Among the most powerful of Paulsen's works ( Hatchet ; The Winter Room ; Dogsong ), 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. Narrator Sarny exposes the abuse (routine beatings, bondage, dog attacks, forced "breeding'') suffered by her people on the Waller plantation. The punishment for learning to read and write, she knows, is a bloody one, but when new slave Nightjohn offers to teach her the alphabet, Sarny readily agrees. Her decision causes pain for others as well as for herself, yet, inspired by the bravery of Nightjohn, who has given up a chance for freedom in order to educate slaves, Sarny continues her studies. Convincingly written in dialect, this graphic depiction of slavery evokes shame for this country's forefathers and sorrow for the victims of their inhumanity. Ages 12-up. (Feb.)
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"Nightjohn should be required reading (and discussing) for all middle grade and high school students."
School Library Journal, Starred
"Among the most powerful of Paulsen's works, this impeccable 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."
Publishers Weekly, Starred
"Paulsen is at his best here."
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Starred
An ALA Notable Book and Best Book for Young Adults
Read an Excerpt
An Excerpt from Nightjohn
Listen to Gary Paulsen read this excerpt
from Nightjohn. The file is in RealAudio format and the playing
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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 Ajust 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 readif 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 andhad forks and spoons and knives....
"That's trueI 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:
From the Hardcover edition.