"To know things, for us to know things, is bad for them. We get to wanting and when we get to wanting it's bad for them. They thinks we want what they got . . . . That's why they don't want us reading." --Nightjohn
"I didn't know what letters was, not what they meant, but I thought it might be something I wanted to know. To learn." -- Sarny
Sarny, a female slave at the Waller plantation, first sees Nightjohn when he is brought there with a rope around his neck, his body covered in scars.
He had escaped north to freedom, but he came back--came back to teach reading. Knowing that the penalty for reading is dismemberment Nightjohn still retumed to slavery to teach others how to read. And twelve-year-old Sarny is willing to take the risk to learn.
Set in the 1850s, Gary Paulsen's groundbreaking new novel is unlike anything else the award-winning author has written. It is a meticulously researched, historically accurate, and artistically crafted portrayal of a grim time in our nation's past, brought to light through the personal history of two unforgettable characters.
An Excerpt from Nightjohn
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"Tonight we just do A." He sat back on his heels and pointed. "There it
I looked at it, wondered how it stood. "Where's the bottom to it?"
"There it stands on two feet, just like you."
"What does it mean?"
"It means A
--just like I said. It's the first letter in the alphabet.
And when you see it you make a sound like this: ayyy
, or ahhhh.
"That's reading? To make that sound?"
He nodded. "When you see that letter on paper or a sack or in the dirt
you make one of those sounds. That's reading."
"Well that ain't hard at all."
He laughed. That same low roll. Made me think of thunder long ways off,
moving in the summer sky. "There's more to it. Other letters. But that's
"Why they be cutting our thumbs off if we learn to read--if that's all
"'Cause to know things, for us to know things, is bad for them. We get
to wanting and when we get to wanting it's bad for them. They thinks we
want what they got."
I thought of what they had. Fine clothes and food. I heard one of house
workers say they ate off plates and had forks and spoons and knives....
"That's true--I want it."
"That's why they don't want us reading." He sighed. "I got to rest now...."
He moved back to the corner and settled down and I curled up to mammy
in amongst the young ones again. A
, I though. Ayyy, ahhhh.
There it is. I be reading.
"Hey there in the corner," I whispered.
"What's your name?"
"I be John."
"I be Sarny."
But I didn't I snuggled into mammy and pulled a couple of the young ones
in for heat and kept my eyes open so I wouldn't sleep and thought:
Excerpted from Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen. . Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About Gary Paulsen
“We have been passive. We have been stupid. We have been lazy. We have done all the things we could do to destroy ourselves. If there is any hope at all for the human race, it has to come from young people. Not from adults.”—Gary Paulsen
A three-time Newbery Honor winner, Gary Paulsen is also winner of the 1997 Margaret A. Edwards Award, which honors an author’s lifetime contribution to writing books for teenagers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Writing is so much a part of the way I live . . .
Writing is so much a part of the way I live that I would be lost without the discipline and routine. I write every day—every day—and it gives me balance and focus. Every day I wake up, usually at 4:30 a.m., with the sole purpose of sitting down to write with a cup of hot tea and a computer or a laptop or a pad of paper—it doesn’t matter. I’ve written whole books in my office, in a dog kennel with a headlamp, on more airplanes than I can remember, on the trampoline of my catamaran off the shores of Fiji—it never matters where I write, just where the writing takes me.
Everything else I do is just a path to get me to that moment when I start to work. Sometimes I’m lucky and the living part of life gets folded into the writing part, like with Dogsong and the Brian books and Caught by the Sea and How Angel Peterson Got His Name. Those books were based on personal inspection at zero altitude, I took experiences that I had and turned them into books. I’ve spent a great deal of time in the outdoors, but not with the specific goal of writing about it later. I’ll be honest, though, and tell you that I enjoyed writing about those times as much as, if not more than, I enjoyed living through those times in the first place. I didn’t start writing until I was 26 years old. I look back now and wonder what I thought I was supposed to be doing with my time before that.
I’ve experimented with different voices and styles . . .
Sometimes the way to tell a story is even more important than the story itself. I’ve experimented with different voices and styles and genres over the years. The Glass Café and Harris and Me were born of the voices of people I could not get out of my head. Tony was a boy I knew back when I lived in Hollywood and Harris was a cousin from my childhood. To honor their voices, I wrote the books in very different styles. Tony had a fast-paced, breathless speaking style and I had fun trying to capture that on paper. And the best way to paint a picture of Harris was to detail all those crazy stunts of his.
