vignette that she treats with her customary modest but elevating free-verse style, making a grave subject enormously accessible, gently humorous, and affectingly triumphant. (author's note, historical note) (Picture book. 6-10)Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 1, 2003

The historical facts are as starkly unforgiving as the Aleutian landscape, but not as beautiful. During WWII, the government removed five Aleut villages to a camp in Southeast Alaska after the Japanese bombed and occupied islands in America's farthest northwest. Returning after three years, they found their villages in ruins. In Hesse's hands, facts become the elegiac thoughts of Vera, a half-Aleut teen. Contained in Vera's unrhymed verses are Aleutian traditions, small details of camp life, and hints of racism, delivered with quiet innocence that belie the deepest wounds. The relocation was full of loss because numbers of Aleuts, in an alien forest climate far from the sea, either moved to take jobs in the nearby town (Vera's mother) or sickened and died (her best friend). With a whisper-soft touch, Hesse's clear, resonant verses and delicate imagery will break hearts. At the end, readers will be haunted by a hope-filled love that has grown between Vera and Alfred in the camp and by a government that says, "We are moving you to save you." (Historical fiction. 10-15)Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 1, 2003

In this ambitious and unusual oversized volume, eight episodes from Jewish history are experienced through the eyes of child witnesses. Each chapter begins with a brief description of a complex topic, such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, the false Messiah, Kristallnacht, and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. After each of the histories, a child living through the events offers a lyrical first-person account (in Hesse's trademark free verse) of a muted Hanukkah celebration. More often than not, there are only oblique references to the events in the narrative. The Kristallnacht episode tells of a Hanukkah table on which Papa's book is placed. An italicized line following the narrative tells the reader that the narrator, David, hid while his brothers and father were taken away on Kristallnacht. The metaphor of the Jewish people as a flame that is inextinguishable against all odds unifies the stories. Pinkney's bold paint and scratchboard illustrations also emphasize the theme of light and flame. (Picture book/nonfiction. 10+)Read full book review >
WITNESS by Karen Hesse
Released: Sept. 1, 2001

In this stunning piece of little-known American history, Hesse (Stowaway, 2000, etc.) paints small-town Vermont on the brink of self-destruction circa 1924. The narrative poetry format has fitting roots in "The Spoon River Anthology." Eleven characters speak revealingly for themselves to describe a year in which the Ku Klux Klan arrives, seduces many solid citizens, moves from intimidation to threat to violence, and is finally rejected by the tolerant, no-nonsense townsfolk. Central to the story are two children, one an African-American named Leanora, and the other, a Jewish fresh-air child from New York, named Esther. As targets of prejudice, the lives of both are affected by the actions of the KKK: Leanora is the victim of racist remarks and threats, and Esther sees her father shot while she's sitting on his lap. The story is all the more haunting for its exquisite balance of complex and intersecting points of view on gender, ethnicity, politics, religion, and money. The setting is well developed through subtly embedded period details of everyday Vermont life (a broom sale creates a stampede) and incidents of national historical significance (the Leopold and Loeb trial). The voices of each character have a distinct resonance, but the voice of Esther, the moral center of the book, is memorable. It has a unique beauty and style created by Esther's innocent and hopeful way of expression, but revealing of her immigrant roots in New York. This is carefully crafted, with Leanora, who evolves and grows in wisdom and understanding, being given the first and last word. What Copeland created with music, and Hopper created with paint, Hesse deftly and unerringly creates with words: the iconography of Americana, carefully researched, beautifully written, and profoundly honest. (Fiction. 10-14)Read full book review >
STOWAWAY by Karen Hesse
Released: Nov. 1, 2000

Presented in diary format, this is the story of 11-year-old Nicholas Young's 1768 voyage as a stowaway on Captain Cook's ship Endeavor. Hesse uses the few facts known about Nick, as well as the actual journals of Cook and naturalist Joseph Banks, as sources for her account of their three-year voyage to explore and chart the South Pacific. Nick has run away from the casual cruelty of a father who is disappointed in his son's lack of scholarship and has been apprenticed to "the Butcher" to toughen him up. Throughout, he is haunted by the nightmarish Butcher, whose memory is evoked by the brutish Midshipman Bootie. In the course of the voyage, Nick is made a Surgeon's assistant and gains the crew's acceptance. He grows into a skilled young man who recognizes his strengths and is prepared to hold his head up and make amends to the people he has disappointed. Renowned for her spare, poetic style (Out of the Dust, 1997, Newbery Medal), Hesse is just as successful telling a story rich in detail that is reflective in style and content of an 18th-century journal. Here the beauty of her language is at the service of such phenomena as a show of porpoises and the almost-human scream of the Endeavor as it is impaled on a coral reef. So adept is the pacing that, like a sea voyage, sometimes Nick's journal entries are as prosaic as days at sea and sometimes entries become almost staccato as the action drives the reader forward. Ink-and-wash drawings by Robert Andrew Parker are appropriate to the classic genre of sea adventure. In a lucid, readable style, free of excessive nautical jargon, Hesse simultaneously takes readers along on one of history's greatest enterprises, and introduces them to one of history's most prodigious natural leaders. (Historical fiction. 10-14) Read full book review >
COME ON, RAIN! by Karen Hesse
Released: March 1, 1999

