Monday, February 9, 2009
Paulsen, G. (1993). Nightjohn. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young
Told from the perspective of twelve-year-old Sarny, the historical Nightjohn shares the trials of the slaves on the Waller plantation. Sarny, a quiet outsider who can’t even remember her mother who was sold while Sarny was still young, is the first to notice Clel Waller’s newest slave, a heavily scarred tall man named John. Sarny learns that John had escaped to freedom previously, but willingly returned to The South to teach slaves, to teach Sarny how to read and write.
Sarny tells of the horrible abuses some of the other slaves have had to endure on the plantation. This book would undoubtedly provoke emotional reactions. A teacher will have to be prepared to help students manage the experience of reading this book. The only white person shown to any extent in the story is Clel Waller and his maltreatment of the slaves as well as the fact that Sarny’s descriptions of him usually include the word ‘maggot’ may mean that a teacher will have to remind students that while Waller is the most evil piece of snot to learn to speak and hold a whip, other white people worked tirelessly for the slaves’ education and liberation. And others did nothing.
There is a sequel called Sarny. I'll admit I haven't read it yet. Have any of you read it, my dear but few readers? What were your thoughts?
On a much lighter note, did you know that Paulsen has written over 130 books? For reals. The majority of stories involve nature, animals, nature, eating uncooked things, nature, being attacked by wild animals, dogs, the artistic drive, nature, kids surviving in nature, more dogs, his own experiences in nature, etc. So seeing him go historical on his readers was a fresh slant.
While I have great respect for him and his work, do you think, just maybe, Paulsen could leave a few ideas and pieces of paper for the rest of us to publish with? Pretty please.
Activities to do with the book:
Since this story shows characters desperate to learn to read and write, this book would be wonderful for struggling readers to show them the historical significance of literacy as empowerment.
Teachers could urge students to do reflective journal writing in response to the book. The book could be paired with lessons on history or could trigger discussions on morality.
Since the end of the book does leave the reader with some hope, but lacks an actual conclusion, students could write their own endings to the novel.
“This is a story about Nightjohn. I guess in some ways it is a story about me just as much because I am in it and I know what happened and some of it happened to me but it still seems to be about him” (p. 13).
“You ran and got away?” mammy asked.
“You ran until you were clean away?”
“And you came back?”
He sighed and it sounded like his voice, like his laugh. Low and way off thunder. It made me think he was going to promise something, the way thunder promises rain. “For this.”
“What you mean—this?”
“To teach reading” (p. 55).