Educator’s Guide: In Darkness

Educator’s Guide: In Darkness 

In Darkness by Nick Lake is the selection for the LAII’s Vamos a Leer book group meeting held on May 5, 2014.

The following information comprises a standards-based educator’s guide that the LAII has produced to support using In Darkness (Bloomsbury, 2012) in the classroom.  The standards are not included here, but are included with the lesson plans in the PDF. The complete guide is available for download at no cost: Vamos a Leer Educator’s Guide: In Darkness.

To read our thoughts on the novel, see our book review.


In darkness I count my blessings like Manman taught me. One: I am alive. Two: there is no two. In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake a boy is trapped beneath the rubble of a ruined hospital: thirsty, terrified and alone. ‘Shorty’ is a child of the slums, a teenage boy who has seen enough violence to last a lifetime, and who has been inexorably drawn into the world of the gangsters who rule Site Soleil: men who dole out money with one hand and death with the other. But Shorty has a secret: a flame of revenge that blazes inside him and a burning wish to find the twin sister he lost five years ago. And he is marked. Marked in a way that links him with Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian rebel who two-hundred years ago led the slave revolt and faced down Napoleon to force the French out of Haiti. As he grows weaker, Shorty relives the journey that took him to the hospital, a bullet wound in his arm. In his visions and memories he hopes to find the strength to survive, and perhaps then Toussaint can find a way to be free …


  • 2013 Michael L. Printz Award
  • 2013 ALA Best Fiction for Young Readers
  • 2013 Carnegie Medal in Literature Nominee
  • 2013 Américas Award Commended Title


About Nick Lake. . .

Nick Lake was born in Britain, but he grew up in Luxembourg because his father was on assignment as a civil servant of the English Parliament. There is not a lot of information available about Nick Lake’s upbringing and background, but he currently lives in England with his wife and daughter. Presently, Lake works as the Editorial Director for fiction for Harper Collins Children’s Books.

Lake wrote a vampire ninja trilogy called Blood Ninja in the early 2000s. Lately, his work has fallen under the genre of what Lake describes as literary thrillers. In Darkness was released in 2012, and Hostage Three was released in 2013. In Darkness was Lake’s first book written for young adults. In fact, Lake first became interested in Haiti while he was working on his Master’s degree in linguistics.

While Lake acknowledges In Darkness is a work of fiction, he took great care to both explore Haitian culture and describe its historical roots. He conducted a great deal of research to draw historical parallels between his main character, Shorty, and prominent Haitian figures of the past such as Toussaint L’Ouverture. This particular work also engages the notion of foreign aid, what it means to Haitians, and how outsiders can help

For more recent information (and drabbles), please visit Nick Lake’s blog.

To see Nick Lake speak about the book:

To see what reviewers have to say about the book:


The following lesson plans are comprised of guided reading questions organized by parts of the book and extended response writing prompts.   These questions have been written to support the types of reading and critical thinking skills required in standardized reading comprehension tests. The following key words and skills are highlighted: analyze, infer, evaluate, describe, support, explain, summarize, compare, contrast and predict.

In addition to the lesson plans and activities included here, check out this Reading Guide to accompany the novel.

Teaching Tolerance also has an excellent set of resources for teaching about Haiti, including a printable guide, lesson plans, books, articles and interviews all on Haitian history, literature, culture and contemporary issues. Click here to access their materials.

Guided Reading Questions:

