Life and Background
Karen Hesse is a poet and an author of books for children and young adults. She is perhaps best known for writing historical fiction — fiction that requires her to conduct detailed and meticulous research about another time and place, and then create a fictional story based on that research. Hesse does not just focus on the setting for her writing; she pays equal attention to the development of her characters. The protagonists in Hesse's writing are typically young, courageous, and determined females who discover ways to rise above adversity and tragedy. Through their trials and tribulations, Hesse portrays the power and endurance of the human spirit.
Hesse was born on August 29, 1952, in Baltimore, Maryland. Her childhood was not easy. She lived in a row house in an environment that did not include much privacy and, even though she was surrounded by people, she felt isolated. Her feelings of isolation spurred her to read, and her need for privacy led her to spend hours sitting on the boughs of an apple tree located out her back door, with a good book. Hesse loved to read, often getting into trouble for reading at night when she was supposed to be sleeping. As a child, one of her favorite authors was Dr. Seuss; later, author Katherine Paterson became another childhood favorite.
Hesse was a shy girl. She felt as though she was from another world, as though she never really belonged. She had friends, but she never felt close enough to them to trust them with her innermost secrets. Consequently, Hesse was lonely. Her world became the world she found in the books she read. Her reading also fueled her imagination. At one point during her childhood, her mother had to keep her from leaping from an upstairs window because Hesse believed she could fly.
Although Hesse had many thoughts about what she wanted to be when she grew up, her fifth grade teacher believed she could be a professional writer. Hesse never forgot her teacher's support and, because her teacher believed in her, Hesse believed in herself.
When Hesse's mother remarried, Hesse gained a stepfather and a stepsister. Initially, she was a bit jealous of the attention given her stepsister, who was a professional dancer. But with time, Hesse grew fond of both her stepfather and stepsister. To gain attention for herself, Hesse became interested in drama and began acting in school plays. She not only loved to act, but also proved to be an excellent actress. In 1969, she enrolled in Towson State College as a theater major. While in college, Hesse met Randy, her future husband, and because she felt she couldn't be in love and be in theater at the same time, she dropped out of theater, a decision she has never regretted.
Hesse and Randy eloped in 1971. She was 19 years old at the time. Soon after their marriage, Randy, who was in the Navy, was sent to Vietnam. While he was gone, Hesse lived in Norfolk, Virginia. During that time, she went back to school, attending the University of Maryland and graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and two minors: psychology and anthropology. She also continued to write poetry and became known for her poetry readings.
Over the years, Hesse had many jobs that later influenced her writing. She worked as a librarian, a substitute teacher, an advertising secretary, a proofreader, and a book reviewer, to name just a few of the jobs she has held.
In 1976, Hesse and her husband, who was home from Vietnam, took their pickup truck, some clothing, camping equipment, and two cats, and traveled across the United States for six months. When they drove into the state of Vermont, they knew they'd found their home. They ended up settling in Vermont and live in Southern Vermont today. Hesse and her husband had two daughters, one in 1979 and another in 1982, and motherhood became a priority and a demand on Hesse's time. As a result, she put poetry writing on hold. She did, however, begin to write children's books. Her first attempt was a story about a family's encounter with Bigfoot; the story was never published. Her second attempt began as a four-page story. After revising the story, it became a novel and was published in 1991 as Wish on a Unicorn, her first book. When her children became more independent, Hesse returned to writing poetry. She was rewarded for her efforts in 1998, when she won the Newbery Medal for Out of the Dust, a novel written entirely in free verse.
Hesse shares her writing with the members of her writing group and her daughters, who read her work and provide valuable feedback. She uses photographs discovered during her research, illustrating people who could be characters in the book she is writing, to help her develop realistic characters. Hesse never creates the bad things that happen to her characters; the bad things are true stories Hesse reads about while doing research for her book. Because Hesse writes historical fiction, she usually spends eight to ten months on extensive research for each book she writes. She spends a lot of time reading nonfiction, as research, and children's fiction.
Hesse does not reveal much about herself, but her books, which have received many awards and honors, tend to give her away. Letters from Rifka reveals that Hesse values independence as well as her Jewish heritage, Phoenix Rising portrays Hesse's love and respect for the land, A Time of Angels also shows the importance of Hesse's Jewish heritage, The Music of Dolphins shows that Hesse is willing to take chances, and Out of the Dust portrays Hesse's love of poetry.
Hesse's books are set in a specific place and time, covering serious topics. Her goal is to give her readers perspective, a different angle from which to view and understand life.
Hesse's Selected Works
Wish On a Unicorn (1991)
Letters from Rifka (1992)
Lester's Dog (1993)
Poppy's Chair (1993)
Phoenix Rising (1994)
A Time of Angels (1995)
The Music of Dolphins (1996)
Out of the Dust (1997)
Just Juice (1998)
Come On, Rain! (1999)
Light in the Storm: The Civil War Diary of Amelia Martin (1999)