Hesse (Just Juice, p. 1600, etc.) hits some high notes in this story of parched summer days in the city. Young Tess watches as her mother tends to her woeful wilting vegetable patch; the heat is enveloping. Tess, from her perch on the fire escape, scans the sky in hopes of deliverance, and sure enough, those are rain clouds she spies. When the clouds break, everyone steps joyfully to the rain dance. Hesse's language is a quiet, elegant surge—" ‘Rain's coming, Mamma,' I say. Mamma turns to the window and sniffs. ‘It's about time,' she murmurs," but it can become ornate ("trinkets of silver rain" and music that "streaks like night lightning") and jarring amid the contained beauty of the rest of the writing. Muth contributes fine watercolor atmospherics, in sultry summer scenes where the heat is almost palpable, and raucous wet scenes of jubilant dancers. (Picture book. 4-8) Read full book review >
JUST JUICE by Karen Hesse
Released: Nov. 1, 1998

Down-to-earth, resourceful heroine Justus "Juice" Faulstich doesn't like going to school. She'd rather spend the day with her out-of-work father, or helping her mother, who's expecting her sixth child. Even though she's only nine, Juice believes she is more useful at home; secretly, she's afraid that someone will find out that she can hardly read. When Pa receives a letter explaining that they may lose their house because of past-due taxes, and Juice's older sister has to read it, Juice realizes that she's not the only one in the family with a secret. The struggling Faulstich family's strength and the atmospheric details of rural life lend the story a timeless, sturdy quality. This poignant story of love and endurance has a lot to say; fittingly, it never shouts. (b&w illustrations, not seen) (Fiction. 7-12) Read full book review >
OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse
Released: Oct. 1, 1997

Billie Jo tells of her life in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl: Her mother dies after a gruesome accident caused by her father's leaving a bucket of kerosene near the stove; Billie Jo is partially responsible—fully responsible in the eyes of the community—and sustains injuries that seem to bring to a halt her dreams of playing the piano. Finding a way through her grief is not made easier by her taciturn father, who went on a drinking binge while Billie Joe's mother, not yet dead, begged for water. Told in free-verse poetry of dated entries that span the winter of 1934 to the winter of 1935, this is an unremittingly bleak portrait of one corner of Depression-era life. In Billie Jo, the only character who comes to life, Hesse (The Music of Dolphins, 1996, etc.) presents a hale and determined heroine who confronts unrelenting misery and begins to transcend it. The poem/novel ends with only a trace of hope; there are no pat endings, but a glimpse of beauty wrought from brutal reality. (Fiction. 9-12) Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 1, 1996

Her mind and spirit shaped by the dolphins who raised her, a feral child views herself and her human captors from a decidedly unusual angle in this poignant story from the author of A Time of Angels (1995). The rescuers who find her on a key off the coast of Cuba dub her Mila—Spanish for ``miracle''—for although she weighs barely 100 pounds and bears sucker and barnacle scars, she is healthy and alert, human in form but with strange gestures, sounds, and behavior she learned from the dolphins with whom she has lived for at least 10 years. Taken to a research facility, Mila launches into her new life with enthusiasm, spurred by the hope that she will soon be returned to her marine family. She excels at her studies and displays a genius for music. As someone whose inner resilience has allowed her to develop a dual nature, Mila is utterly convincing; in a highly individual voice, she describes her old and new lives—e.g., ``the sea is a big home where all the time is swimming and all the time is singing and all the time is touching in the big wet.'' Changes in type size and style signal Mila's inner shifts as she turns toward humanity, then away, finding in the dolphins a wiser, more comfortable society. A probing look at what makes us human, with an unforgettable protagonist. (Fiction. 9-12) Read full book review >
A TIME OF ANGELS by Karen Hesse
Released: Oct. 1, 1995