Now | Pages 1-36

  1. Using context clues, what does the word anpil mean? (p. 2)
  2. Using context clues what does the word zafé mean? (p.3)
  3. Predict: what do you think happened? Why did the hospital collapse trapping Shorty? (p. 3)
  4. Based on what Shorty has described so far, what do you think Route 9 and Boston are? (p. 3-4)
  5. What does vre chimére mean? (p. 5)
  6. How big is the area that Shorty is trapped in? Imagine what that would be like. Describe how you would feel if you were in Shorty’s place. (p. 7)
  7. Shorty has lost both this father and his sister. He says “. . .I don’t know how long ago my pap was chopped to piti-piti pieces and my sister was taken. But I know this: it hurts every day as much as the last, as much as the first.” Have you ever lost someone you loved? Do you agree with Shorty—does it ever hurt less? How do you deal with losing someone you love? (p. 8)
  8. What does Marassa mean? What is Marassa? Why is this significant for Shorty? (p. 9)
  9. What do they eat in Site Soléy when they’re hungry? What does this tell you about the available resources in Site Soléy? (p. 11)
  10. What is vodou? Where did it come from? How do the Haitians who believe in vodou talk to the gods? What can the gods do? (p. 12)
  11. Why do you think Shorty is torn over whether or not he believes in vodou and the gods? (p. 12-13)
  12. Where were Shorty and his twin sister born? How did this make them special? (p. 15-20)
  13. How does Aristide describe Christopher Columbus? Does this differ with the portrayal of Columbus that you’ve studied? (p. 15-16)
  14. How does Aristide feel about the United States’ involvement in Haiti? What role does he believe other countries, like France and the United States, have played in Haiti? How have they benefitted from Haiti at the expense of the Haitian people? (p. 16-18)
  15. Why did Marguerite give Shorty half of the necklace, even when he suggested she keep it to give to someone else? (p. 23)
  16. Describe Marguerite. What kind of person is she? What examples does Shorty give to explain how he describes his sister? (p. 23-35)
  17. What do Shorty and Marguerite find in the trash? What’s wrong with her? (p. 27-29)
  18. What do Shorty and Marguerite do for the baby girl? What do you think this says about their character? (p. 27-36)

Then | Pages 37-52

  1. What do we know about Toussaint after reading the first two pages of this section? Who is he? Where does he live? What do we know about his life? (p. 37-38)
  2. Who is Boukman? What is his role in the slave revolt? (p. 38-41)
  3. What is the difference between the mulats and the slaves? (p. 42)
  4. Does Toussaint believe the scene with the zombi? What does he think is really happening? (p. 43-45)
  5. What happened to the houngan’s eyes? (p. 47)
  6. Why didn’t Toussaint’s master leave Haiti after the mulat rebellion? What does he believe? Does Toussaint agree with him? What does Toussaint believe must happen for the slaves to get their freedom? (p. 48)
  7. What does Toussaint experience when the houngan calls the god of war, Ogou Badagry? What do you think is happening to him? Why do you think Boukman is smiling? What role do you think Boukman wants Toussaint to play in the rebellion? (p. 51-52)

 Now | Pages 53-56

  1. What has Shorty had to do in order to survive? What liquids has he had to drink? (p. 52)
  2. How do you think Shorty is able to drift above and out of the hospital? What does he see? What has caused all the destruction? Do you think he’s just hallucinating? How could he know these things? (p. 54-55)
  3. When Shorty comes back down where is he? Re-read his description. Where and who does it sound like?
  4. Who do you think Shorty has entered?

Then | Pages 57-69

  1. Whose memories does Toussaint now have? What do you think this means? (p. 58)
  2. Why do you think that Toussaint feels whole now? What could this mean? What has changed? (p. 59)
  3. Toussaint realizes he needs to lead the rebellion, why? (p. 59)
  4. Why does Toussaint need to rebel? (p. 59)
  5. Why does Toussaint ask that they not destroy any property? Do you think this is a wise order? (p. 60-63)
  6. How does Toussaint treat his Master? What do you think this says about his character? (p. 65-69)
  7. Make a prediction: Based on Toussaint’s orders to the other slaves and his treatment of his former master, what kind of leader do you think he’ll be? Do you think he’ll be successful?
  8. What can Toussaint do now that he couldn’t do before? Why do you think this has changed? (p. 67)

Now | Pages 70-87

  1. Why does Shorty think he’s dreaming about Toussaint? What does Shorty know about Toussaint? (p. 70-71)
  2. What is Manman’s plan for raising money for Lavalas and Dread Wilmé? How does it involve the twins? What do they have to do? (p. 74-79)
  3. How does Papa react when he finds the twins? Why do you think he acts this way? (p. 79-80)
  4. What does Shorty believe about children in the Site? Why do you think he would say something like “There’s no such thing as children in Site Soléy”? (p. 81)
  5. What happens to Papa? How do you think this effects Shorty, seeing something so violent at such a young age? (p. 84)
  6. The men say they are from Boston. Do you believe this? Who else could have done this or would have wanted Papa killed? (p. 84-87)

