Out of the Dust



A penetrating look at a poor child's life.

What parents need to know

Positive messages

Billy Jo's father reacts to her mother's death with a brief drinking binge--behavior that doesn't recur again.


Billie Jo accidentally sets her mother on fire by throwing a bucket of kerosene on her. One graphic scene explicitly describes her burns. She dies, as does her newly born baby boy, and Billy Jo's hands are disfigured in the accident.

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Drinking, drugs, & smoking
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Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that this powerful and poignant tale set amid Oklahoma's "Dust Bowl" years is told entirely in free verse, which might pose a challenge for some readers. And although the writing is exceptional, the subject matter is relentlessly bleak; the book's joylessness might limit its appeal to young readers.

What's the story?

A penetrating, gut-wrenching look at the seasons of discontent in Billie Jo's year, growing up in the wind, dust, drought, and heat of Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma. Billie Jo's is a faraway voice with immediate appeal in this foreboding, clenched fist of a novel. An umbrella of emotion weighs heavily over each sad event, true to the austere historical setting.


Is it any good?


Billie Jo describes her desolate internal and external landscape with a searing, brutal honesty. She narrates, in unfolding glimpses of story, a tale of death, destruction, dust, and the search for redemption that's written in the first-person, poetic, stanza form of Virginia Euwer Wolff's Make Lemonade. With uncompromising realism, the author shows life in the Dust Bowl taking one sad turn after another for this "redheaded, freckle-faced, narrow-hipped girl with a fondness for apples and a hunger for playing fierce piano."

The increasingly doleful progression of events hammers at the reader, nearly overwhelming the faint light of hope that appears at last in the form of a journey, a surrogate mother, and the promise of music that comes from the healing of Billie Jo's hands as well as heart.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the Dust Bowl in a historical context, focusing on the effect the severe storms had on the livelihood of working families. If you and your family were faced with the same conditions, do you think you could survive? Did hardship bring Billie Jo's family closer together -- or tear them farther apart? How did Billie Jo's relationship with her father change in the wake of her mother's death?

Book details

Author:Karen Hesse
Genre:Historical Fiction
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Scholastic Inc.
Publication date:January 1, 1997
Number of pages:227
Publisher's recommended age(s):9 - 12
Award:Newbery Medal and Honors

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  • Best: Really engaging; great learning approach.
  • Very Good: Engaging; good learning approach.
  • Good: Pretty engaging; good learning approach.
  • Fair: Somewhat engaging; OK learning approach.
  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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Teen, 13 years old Written by018 April 9, 2008

What's Great?........ This book

I loved all the drama in this book I think it really explains what it would be like back in that time. I though there was alot of drama in the book.I think the Dad of Billie Joe is the one who creats the most drama well he is drinking after the mother and son died. I feel that towns people also blame Billie Joe for poring the oil on the mother when she made a simple mistake. I was sad when Billie Joe ran away but somehow I knew she was going to go back because she couldn't just leave her fater there by himself. In the end everything turns out ok and that's what make's this book so speacial to me I mean that's why I read it every year now.
Educator and Parent Written bymegaritzmom February 6, 2013

NOT for Children or Anyone who is Depressed

This is absolutely NOT for children under 14, and even then, great discretion should be used. No one, not even an adult, should be required to read this book. Anybody who is even slightly depressed has no business reading it. The book is incredibly depressing, the wounds of mother and daughter after a fire are graphically described in literally nauseating detail, and the literary merits of the book are questionable in spite of its Newbery Award. The ending is contrived. A new woman in the dad's life cannot possibly fix all that is wrong with this family as the author implies. The dad goes on a drinking binge while the mom lies dying, hardly acceptable material for young readers. The girl runs away; again, not acceptable for young readers. Everywhere the girl turns, she is haunted by the memory of her dead mother and brother, whom she accidentally killed. My 4th-grade son said that if he accidentally killed me like Billie Jo killed her mother in the book, he would kill himself. Besides making him think about suicide, this book has given him nightmares for over a week, every night since they started reading it in class and got to the part where the fire occurred, and he now refuses to go to sleep alone.
What other families should know
Too much violence
Too much swearing
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking
Teen, 14 years old Written byweisman3 May 17, 2011


I loved this book, it was great. But it has a difficult story to tell. It is most because it is in the time of the great depuration and the dust bowl. I loved this story and it is a great story for anyone that loves historical fiction and over the ages of 9 1/2+. Remember that it has a difficult story to tell and a little violence. Do not let children under 7 read this story it is not the best for them.
What other families should know
Too much violence
Educational value
Great messages


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