Witness

By: 

Karen Hesse

Number of Pages: 

161

Minimum grade level: 

7th

Leanora Sutton looks around her and she knows she is different. She is the only African American girl in her small Vermont town. She only has her father, but can he protect her from the hatred she sees in people's eyes as she walks the streets? Esther Hirsh seems friendly as does the lady, Sara Chickering, on whose farm Esther lives with her father.

But Leanora knows that some people don't like the Hirshes anymore than they like her. Esther is Jewish and those mean-faced Ku Klux Klan men who parade down the street in their white robe yell out hateful things to both the Suttons and the Hirshes. "Why do they hate me", Leanora wonders? "I haven't done anything to them and Esther is just a sweet little thing with no mother, just like me."

Come inside the world of Leanora and Hester and nine other residents of this 1920s Vermont town who have to make hard decisions about belonging to the side of good or bad, courageousness or cowardliness.

Discussion questions

Spoiler alert! Some of the questions contain key elements of the plot. Do not read if you don't want to know what happens!

  1. Why did the author choose to tell the story through the voices of so many characters? How would the story have been different had it been told through only one character's eyes?
  2. Was it a strong point or a weakness to tell the story in free verse form with each voice being distinctive?
  3. Why do you think Esther uses "funny talk"? What does it say about her character?
  4. Each of the characters in this book experience or witness a slice of history that they play a part in. Do these witnesses represent particular characters or values? If so, name the person and what he/she stands for.
  5. When does Merlin begin to change his attitude towards Leanora? What causes him to change his ideas about the Klan?
  6. What other characters change as the story unfolds? What is the cause of these changes?
  7. Throughout history, hate groups gain popularity and then fade from view. Why do you suppose this is?
  8. What hate groups do you know of that are in the news? What do they stand for and why do you think people join them?
  9. What does Witness teach us about prejudice and how it can be overcome?

If you liked this book try

  • Dangerous Skies by Suzanne Fisher Staples
  • Phoenix Rising by Karen Hesse
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor
  • Walk Across the Sea by Susan Fletcher
  • The War Within by Carol Matas

Created in part with funds granted by the Oregon State Library under the Library Services and Technology Act, administered by the Oregon State Library.