Nightjohn and Soldier’s Heart were the result of studying history. Sarny came from the research I did in the National Archives when I stumbled across the Slave Narratives. And I discovered Charley Goddard when reading a book about the Minnesota First Volunteers. I hadn’t expected to find characters for books of my own when I started reading, but I could not shake them until I tried to figure out on paper what their lives must have been like.
I am still amazed by the gifts that writing gives to me . . .
Even after all these years, I am still amazed by the gifts that writing gives to me. There is not only the satisfaction from the hard work—and even after all this time and all these books, it is still very hard work for me to make a book—and the way the hair rises on the back of my neck when a story works for me, but also the relationships I have made with the people who read my books.
The one true measure of success for me has always been the readers . . .
People ask me about the kind of money I make and how many awards I’ve received, but the one true measure of success for me
has always been the readers. I give the checks to my wife and my agent keeps the awards for me. The only thing I have in my office, other than junk and work and research, is a framed letter from one of my readers. That means more to me than just about anything else, the letters
I get from the people who read my books.
Thank you for reading my books and for writing to me. Read like a wolf eats. Read.
Born May 17, 1939, Gary Paulsen is one of America’s most popular writers for young people. Although he was never a dedicated student, Paulsen developed a passion for reading at an early age. After a librarian gave him a book to read—along with his own library card—he was hooked. He began spending hours alone in the basement of his apartment building, reading one book after another.
Running away from home at the age of 14 and traveling with a carnival, Paulsen acquired a taste for adventure. A youthful summer of rigorous chores on a farm; jobs as an engineer, construction worker, ranch hand, truck driver, and sailor; and two rounds of the 1,180-mile Alaskan dogsled race, the Iditarod; have provided ample material from which he creates his powerful stories.
Paulsen’s realization that he would become a writer came suddenly when he was working as a satellite technician for an aerospace firm in California. One night he walked off the job, never to return. He spent the next year in Hollywood as a magazine proofreader, working on his own writing every night. Then he left California and drove to northern Minnesota where he rented a cabin on a lake; by the end of the winter, he had completed his first novel.
Living in the remote Minnesota woods, Paulsen eventually turned to the sport of dogsled racing, and entered the 1983 Iditarod. In 1985, after running the Iditarod for the second time, he suffered an attack of angina and was forced to give up his dogs. “I started to focus on writing with the same energies and efforts that I was using with dogs. So we’re talking 18-, 19-, 20-hour days completely committed to work. Totally, viciously, obsessively committed to work, the way I’d run dogs. . . . I still work that way, completely, all the time. I just work. I don’t drink, I don’t fool around, I’m just this way. . . . The end result is there’s a lot of books out there.”
It is Paulsen’s overwhelming belief in young people that drives him to write. His intense desire to tap deeply into the human spirit and to encourage readers to observe and care about the world around them has brought him both enormous popularity with young people and critical acclaim from the children’s book community. Paulsen is a master storyteller who has written more than 175 books and some 200 articles and short stories for children and adults. He is one of the most important writers of young adult literature today, and three of his novels—Hatchet, Dogsong, and The Winter Room—are Newbery Honor Books. His books frequently appear on the best books lists of the American Library Association.
Paulsen has received many letters from readers (as many as 200 a day) telling him they felt Brian Robeson’s story in Hatchet was left unfinished by his early rescue, before the winter came and made things really tough. They wanted to know what would happen if Brian were not rescued, if he had to survive in the winter. Paulsen says, “I researched and wrote Brian’s Winter, showing what could and perhaps would have happened had Brian not been rescued.”
In Paulsen’s book, Guts: The True Stories Behind Hatchet and the Brian Books, Paulsen shares his own adventures in the wild, which are often hilarious and always amazing: moose attacks, heart attacks, near-misses in planes, and looking death in the eye.
Paulsen has written a time-travel novel, The Transall Saga, which was named an ALA Quick Pick. And in the heartwrenching story Soldier’s Heart, Paulsen brings the Civil War to life battle by battle, as readers see the horror of combat and its devastating results through the eyes of 15-year-old Charley Goddard.
