Book Talk

    Nightjohn is a story that is set in the south during the time of slavery.  Based on an actual incident, Gary Paulsen tells about a young slave girl, Sarny, who it taught to read by another slave, Nightjohn.  The book is very well written, complete with dialect that makes the book even more interesting to read.  Nightjohn has escaped to the North where he was taught to read, but he keeps coming back to the south to further educate the slaves of the plantations.  Nightjohn meets Sarny and convinces her that she should learn to read.  Knowing the consequences, each night after the others are asleep.  Nightjohn teaches Sarny one letter.  Nightjohn makes Sarny promise that she will never say or write the letters that he is teaching her.  He tells Sarny, “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. . . That's why they don't want us reading.”
    Things turn bad when Sarny is caught by the master, Waller, writing letters in the dirt.  After seeing Sarny writing letters in the dirt he questions Mammy, the lady that has taken care of  Sarny.  After denying that she knows how Sarny learned the letters he brutally punishes her.  In this detailed scene of cruelty Nightjohn comes forward and confesses that he was the one that had taught Sarny the letters.  Nightjohn's punishment is severe, having two of his toes chopped off.  In the end Nightjohn does escape, but there is more, for the reader finds out that Nightjohn is truly a brave man that shows us that he is more concerned with the education of others that his own life.
    The Kirkus Reviews said the Nightjohn was “a searing picture of slavery.”  The School Library Journal added that, “Nightjohn should be required reading (and discussing) for all middle grade and high school students.”  This book is highly recommended reading for everyone who wants some real life insight on slavery.

-- Jodi Stevens

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Author Study

    Gary Paulsen was born on May 17, 1939 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Gary Paulsen became introduced to books at a fairly late age in life.  When he was a teenager, he walked into the library to escape from the cold weather of Minnesota.  There, a librarian gave him a book and a library card and he began to read.  He began to read more often because this allowed him to escape from the difficult family life that he had.  He still uses reading as a way to cope with his life and daily situations.
    At the age of fifteen, Paulsen had to work many different jobs that enabled him to support himself.  Some jobs that he had were a soldier, field engineer, truck driver, and magazine editor.  With the experience that Paulsen gained from being a magazine editor, he was able to learn the craft of writing.  In 1966, his first book, The Special War, was published.  He now has written well over 40 books in the categories of juvenile fiction, juvenile nonfiction, adult fiction, and adult fiction.  He also wrote about 200 magazine articles and short stories, as well as several plays, aimed towards young adults.
    Gary Paulsen writes about what he knows best.  He uses different life experiences when writing his stories.  However, he basically focuses his stories on the life of an outdoorsman.  The narrative that is used throughout the story helps the reader feel as if they are a part of the story.  He uses very descriptive details in his stories and a powerful use of language.  By using the outdoor setting in most of his books, Paulsen shows his readers the importance of water and woods to the harmony of nature.  Paulsen examines human potential and uses a strong sense of humor in his stories.
    Gary Paulsen has received many awards for the books that he has written.  Some of the awards include the Newberry Honor Award for Dogsong and Hatchet.  He has also received the ALA Best Book Award for Dancing Carl, The Monument, The Cookcamp and The Voyage of the Frog.  This is just two of the many awards that he has received for his books.  Gary Paulsen now lives in La Luz, New Mexico with his wife, illustrator Ruth Wright Paulsen.

-- Cheryl Delia

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Classroom Connections

Language Arts

· Have students write journal entries about how it feels to be Sarny, Nightjohn, a slave, what they would do in Nightjohn's situation, etc.

· Using as many of the letters of the alphabet as possible, find adjectives to describe a character in the book. (for example: Nightjohn – a – ambitious, b- brave, c-courageous and so on)

· Write a story about a time you sacrificed something for someone else. Make sure to include your reasoning and feelings.

· Write a poem that includes the emotions that the book made you feel.


· In the book, Mammy kept the children's ages by sticks. How else could she have kept track? Think of as many ways as you can. How do we keep track now?  (This activity can introduce a lesson on calendars, multiplying, etc.)


· Research what crops are grown on a plantation.  Find out what conditions are needed for the crops to grow and possibly plant the crops used in the book at school.

Social Studies

· Locate and research a slave state in the South and a free state in the North in groups.  Present material to class.
· Before or after reading this book, discuss and study slavery and/or the Underground Railroad.  Find similarities and differences of the Underground Railroad and slavery as compared to the book.


· Draw how the book made you feel after each chapter or at the end of the book.  A different color could be used for each emotion.
· Illustrate what you picture a real plantation or the “pit school” to look like.

-- Angie West

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Web activity

    To find out about slavery and how it began and what it consisted of go to  PBS's Africans in America Page.  Once you enter into Africans of America click on to part one The Terrible Transformation 1450 – 1750. Then click on to Resource Bank, while in there go to III. From Indentured Servitude to Racial Slavery: c. Modern Voices. Under this section pick two different people to look at once you read their essay write a short paragraph about new things that you learned.

    After you have done the first part of the web quest go to  The Underground Railroad Site.  Read some of the sections under “Some Things About the Underground Railroad” then go down to the maps and look at some of the examples that they have on file. When you are done looking at these draw a map of where you live. Use some of the insight that you got from the examples to create your own slave escape plan. One that you think do one would be able to discover.

    Knowing what you know now and what you have read, write down how you think that you would help if you had lived in that time period.

-- Valerie Bradshaw

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Related Books

Other Books by Gary Paulsen

The River, copyright 1993, Yearling Books
Brian's Return, copyright 1999, Delacorte Print
The Boy Who Owned the School, copyright 1991, Yearling Books
Alida's Song, copyright 1999, Delacorte Print
Amos Gets Married (Culpepper Adventures), copyright 1995, Yearling Books
Amos Binder, Secret Agent (Culpepper Adventures), copyright 1997, Yearling Books
Brian's Winter, copyright 1996, Delacorte Print
Call Me Francis Tucket, copyright 1995, Delacorte Print
Canyons, copyright 1991, Laurel Leaf Library
The Car, copyright 1994, Harcourt Brace
A Christmas Sonata, illustrated by Leslie Bowman, copyright 1994, Yearling Books
The Crossing, copyright 1987, Franklin Watts, inc.
Sarny: A Life Remembered, copyright 1999, Laureleaf
Hatchet, copyright 1996, Aladdin
Soldier's Heart, copyright 1998, Delacorte Print
Harris and Me: A Summer Remembered, copyright 1995, Yearling Books
Woodsong, copyright 1991, Puffin Press
Danger on Midnight River, copyright 1995, Yearling Books

Picturebooks written by Gary Paulsen and illustrated by his wife,
Ruth Wright Paulsen

Canoe Days, copyright 1999, Doubleday
Clabbered Dirt, Sweet Grass, copyright 1994, Harvest Books
My Life in Dog Years, copyright 1999, Yearling Books
Puppies, Dogs, and Blue Northers: Reflections on Being Raised by a Pack of Sled Dogs, copyright 1998, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing

Other Stories That Discuss Slavery

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
Brady, by Jean Fritz, copyright 1987, Viking Press
Autobiography of a Female Slave, by Mattie Griffith, copyright 1998, University Press
Breaking Free, by Louann Gaeddert, copyright 1994, Atheneum
Bright Freedom's Song: A Story of the Underground Railroad, by Gloria Houston, copyright 1998,
Silver Whistle
Caleb's Choice, by G. Clifton Wisler, copyright 1996, Lodestar Books

-- Mike Kahn

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Related Websites

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