An intense, vivid tale of the devastating influenza epidemic of 1918. Hannah Gold's already unhappy life in Boston—both parents are trapped in Europe by the war, leaving her with two quarrelsome sisters on one hand and critical, humorless Vashti, a permanent houseguest, on the other—suddenly becomes a nightmare when people begin dying all around her, including her beloved Tanta Rose. When the sisters show flu symptoms, Vashti orders Hannah to flee, but it's too late; feverish and semiconscious, she's taken off the train and, after a long bout that leaves her weak and voiceless, ends up convalescing with Klaus Gerhard, a kindly widower. As in Phoenix Rising (1994), Hesse effectively captures the physical and emotional effects of deadly illness and makes wise observations about judging people too hastily: Reluctant to admit she eats only kosher food, Hannah nearly starves, but the worst discrimination falls on Klaus, for being German. In a strange, haunting subplot, Hannah has periodic visions of angels. An absorbing story with strongly drawn characters and a convincing sense of time and place. (glossary) (Fiction. 11-15) Read full book review >
Released: April 1, 1994

A massive nuclear accident has just occurred in southern Vermont. The first scene in this compelling novel parallels the kind of negligence that caused it: Eighth-grader Nyle and her friend Muncie confront a vicious neighbor whose dog has slaughtered sheep on Nyle's grandmother's farm. The young people are masked, even though a west wind has mitigated most of the fallout from the nearby plant. But Boston has been evacuated; an uncle has had to destroy his cattle; and though rain clears the air, much farmland is poisoned, death's full toll is yet to come, and the prevailing, often irrational fear will soon drive a wedge between the girls. When Gran takes in two survivors from the plant, Nyle is stricken: Ezra, 15, now lies deathly ill in the room where her mother and grandfather died. Conquering her memories and her dread, Nyle brings all her imagination to helping Ezra heal both his body and a deeply troubled spirit. In time, he starts school and begins to ponder how people, like sheep, can be led to foolishly accept a known danger; Ezra hopes to live to do better. In the hands of a less gifted author this scenario might signal an issue-driven story, but Hesse transcends the specific to illuminate universal questions of responsibility, care, and love. When Nyle compares Ezra's courage to Anne Frank's he cries out, ``Do I have to die in the end too so people won't forget what I died for?'' The answer is almost inevitable; yet Hesse portrays her characters' anguish and their growing tenderness with such unwavering clarity and grace that she sustains the tension of her lyrical, understated narrative right to her stunning, beautifully wrought conclusion. (Fiction. 12+) Read full book review >
SABLE by Karen Hesse
by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Marcia Sewall
Released: April 1, 1994

Another nicely honed Redfeather Book from the author of Lavender (1993) and Phoenix Rising (p. 480). Again, the theme is caring for loved ones; but where the adults in Lavender were exemplary, the parents here hardly seem to love their daughter in the beginning, much less the stray dog she adopts. Gruff Pap, a carpenter, is too busy to let Tate help him or to understand her need for companionship. Mam has a deep fear of dogs and still has scars to show why; she's testy and anxious when Pap lets Tate feed ``Sable'' and keep her outside. But Tate loves the dog, and Sable reciprocates her affection. Unfortunately, once she's well fed, she takes to wandering—follows the school bus, brings things home, bothers neighbors. When there are complaints, Pap gives Sable to a customer, miles away. Desolate but determined, Tate builds a fence in hopes of bringing Sable home, then hitches a ride to see her; but the dog has run away. By the time she makes her way home, each character has gained some insights: With more help from Tate, and realizing how much she has grieved, Mam mellows; Pap sees the fence as evidence that Tate might make a carpenter; even Sable has had enough of running and settles down. With a fresh narrative voice, thoughtfully developed characters, and its surefire Lassie-Come-Home ending, a fine early chapter book. (Fiction. 6-10) Read full book review >
LESTER'S DOG by Karen Hesse
Released: Oct. 1, 1993

The unnamed narrator shivers as he watches Lester's dog light out after a car—he's had his own run-ins with the big creature and knows better than to tangle with him. Then friend Corey drags the boy on a rescue mission; he locates a small, needy kitten, summons up the courage to bark back at Lester's fierce dog, and finally makes a welcome gift of the kitten to a lonely elderly neighbor. ``Garrison Avenue'' comes to life in Hesse's words and Carpenter's pictures, which reveal what the carefully framed text leaves to judicious understatement: Corey wears a hearing aid. Plotting is sharp and tight; radiant painterly vistas add such details as cracked sidewalks and broken latticework, and readers are left with the satisfying feeling that this is no idyll but a real neighborhood of the not-so- distant past—one where heroic efforts and happy endings are still possible. (Picture book. 4-7) Read full book review >
LAVENDER by Karen Hesse
by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Andrew Glass
Released: Oct. 1, 1993