Paulsen and his wife Ruth Wright Paulsen, an artist who has illustrated several of his books, divide their time between a home in New Mexico and a boat in the Pacific. For more information about Gary Paulsen, visit www.garypaulsen.com
“Readers will want to savor this stirring book.”—Starred, Kirkus Reviews
THE BEET FIELDS
“The ultimate coming-of-age story. . . . Exceptional and so heartbreakingly real.”—Starred, Booklist
“Paulsen crafts a companion/sequel to Hatchet containing many of its same pleasures. . . . Read together, the two books make his finest tale of survival yet.”—Starred, Kirkus Reviews
HOW ANGEL PETERSON GOT HIS NAME
“These episodes will not only keep young readers, of both sexes, in stitches, they’re made to order for reading aloud.”—Starred, Kirkus Reviews
“Superb characterizations, splendidly evoked setting, and thrill-a-minute plot make this book a joy to gallop through.”—Starred, Publishers Weekly
MY LIFE IN DOG YEARS
“A treat to make Paulsen fans sit up and beg for more. . . . His writing percolates with energetic love.”—Starred, Publishers Weekly
A Life Remembered
“A satisfying sequel. . . . It is a great read, with characters both to hate and to cherish, and a rich sense of what it really was like then.”—Starred, Booklist
“The novel’s spare, simple language and vivid visual images of brutality and death on the battlefield make it accessible and memorable to young people.”—Starred, Booklist
THE TRANSALL SAGA
“A riveting science fiction adventure. . . . Captivating.”—Starred, Booklist
author fun facts
Born: May 17 in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Previous jobs: Farm hand, ranch hand, truck driver, sailor, dogsled racer, teacher, field engineer, editor, soldier, actor, director, trapper, professional archer, migrant farm worker, singer
Hobbies: Sailing, collecting and riding Harley Davidsons; twice ran the Iditarod, the challenging 1,000 mile dogsled race across Alaska
Inspiration for writing: After a librarian gave him a book to read--along with his own library card--Gary was hooked. He began spending hours alone in the basement of his apartment building, reading one book after another.
From the Hardcover edition.
NOTE TO TEACHERS
Getting Along with Others
Grades 7 up
ABOUT THIS BOOK
A riveting story of the power of literacy against the inhumanity of the slave system in the pre-Civil War South.
Travel to the Waller plantation and meet 12-year-old Sarny, a slave whose mother was sold away when she was four. Sarny first sees Nightjohn when he is brought to the plantation with a rope around his neck, his body covered with scars from many beatings. Sarny is drawn to Nightjohn when she learns that he had escaped North to freedom, only to voluntarily return to the South.
Nightjohn has a self-imposed mission—to teach slaves how to read and write. He believes knowledge is the key to helping slaves break out of bondage. Sarny is willing to take the risk, even knowing that the penalty for reading is dismemberment.
A word from Gary Paulsen..
I came into writing Nightjohn through the back door. I worked for several years on research on a book on Sally Hemings, who was a slave girl owned by Thomas Jefferson. While I was doing the research, I ran into many other stories, the slave chronicles and its interviews of ex-slaves in the ’20s and ’30s in America.
I sat in my basement reading these things crying every night. And one of the things I ran into several times was the slaves’ attempt to learn to read. For the slaves it was a capital offense to learn to read and they could be killed. They usually didn’t get killed right away because they were too valuable to the slave owner. So the owners would cut a thumb off, or sometimes a toe. They tried to teach each other to read and were successful in many places. Most of the owners were terrified of the slaves learning to read, because they knew they would want to be free.
ABOUT THIS AUTHOR
Three-time Newbery Honor winner Gary Paulsen developed a passion for reading at an early age. Running away from home at the age of 14 and traveling with a carnival, Paulsen acquired a taste for adventure. His realization that he would become a writer came when he was working as a technician for an aerospace firm in California. One night he walked off the job, and spent the next year in Hollywood as a proofreader, working on his own writing every night. He completed his first novel later that year.
Born-May 17 in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Currently lives-Southern New Mexico and the Pacific
Previous jobs- Farm hand, ranch hand, truck driver, sailor, dogsled racer, teacher, field engineer, editor, soldier, actor, director, trapper, professional archer, migrant farm worker, singer
Hobbies-Sailing; collecting and riding Harley Davidsons; twice ran the Iditarod, the challenging 1,000 mile dogsled race across Alaska
Inspiration for writing- After a librarian gave him a book to read—along with his own library card—Gary was hooked. He began spending hours alone in the basement of his apartment building, reading one book after another.
