Recommended for ages 9-13
Tate Ellerbee is a sweet kid living in rural Louisiana in 1948. She’s a big fan of Hank Williams, a country-western singer she’s started hearing on the radio show, Louisiana Hayride, so she writes him a fan letter, telling him that she’s chosen him to be her pen pal in a class project introduced by her teacher. She lives with her aunt and uncle – her mother’s siblings – and tells Hank Williams all about her life as she waits for him to respond.
The thing is, things aren’t as wonderful for Tate as she initially lets on. Writing these letters to Hank becomes a kind of journal, helping Tate cope with events in her life. Through these letters, we see a vulnerable but determined young lady emerge, someone who’s dealt with more than most children should have heaped on them, but who’s determined to push back and smile at life.
This book started out, for me, as a cute piece about a young fan developing a one-sided crush on a celebrity – totally relatable! – and became much deeper than that. We get a view of a celebrity on the rise from the fan’s point of view, and we see the impact of history on a younger community that didn’t fight the war, but were affected by it – the kids. One of Tate’s classmates is excited to have a pen pal from Japan, which doesn’t sit well with another classmate or, initially, with Tate. There’s solid character development and storytelling here, with three big elements: Tate’s story, Hank Williams’ rise to fame, and the pen pal project – all blending together to tell a good story that will satisfy fiction readers.
Hank Williams is experiencing a resurgence in popularity, with the biopic I Saw the Light hitting theatres later this year. It’s a great time to start talking up this book and playing some of Williams’ music – Tate mentions a few in Dear Hank Williams that could serve as a nice link back to the book.
Kimberly Willis Holt is an award-winning author of children’s literature, including a National Book Award for When Zachary Beaver Came to Town. Her author website offers teacher resources for many of her books, writing tips, and school visit information.