"Shedding Light on Out of the Dark"
by Valerie Nielsen

Originally appearing in The MLSA Journal, 1998.

In the past few years, many middle school teachers have discovered the joys and frustrations of engaging their students in literature circles. One of the ways teacher-librarians can help classroom teachers eager to embark on literature circles is to find well-written novels whose plots, characters and themes are likely to generate a high level of interest and excitement as they unfold.

The students in Judy MacDonald's Grade 5 class at Bairdmore Elementary School, were introduced to literature circles at the beginning of the year by reading several of Jean Little's novels. For their second literature circle, we decided to use a selection from the Manitoba Young Readers' Choice Award (MYRCA) list of nominees, since as well as being pre-selected for quality and readability, we had already purchased several copies of each title. The books we chose were: Sink or Swim by William Pasnak. Mystery at Lake Placid by Roy MacGregor. Dark of the Moon by Barbara Haworth-Attard. A Friend Like Zilla by Rachna Gilmore, Melanie Bluelake's Dream by Betty Forion and Out of the Dark by Welwyn Wilton Katz. All of these novels deal with young people who are struggling with feelings of loss or displacement in their lives.

Of the five novels, Out of the Dark is by far the most challenging. Told from the point of view of 13-year-old Ben, the story moves not only back and forth in his lifetime, but also in and out of two fantasies which inhabit Ben's mind, one of Viking history, and the other of Norse mythology. We knew the novel would require capable readers and some measure of adult input during discussions. We feared that our ten-year-old readers would get lost in Ben's increasing tendency to "flip" from reality to fantasy. Fortunately, all five students who selected Out of the Dark as their first or second choice were excellent readers. We began by reading the first chapter aloud so that we could stop and discuss what was going on and try to get some idea of what the italicized segments that flagged Ben's 'flips' into fantasy were all about. I realized that the students had very vague notions of Vikings -- who they were, how they lived and what connection they had with Newfoundland. One of the students had heard of a couple of the Norse gods, but here was another area where their lack of background would certainly diminish their enjoyment and understanding of the book.

As I ransacked the library shelves for books on Vikings and Norse mythology, I remembered that I had received a letter from Welwyn Wilton Katz back in September in response to a letter I had sent her notifying her that Out of the Dark had been selected for the 1998 MYRCA list. Attatched to the author's letter thanking us for honouring her book was some enlightening information which included a section entitled "About the Book," another idea called "Ideas for Activities" and finally the address of a mail order company in Wisconsin involved in a project to make and sail a traditional Viking Knarr. The students were delighted to read a letter written by the author of the very book they were reading. They were particularly interested in the following comments:

"One of the things that I love about writing novels is that I get to create a whole world full of interesting people in interesting places doing interesting things. In my book Out of the Dark, Ben, my hero, wants to create a world for himself, too, not because it's fun (my reason), but because he has to. The world he creates for himself is a combination of the Viking myth-world, full of giants and gods and terrible world serpents -- and the real world of the Vikings who settled in Newfoundland's L'Anse aux Meadows more than a thousand years ago... I had lots of fun learning all the Viking myths and reading up on and visiting L'Anse aux Meadows and finding out about the real Vikings who had lived there. The other night (two years after the book was published), I found myself lying awake and worrying about Ben, and hoping, so very much, that he would achieve all the happiness I had made possible for him by the end of the book. That is what writing means to me: creating people who, two years later, come back to visit me in my mind, and they tell me what they've been doing and I laugh and cry and cuddle them until they say goodbye."

I read part of the letter to the whole class. The students were astonished that an author could feel so strongly attached to a character she had created two years ago that she would lie at night and worry about him! Reding Welwyn Katz's letter gave the Out of the Dark readers a feeling of connection with the author; it was almost like having her as part of their literature circle.

I brought some illustrated picture information books on the Vikings to our literature circles. We were able to pour over an artist's representation of a longhouse, and other aspects of Viking life, including ship-building. Looking at these books helped the students visualize Ben's Viking world, as well as the L'Anse aux Meadows setting where so much of the story takes place. As we talked about the coming of the Vikings to the coast of Newfoundland 1000 years ago, they began to understand who Tor was, and how and why Ben had created him.