Then | Pages 88-105

  1. Why does Toussaint return to the houngan in Bois Caiman? What does he want to know?
  2. How does Toussaint’s awareness of Shorty’s life and experiences impact what he believes about the rebellion? (p. 90-91)
  3. Why might Shorty and Toussaint have come together? Think about the beliefs around Marassa and what both of them have lost. (p. 91)
  4. What is the main force motivating Toussaint in leading the rebellion? (p. 93)
  5. What are the three types of people that Toussaint believes there are? Describe them. Do you agree with him? Do you think there are any other types? (p. 93)
  6. What does Toussaint witness when his father attempts to help a slave with her sick baby? How does this inform us about the conditions of slavery in Haiti? (p. 94-96)
  7. When describing the back of the injured slave, Toussaint says, “the whole thing looked like the map of some evil country” (p. 97). How is this simile appropriate for describing Haiti given the treatment of this particular slave? (p. 96-99)
  8. What kind of statement does it make when the men who beat up Toussaint come to pay his master for the time he couldn’t work? Why does this bother Toussaint? What do we learn about his Master from this situation and the one with the baby and female slave? (p. 100-104)

Now | Pages 106-126

  1. What things does Biggie say about Toussaint? What kind of person is Toussaint remembered as? (p. 108)
  2. Why is Shorty critical of what Toussaint accomplished? Think about what Shorty believes about the freedom of those living in the Site. While Shorty is critical of the freedom they have, why do the people inhabiting the Site appear free to Toussaint? (p. 108)
  3. What does Dread Wilmé agree to do for Shorty and his mother? (p. 111)
  4. Why does Dread Wilmé want Shorty to read the book on Toussaint? What does he think he’ll learn from it? (p. 112)
  5. Why is Shorty reconsidering what he believes about vodou? (p. 112-114)
  6. In the two years since Shorty’s father’s death, what has happened to Aristide? How has this changed life in the Site? (p. 114-116)
  7. What is the UN? Research what its purpose is supposed to be when involved in the affairs of countries where it sends UN officials.
  8. How does the UN’s involvement change the Site? (p. 117-118)
  9. What is the “break-bones time”? How does Shorty describe life during that period? (p. 117-119)
  10. Describe the events that took place the night Dread Wilmé was killed. (p. 119-126)
  11. What is the UN’s involvement in the events of the night Dread Wilmé is killed? How does this compare to the UN’s purpose or objectives? (p. 119-126)
  12. How does Dread Wilmé save Shorty’s life? (p. 123-125)
  13. How do you think Dread Wilmé’s prophecy about Shorty relates to the connection he has with Toussaint? (p. 125)
  14. What does Dread Wilmé give to Shorty? Who else has mentioned a pwen in the story? (p. 125)
  15. Make an inference: Who do you think becomes the other half of Shorty’s soul? (p. 126)

Then | Pages 127-134

  1. What is Toussaint thinking of when he intervenes to prevent violence, destruction of the land, or other atrocities? (p. 128-129)
  2. What has happened to Boukman? What does Toussaint take from the lining of Boukman’s jacket? Does Toussaint think the pwen protected Boukman? Why? (p. 130-131)
  3. Why do you think that Toussaint lets them kill the inhabitants of the plantation this time? (p. 133)

Now | Pages 135-138

  1. How does Manman get help for Shorty? Who does she appeal to? Why do you think this works? (p. 135-138)

Then | Pages 139-150

  1. Why does Toussaint try and avoid sleep? What does he see in his dreams? (p. 139-140)
  2. Why has Toussaint travelled to Cape Town? What does he want to see? (p. 140)
  3. While the commissioners did grant the slaves their freedom, why does this not really guarantee their freedom? (p. 141)
  4. Why won’t the commissioners allow the French envoy to land on Haiti? (p. 142-143)
  5. What offers Toussaint the clue that there is something important on the ships? (p. 144)
  6. Who is on the ships? What are they there for? What does Toussaint overhear? (p. 148-149)

