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Young Adult Literature Reviews
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Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen
by Gary Paulsen. Published in 1993 by Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers.
"I'm brown. Same as dark sassafras tea. But I had seen black people, true black. And Nightjohn was that way. Beatiful."
Sarney, a 12 year old Southern slave girl, lives by the rules and whip of her master, Clel Waller. Waller is the epitome of a slave master and his character shows exactly what the evils of slavery does to the human soul. Under the ownership of Waller, Sarney has learned how to kill bugs by chewing tobacco leaves and spitting on them. She has learned how to gather eggs, clean the yard, get work done in the quarters, and how to tend the flower beds; slave work is all that Sarney knows how to do in her world. One day, though, as Sarney is working in the flower beds, she overhears Master Waller's wife, Margaret, talking with her sister Alaine and she learns that a new slave that will be coming to the plantation.
Nightjohn, bought for one thousand dollars, comes to the Waller plantation to work, but Nightjohn is not a slave that has a history of abiding by the rules of his masters. He even has the scars to show for it.
"His back was all scars from old whippings. The skin across his shoulders and down was raised in ripples, thick as my hand, up and down his back and onto his rear end and down his legs some." (27)
And on Waller's plantation, Nightjohn does not begin to abide by the rules. He begins to secretly teach little Sarney how to read and write letters of the alphabet, in exchange for her tobacco. With a stick as her pencil, and the earthy floor as her paper, Sarney begins to discover what freedom is, even though she remains under the posession of Master Waller. Mammy, the religiously devout woman who raised Sarney, is on edge about Nightjohn teaching Sarney how to write because she fears what Waller will do if he finds out. Mammy knows what slave owners do to slaves who know how to read, but Nightjohn knows what reading can do for a slave's mind and soul.
reveals the physical and emotional pain that a slave master could subject his slaves to, and how much control slaves did not have over their lives. As Sarney takes a risk to enrich her own life through education, Gary Paulsen shows how a young person has potential to change the course of her future.
also shows how one man's bravery to teach and his loyalty to others can make a difference against a powerful institution, such as slavery.
About the Author - Gary Paulsen:
"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 -
The Winter Room
- were Newberry Honor Books. His books frequently appear on the best books lists of the American Library Association" (
from Gary Paulsen's Official Website).
Video Interview with Paulsen
*Click here to watch a video of Paulsen discussing how libraries influenced his writing.
Recommendation for Readers:
If you enjoyed reading Nightjohn, you might also enjoy these other great Young Adult novels by Gary Paulsen:
-Harris and Me
-The Winter Room
You might enjoy these Young Adult novels about slavery:
Wolf by the Ears
by Ann Rinaldi
Letters From a Slave Girl
by Mary Lyons
by Jennifer Armstrong
North by Night: A Story of the Underground Railroad
by Katherine Ayres
by Elisa Lynn Carbone
Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom
by Carole Boston Weatherford
Links for Students:
About the author
*Click here to learn more about Gary Paulsen. Read his journals and view questions he has answered about his book in interviews.
Paulsen's Literary Awards
*View some of Paulsen's major awards for Nightjohn
Author Chat with Gary Paulsen
*Click here to read New York Public Library's Author Chat with Gary Paulsen. Read all about what he has to say about
and many other books he's written.
Links for Teachers:
Nightjohn Activites for Teachers
* Click here to download cool ideas for teaching Nightjohn! Suggestions from other teachers on what worked for them.
A guide to teaching about slavery
* Finding ways to teach the subject of slavery. Suggestions of discussion questions, interactive ideas for teachers.
Slavery in the classroom
*Click here for cool ideas on how to teach the terrible affects of slavery. Watch a classroom re-enacting a slave auction.
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