Study Guide

Out of the Dust

By Karen Hesse

Out of the Dust Introduction

"All we are is dust in the wind."

Or at least that's what the rock band Kansas said. They may have been speaking metaphorically, but when you apply their (admittedly super cheesy) lyrics to the 1997 novel Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, Kansas pretty much nailed it. The characters from Hesse's book live in a place where dust literally runs their lives, and we don't mean that they're neat freaks fixated on spraying Pledge everywhere.

No—it's way worse than that. There's not enough Pledge in the world to eradicate this stuff. We're talking gritty, dirty, makes-you-cough-up-a-lung dust, piles upon piles of it invading your house like something from a horror movie, and horrific windstorms that make the tornado from Twister look like a light breeze. Never before has dust been this frightening, and the worst part is that it really does make the characters feel as small as Kansas (the band, not the state) says we are.

Out of the Dust takes place in the Dust Bowl, the Great Plains region of Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and Texas that was devastated by drought in the 1930s.

Here's the short version (don't worry, the long version is coming later): Farmers during World War I destroyed their own land by planting too many crops, and this created a chain reaction that stagnated small-town economies, often forcing farmers and their families to leave home and try their luck elsewhere. Obviously, the Great Depression devastating the entire country's economy in general didn't help either—in fact, for the Great Plains region it was kind of a double-whammy.

As if the weight of history isn't enough, get ready to really have your mind blown: this book is based on a true story. While doing research for Out of the Dust in the archives of a small Oklahoma newspaper, Hesse discovered a series of articles about a deadly accident that resulted from a woman mistaking kerosene for water—yikes—and she adapted the incident to provide the catalyst for Billie Jo's conflict and journey toward forgiveness and peace in this book.

The bottom line is this: Life for these people is really hard. While it may not be a barrel of laughs to read, Out of the Dust is your chance to travel back to a time and place where just being able to get by was a blessing. But worry not, because the story isn't all darkness—it's ultimately a tale of redemption, about how difficult circumstances don't have to get the better of us or keep us from getting what we want.

So grab a handkerchief to hold over your nose, hop into the way back machine, and get ready to make your way through one of the trickier moments in U.S. history. We promise it's a better time than it sounds like.

What is Out of the Dust About and Why Should I Care?

Unless you've dealt with significant hardship or loss in your life, you might have a tough time relating to Billie Jo, the novel's feisty, fourteen-year-old narrator. Before you write her story off as the musty stuff of history though, think about this: Aside from the passage of several decades and some truly unique economic conditions, you probably have a lot in common with Billie Jo.

Ever keep a diary or write poetry? Billie Jo does both. Ever pout and get passive aggressive with your parents because they won't let you do something? Billie Jo has a complicated relationship with both her mom and her dad. Ever have a crush on the most popular guy or girl in town? Duh—Billie Jo's right there with you.

Here's the point: Underneath all the layers of dust and mud, Billie Jo is just your average teenage girl. She feels awkward and self-conscious about her appearance, has big dreams and plans for the future, gets a little melodramatic at times, and just wants life to make sense. Sound familiar? It's true that she experiences more in this book's one-and-a-half-year time frame than most people experience in a lifetime, but nonetheless, Billie Jo is a relatable, likeable character you'll enjoy following throughout her journey out of the dust.

And hey—you just might accidentally learn a bit about U.S. history while you're at it.

Out of the Dust Resources


The Dust Bowl by Ken Burns
The official website of documentary king Ken Burns's film The Dust Bowl comes complete with fascinating history, true stories of survivors, and an interactive game that lets you play the role of a Dust Bowl farmer (don't worry, running into a dust storm and coughing up mud is optional).

Snapshots of a Writer's Life
Think Karen Hesse might be a cool person to chill with? Find out at Hesse's personal blog, her open forum to talk about family life, writing, inspiration, and other topics.

Articles and Interviews

Interview with Scholastic
Hesse describes the process of writing Out of the Dust and her experiences as a historical fiction author.

Karen Hesse: Genius at Work
An overview of Karen Hesse's career as a children's author.

How a Children's Writer Survives the Newbery Award
Wait… winning a major award for writing requires survival techniques? You bet it does. Karen Hesse talks with the Institute of Children's Literature about her experiences as a children's writer.


Interview with Karen Hesse
Meet Karen Hesse live and in the flesh—well, sort of. Okay, not really. But this clip where she talks with interviewer Tim Podell about her books Out of the Dust and Music of the Dolphins, as well as her research process, is still pretty cool.

Out of the Dust Monologue Performance
Watch Billie Jo's diary entries come to life as fifth grader Tiffany Martinez performs selections from Out of the Dust as a monologue.

Out of the Dust Book Trailer
A pretty excellent student video project about the book.


Library of Congress Dust Bowl Collection
The Library of Congress's collection of audio files documents the everyday life of migrant workers in California.

"Do Re Mi" by Woody Guthrie
Oklahoma native Woody Guthrie is basically the father of American folk music and is famous for writing songs about the plights of regular, everyday people. Obviously the Dust Bowl gave him plenty of material, and "Do Re Mi" is his ode to migrant workers and their experiences as they hit the road for California.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: "On Farmers and Laborers"
In one of his radio "Fireside Chats," President Roosevelt speaks about the conditions of the Dust Bowl.


Out of the Dust Book Cover Photo
The original photograph by Walker Evans of a young girl during the Dust Bowl served as Karen Hesse's model for Billie Jo and appears on the book's cover.

Dust Bowl Masks
It looks like they're on their way to a Star Wars-themed party, but these local women are really just trying to keep the dust out of their noses.

California, Here We Come
A migrant family's car is packed to the hilt for their own journey out of the dust.

Billie Jo and Daddy?
Here's another Walker Evans photograph, this one depicting a farmer and his young daughter during the Dust Bowl.