I found, not surprisingly, that the students were fascinated with the Norse myths. To whet their appetites, I told them a few of the stories to which the author alludes in tantalizing snippets throughout the story. I brought a couple of beautifully illustrated versions of the Norse myths, including D'Aulaire's Gods and Giants, to our literature circle dicussion, where they were poured over by the group and then taken home and read by two of the students. As we progressed through the novel, the students began to pick up on clues to the death of Ben's mother, which the author sprinkles throughout the story. They began to see the connections between Ben's fantasy world and his real world. They asked questions which often went beyond the plot line. One of the students remarked that she would often go back to the novel and re-read bits that puzzled her. The students had not before encountered an author like Welwyn Katz, who demands a high level of inference from her reader. Some nuggets gleaned from the students' response journals show the level of their interaction with this challenging novel.

"I feel sorry for the family because they are trying to live without a mom. I know it's hard because one of my mom's friends died two years ago and their family is having a rough time." (Kara) "This book is better than I thought, even though it was my last choice for the MYRCA books. I would like to ask the author why Ben is two different people, a Viking and a normal boy." (Janessa) "I noticed that usually when Ben thinks about death, he flips into his other world. It was a challenging book, but I like challenges so this book was good for me!" (Carla Jean) "I connected to this book because I like mythology and lots of times I want to do something -- like Ben -- and something inside my head says differently." (Jarrod) "I would like to ask the author why she decided to start the story the way she did. She started right into the story and then gave an introduction I like books that start that way as long as it doesn't make the story too confusing. In Chapter II I finally understood all the clues. Ben honked the horn because he was in danger and Heimdall blew the Giallar horn when Asgard was in danger..." (Byron)

After finishing the novel the group had a new challenge: how to present Out of the Dark to their classmates without giving away the ending or discouraging them from reading it by focussing on its complexity. They decided on dramatizing one of the scenes from the book. In the words of one of the playwrights "Our first draft of our play was the scene where the mother dies, but then we changed it to the part at the end of Chapter Eight where Ben and Ross and his gang argue over whether or not the model will sail. I'm glad we did." Not only did they pull off the scene with aplomb, but also they made sure to insert appropriate Newfoundland expressions and even had a go at the accent (which they had heard on a tape of the Newfoundland group "Buddy Whatsisname and the Other Fellas.") It was not too surprising then, that someone had the idea of sending a video tape of their 'production' to Welwyn Katz. I suggested that they might also like to send some of their questions and responses to her via e-mail, so we could enjoy the rapidity of electronic communication. As one would expect, the students were very eager to start the correspondence,and thrilled when the first message was answered the very next day.

Welwyn wrote, "I would really like to hear from your students. I don't think anyone's ever done a scene from one of my books before. This will be new for me and I'm sure I will enjoy it. I'm really pleased that Out of the Dark appeals to your grade 5 students. Say hello to all your students for me!"

A few days later, I sent off the students' letters, with questions such as: "I was wondering if you were going to write a sequel to Out of the Dark? I think you're a great writer and I am wondering how many books you have written? How long did it take you to write a book and get it published? What I want to know is how you do your research, and how do you decide which parts to put into the story? How did you get interested in writing about myths in the first place? Why did you make Ross, Melissa, Davy and Jimmy enemies of Ben?"

As of this date, (December 7), the students are eagerly awaiting Welwn Katz's replies (which in all likelihood are at this moment in the mailbox of our school computer). There is no doubt in my mind that the opportunity to interact with both text and author has been an unforgettable experience for these five students. As they read and discussed this rich and complex piece of literature, like Ben, its protagonist, these students have struggled out of the dark of their confusion into the light of understanding. As Byron put it in his final response: "In the end, it seemed like Viking myths and reality were blending and they made sense together... and we could see where the book's title Out of the Dark came from.

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