Codie has a special relationship with her aunt Alix, who lives up the block; though Alix's first child is due in two weeks, she welcomes the little girl for her usual Saturday night sleepover and assures her that, despite the big belly where Codie can see the baby move, ``There will always be room'' for her. Secretly, Codie is making the baby a patchwork quilt—a perfect gift for a seamstress like her aunt. When Alix is rushed to the hospital the night of the sleepover, she's concerned: she knows that ``Aunt Alix has tried having a baby lots of times. This is the closest she's come to a baby fully done.'' The quilt is two weeks short of completion, and so, perhaps, is the baby. Working through the night, Codie finishes her gift with a border of lavender, Aunt Alix's favorite color; morning brings news that the baby's fine, and that ``Lavender'' is her name. This simple, easily read little story is a gem. Each telling detail—Alix's dogs comfortably settled on a lumpy sofa, licking cookie crumbs from each other's whiskers; Codie's joyous powdered sugar fight with her aunt and uncle the night before the baby is born, echoed in Alix's tone (``sweet and light, like powdered sugar'') when she finds the patchwork neatly tucked among the baby's clothes— is a gentle brush-stroke in this tender, but never sentimental, portrait of a particularly nice family welcoming its newest member. Illustrations not seen. (Fiction/Young reader. 5-9) Read full book review >
POPPY'S CHAIR by Karen Hesse
Released: March 31, 1993

At Gramm's house for her first long visit since ``Poppy'' died, Leah is sad and uneasy: she's afraid to look at his picture, unwilling to sing the song they shared, and conscious of the familiar chair that, in unspoken agreement, she and Gramm are both avoiding. Hesse (the fine Letters from Rifka, 1992) skillfully chooses details that reveal her characters' feelings while epitomizing their loss. Leah remains aloof during a day's shopping; that night, concerned for Gramm, she finds her sleeping in Poppy's chair. In a comforting dialogue that is both believable and wise, Gramm tells Leah how terrible, even angry, she felt when Poppy died—as Leah will when Gramm eventually dies too; still, like Gramm, Leah will be ``all right.'' Gramm is especially well individualized, the kind of white-haired lady whose hat, gloves, and shoes all match; Life, who uses pastels to depict the pair in an accessible, realistic style, brings a commendable subtlety to both sympathetic characterizations. Thoughtful and well crafted. (Picture book. 5-8) Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 1, 1992

Beginning in Russia in 1919, this epistolary novel, based on experiences of the author's great-aunt, tells how 12-year-old Rifka Nebrot and her family fled the anti-Semitism of post-revolutionary Russia and emigrated to the US. The letters, each prefaced by a few telling lines of Pushkin, tell of the fear, indignities, privation, and disease endured as they traveled through Poland and into Belgium, where Rifka had to be left behind for several months because she was unacceptable as a steamship passenger: she had ringworm. Finally reaching Ellis Island, she was held in quarantine because the ringworm had left her bald—making her an undesirable immigrant because it was thought that she'd be unable to find a husband to support her. Eventually, Rifka talked her way into the country; her energy, cleverness, and flair for languages convinced officials that she wouldn't become a ward of the state. Told with unusual grace and simplicity, an unforgettable picture of immigrant courage, ingenuity, and perseverance. (Fiction. 10+) Read full book review >
WISH ON A UNICORN by Karen Hesse
Released: April 1, 1991

``Kids at school...they won't talk to me because of Hannie, even though sometimes I think Patty Jo wouldn't mind being friends. I guess they're afraid Hannie'll rub off on them or something.'' Eight-year-old Hannie is ``slow,'' and between watching out for her and trying to keep bright, rebellious little Mooch out of trouble, Maggie is afraid she'll never have friends. Then Hannie finds an old stuffed unicorn and decides it can make wishes come true. Her faith is so great that Maggie begins to believe too, especially when some of her own wishes are realized- -though not always as she had envisioned. Maggie yearns not to live in a trailer and to have her mother find a daytime job, as well as to have friends; what she gets is new understanding of her family's importance to her, and of what kind of friends are worth having. Maggie, a likeable, forthright sixth grader who bears up well under difficult circumstances, is this first novel's strongest component. Unfortunately, six-year-old Mooch's character rings less true, while the action is poorly paced and the worthy moral loses impact with frequent repetition. Adequate fare for middle readers. (Fiction. 8-10) Read full book review >