Author: Juanita Havill
Illustrator: Stanislawa Kodman
Lexile Score: N/A
Genre: Realistic Fiction/ Verse Novel
Maturity level: 2nd grade
Pages: 159 Chapters: n/a - most poems are 1-3 pages long in about 14 point type
Theme: Gardening, growing, nature vs. industry
Project ideas: Plant a garden
First Line: Saturday morning - Berneetha's voice booming - through the screen door - on the front porch: "I'm all fired up - and ready to go. Who'll come with me?"
Main Character: Kate (young girl) Berneetha (older neighbor)
Review in 25 words or less: A sweet story - the tight, brimming verses fully paint the picture - although the brilliant illustrations help a lot!
Kate has a neighbor who is an out-of-work special education teacher. Together, they plant a garden in an old man's vacant lot. The garden seems to bring out the best in passers-by, until the man dies and his son decides to use the lot for a parking garage. Together, the community finds a solution to the problem and cleans up some other ugliness along the way. I read it in one gulp and enjoyed every second of it! The illustrations were unbelievable. There is one drawing in the book showing the sun looking down on a tomato plant that I had to stop and study for quite a while. Kodman has a fascinating way of depicting images - they look like sketches at first glance, but a more careful study reveals them to be very planned out. One interesting aspect of the writing that stood out to me is the way the darker subjects of death, family struggles, and theft are handled. They seem to hit hard within one poem, then disappear with the start of the next poem. It's almost like the book itself is the garden that takes your cares away and sets your mind on flowers and vegetables.
Do verse novels make a simple story feel like a much larger, deeper tale? It doesn't seem like so much could happen in a book with only a few words per line, but this story encompasses all the happenings of an entire city block over the course of a growing season. It reminded me a lot of Tracie Vaughn Zimmer's "Reaching for Sun" in that I could picture the summer days and the growing plants and the tangled emotions of the characters so vividly - and the fact that they are both verse novels.
I haven't read many verse novels - I'm sure less than ten. "Out of the Dust" was my first introduction to the genre. I haven't had a lot of experience with them as book club choices. I do know that many struggling readers approach them as a breath of fresh air - (literally with more time and space to breathe on each page!) but I wonder how it would work in a discussion format. Students would definitely need post-it notes on hand to mark their thoughts and pages, because events occur and change quickly. They would need to be aware of their passing thoughts and mark them down to share later. Where a chapter book chapter might have one main event to discuss, a verse novel could possibly have a dozen or more important thoughts over a 20 page section that could be talked about in book club. I guess I am confessing here I have not considered the use of verse novels in the classroom. Would a verse novel work read aloud?
*Nominated for a 2008 Cybils Award in Middle Grade Fiction! (The opinions shared here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my fellow panelists.)