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By: Gary Paulsen


A message from the Author

The way I came into writing Nightjohn, I came in 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. I think they had between six and nine children together over her life. When Jefferson died he was bankrupt and she was sold in the block. Said, "one 53-year-old woman worth $50.00," and they just got rid of her. And I wanted to write about her but there's not enough. I think a lot of the historical information about her has been destroyed over the years.
But while I was doing the research on Sally, I ran into many other stories and I got hold of the slave chronicles and its interviews of ex-slaves in the '20s and '30s in America. Just in dialect--some of it's hard to read. It's written the way they talked. It was beautiful.
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; sometimes the front half of the foot would be chopped off. Men were castrated. And they were always whipped. That didn't stop them and they would hide in the schools--they would call them pit schools--and they would get a ditch or a gully or a hole, and they'd cover it with brush so the light wouldn't shine out, and they'd go in there at night with torches. 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.


A riveting story that pits 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.


In the Classroom

Using Nightjohn in the Classroom

Nightjohn realistically explores slavery and deals with the issues of freedom and survival, but in a different way from other Paulsen titles. Have students read some of these to see how he presents these concepts. An author study (using Something About the Author) will help students see where Paulsen gets his ideas.

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. This would make a superb addition to a Black History Month (February) presentation.

Nightjohn presents a powerful story. Enjoy sharing its historical roots and modern applications with your students!

Pre-Reading Activities

Evaluate students' prior knowledge of the South in the 1850s by comparing life in the big house and life in the slave quarters using a Venn diagram. Have students personally experience inequality by through a simulation activity in which students who possess a certain physical feature (e.g. green eyes, brown shoes with laces) receive special privileges. Have them briefly write about how this felt from their perspective. Discuss student reactions and ask them why they think slavery was an integral part of this era.

Thematic Connections

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. Students should see that these methods are inappropriate. Put students into 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.

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.

Nightjohn is viewed as a leader among the slaves because of his efforts to help them. 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.

Interdisciplinary Connections

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:

1896 (Plessy vs. Ferguson court decision) to the 1920s (Jim Crow laws)
Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s

Information can be displayed in a wall chart/time line. Students can also bring in newspaper articles for display as evidence of modern attitudes about civil rights.

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).

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.

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.

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.

Teaching Ideas prepared by Kay Moore, Professor, Teacher Education Department, California State University, Sacramento.


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


* "The stunning impact of this novel is similar to Toni Morrison's Beloved. Nightjohn should be required reading (and discussing) for all middle grade and high school students." -- Starred, School Library Journal

* "Among the most powerful of Paulsen's works, this impeccably researched novel sheds light on cruel truths in American history as it traces the experiences of a 12-year-old slave girl in the 1850s." -- Starred, Publishers Weekly

* "Paulsen is at his best here." -- Starred, The Horn Book


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