History/Civil Rights-Have students check reference books for historical details of life in the antebellum South and information about Sally Hemings, to whom Nightjohn is dedicated. Students can trace the rights of African-Americans as those rights evolved from the American Revolution to the 1850s and the following periods: Reconstruction, 1896 (Plessy vs. Ferguson) to the 1920s (Jim Crow laws), and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Language Arts-Paulsen uses many images that portray the slaves as being treated like animals. Have students make a list of these images. Students can write a “people analogy”—a description of a person that uses the characteristics of a particular animal. For example, Bill is a wily opponent who tricks his football pursuers by retracing his steps. Other students can guess the animal employed (fox).
Music-Encourage students to think about Sarny’s life beyond what Paulsen describes in the book. Because slaves were forbidden to read and write, they had to communicate their feelings in other ways—ways that would not be obvious to their masters. One way they did so was through song. Listen to recordings of songs such as “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and “Steal Away.” Have students create lyrics for a song that relates how Sarny feels about her life on the Waller plantation.
Science-Sarny chews tobacco leaves and spits the juice on the roses to control the “little green bugs.” Tobacco is used as a natural insecticide. Students can explore other methods of natural insect control (e.g., companion plants like basil and tomatoes; predator insects like ladybugs). If possible, students might visit a farm that produces natural fruits and vegetables.
Geography-Nightjohn may have gone North via the Underground Railroad. Have students explore the escape routes that were used by slaves and plot them on a map. Students could label the free states, the slave states, and the locations of some of the stations. They might read stories about Harriet Tubman, another escaped slave who went North and returned to the South via the Underground Railroad.
Prejudice-Is it ever right for one individual to own another, or for one group of people to be denied equal rights because they are different in some way? This would make a good debate topic for students.
Getting Along with Others-Slave owners such as Clel Waller used fear and intimidation to control their workers. Assign students to small groups and give them a task that needs cooperation to finish. Have students rate themselves on their work habits and project how they could do better in the future.
Freedom-Nightjohn had gone North and was free, but returned to the South to help others gain freedom, by teaching them how to read and write. Have students discuss the value of literacy and how it creates freedom. Students can brainstorm how they would perform a familiar routine (eating in a restaurant, going to a different part of town) if they couldn’t read or write.
Leadership-Nightjohn is viewed as a leader among the slaves. What does it take to be an effective leader? Students can select some local or national leaders and decide why they believe these people have been successful in getting support from the voters.
Have students experience inequality through a simulation activity in which students who possess a certain physical feature (e.g. green eyes, brown shoes with laces) receive special privileges. Discuss student reactions and ask them why they think slavery was an integral part of this era.
Vocabulary/Use of Language
Because of the historical setting, words and expressions that Paulsen uses in Nightjohn may not be familiar to students. Students might use the context of the story, or they can consult a dictionary to determine the meaning of some terms, such as “pallet,” “breeder,” and “crackers.” Some students may be sensitive to the graphic descriptions of slave life. Discuss how the words made them feel and why they think Paulsen chose to use these words in this book.
• An ALA Best Book for Young Adults
• An ALA Notable Children’s Book
• An IRA–CBC Children’s Choice
• An American Bookseller Pick of the Lists
OTHER TITLES OF INTEREST
The Year of Impossible Goodbyes
Sook Nyul Choi
Cultural Diversity, Historical Fiction,
War & the Military
Grades 5 up / 0-440-40759-1
The Slave Dancer
Historical Fiction, Prejudice, Survival
Grades 7 up / 0-440-96132-7
Number the Stars
Friendship, Holocaust/Jewish Studies
Grades 5 up / 0-440-22753-4
My Name Is Not Angelica
Historical Fiction, Prejudice
Grades 5–9 / 0-440-40379-0
ABOUT THIS GUIDE
In the Classroom
Nightjohn explores slavery and deals with issues of freedom and survival, but in a different way than other Paulsen titles. Have students read some of these to see how he presents these concepts.
Students can watch the Disney Channel Premiere Film based on the book and compare the movie to the novel. (The film, starring Carl Lumbly and Beau Bridges and introducing Allison Jones, was filmed on location in South Carolina under the direction of award-winning filmmaker Charles Burnett.) The dialogue in Nightjohn could easily be used as a Reader’s Theater presentation.
Nightjohn presents a powerful story. Enjoy sharing its historical roots and modern applications with your students!