ALAN v26n1 - On Receiving the Scott O'Dell Award

Volume 26, Number 1
Fall 1998

Karen Hesse, Newbery Award Winner and Scott O'Dell Award Winner, on Receiving the 1998 Scott O'Dell Award

The phone rang on a January morning at my apartment in downtown Brattleboro. I had just returned from a whirlwind visit to NYC and the Today Show studios, on the occasion of the official media announcement of the Newbery/Caldecott awards. My feet still hovered several feet above the worn wood floor of my office. I answered the phone that morning. By the end of the day and for months after, I stopped answering, because the calls, coming so fast, so furiously, quickly overwhelmed me. But on that morning I answered. "This is Zena Sutherland,'' the voice on the other end of the line said. I recognized her name at once, but not the significance of her call. Zena explained that she had given me a day or so to settle down after the Newbery news. Then she shared with me the purpose of her call. Her dedicated committee of three had selected OUT OF THE DUST as the recipient of the 1998 Scott O'Dell award . Is it possible to receive too much? To have your work honored by the A.L.A.'s Newbery committee and the Scott O'Dell Award committee in the span of forty- eight hours ... my chest cavity filled with that amazing brightness that can only be joy. My eyes brimmed with tears. Awed, I sat speechless at my desk, trying to comprehend my stunningly good fortune.

I have so much respect for the body of work produced by Scott O'Dell himself. I have learned a great deal about writing in general, and about writing historical fiction in particular, from reading Scott O'Dell's compelling, carefully- researched prose. And I have eagerly read many of the exemplary titles on that prestigious list gathered in his name. Now my book would join that highly selective, unforgettable roster.

To receive the Newbery Medal brought me a wild, confetti-raining, kick-your- heels-up, thrust-your-arms-out-to-the-world elation. To receive the Scott O'Dell Award brought me a deep, private, self-affirming, soul-warming sense of wonder and satisfaction. I feel blessed beyond all measure to have my work recognized in such a magnificent way.

Lately, the Dirty Thirties have been "dusted" off and reexamined by quite a few in several media arenas, including public television. Though I found the PBS documentary reasonably accurate, there was something missing from its representation of the Dust Bowl days. The program showed only the bleak, unrelenting darkness of the decade, precisely how I'd imagined the Dirty Thirties before researching OUT OF THE DUST . But what I found in my research added a new dimension to my understanding of the time. It's true that bleak, unrelenting darkness dogged the residents of the Plains during those years, but, what is less known is that those who stayed found ways to make their dusty days bearable. They performed concerts, held basketball playoffs, danced at fund-raising balls, sang in church, fell in love, took care of their neighbors, shared the joy of a night-blooming flower, attended art exhibits, and plays, and movies, entered poetry competitions, brought forth life. Even as the dust blew around them, they continued to find meaning in life, reasons to go on, small pockets of relief and comfort and hope.

That was the element missing from the PBS documentary. But because I had learned about telling the story of American history at the knee of a master, Scott O'Dell, I knew I had to represent the whole picture- in its proper perspective. That's what I tried to do in OUT OF THE DUST . That, I think, is what the committee recognized and honored. I can not begin to express my gratitude to the extraordinary Elizabeth Hall and the uncompromising members of the Scott O'Dell Award committee. I am deeply honored to receive this recognition.

Reference Citation: Hesse, Karen. (1998). "On Receiving the 1998 Scott O'Dell Award." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 1.