Now | Pages 151-162

  1. What do they do for Dread Wilmé’s funeral? What two lwa come down to take Dread Wilmé? (p. 152-161)
  2. When Manman says, “Well, I guess he isn’t coming back now” Shorty disagrees. What does Shorty believe? (p. 162)
  3. Who did Toussaint come back as? (p. 162)

Then | Pages 163-174

  1. Why is Jean-Christophe more readily accepted among whites like the commissioners? (p. 164)
  2. How do the guards treat Toussaint and Jean-Christophe? Do they treat them as equals? (p. 165-166)
  3. What message does Toussaint give to Brandicourt? How does he respond? What is Brandicourt’s wife like? (p. 166-168)
  4. How does the battle against the French go? Who triumphs? (p. 170-173)

Now | Pages 175-191

  1. What does Shorty do to keep from going mad? (p. 175-177)
  2. Who makes sure that Shorty continues to go to school? (p. 178-179)
  3. What does Shorty love to do? (p. 179)
  4. What does Shorty create with the baked bowls of mud? Why does he do this? What can we infer about Shorty from this? (p. 179-180)
  5. Who is Stéphanie? Why is Shorty surprised that she’s with Biggie? Think about who killed Dread Wilmé. (p. 183)
  6. Why does Shorty want to become a chimére? (p. 184)
  7. How does Shorty justify the fact that he knows Biggie sells drugs, but still wants to work for him? (p. 188)
  8. What does Shorty have to do to prove himself to Biggie and to be a part of Route 9? How old was he when he did this? Think about when you were at that age. How does your life at that age compare to Shorty’s? (p. 189-191)

Then | Pages 192-202

  1. What gives Toussaint an advantage over the French? What knowledge does he have that the French don’t? How does this connect him to Shorty? (p. 192-193)
  2. What system does Toussaint create to keep food from spoiling? Who else has done this? Do you think that Toussaint and Shorty had a connection even before the earthquake? Why? Explain your answer. (p. 193)
  3. What steps does Toussaint take to make sure that there is an inhabitable Haiti left at the end of the war? (p. 193-194) What can we infer about Toussaint’s character from this?
  4. What story do Toussaint’s men tell about his name? Why is he called l’Ouverture? (p. 194)
  5. How does Toussaint plan to ambush the French? (p. 196-197)
  6. What is the difference between Toussaint and Jean-François? (p. 196)
  7. What transpires when Toussaint meets with the French leader? What does Biassou do? How does Toussaint respond? (p. 198-201)

Now | Pages 203-233

  1. What motivates Shorty to not just give up? What does he decide to do? (p. 202-204)
  2. What happens when Tintin tries to take the pwen from Shorty? What do you think: is there something special about Shorty? Or is he just incredibly lucky? (p. 205-209)
  3. What do Tintin and Shorty have to show to get out of the Site? How would you feel if you needed a pass to get out of your neighborhood or section of town? (p. 210-211)
  4. How does Shorty describe Tintin? Is Tintin a kind person? Why does Shorty think Tintin acts the way he does? (p. 211-212)
  5. Is there really a delivery? What do the two boys spend the day doing? Had Shorty ever been in a swimming pool before? What does Shorty say about their day at the pool? What’s your memory of the best day of your life? (p. 215-218)
  6. How does Shorty save the young maid’s life? (p. 219-222)
  7. What does some of the drug money go to pay for? (p. 225)
  8. What jobs does Shorty do for Biggie? (p. 226-227)
  9. Who does Shorty see when Route 9 gets attacked while handing out food? (p. 229-230)
  10. What does Shorty think must happen if he has any chance of healing the Site? (p. 233)
  11. Make a prediction: Do you think Shorty will be reunited with Marguerite? Why or why not?

Then | Pages 234-244

  1. Why is England willing to sacrifice the lives of its own soldiers in order to gain Haiti? What is Haiti worth? Where does the majority of this worth come from—the slaves or the exports? What will happen to the now freed slaves if England gains control of Haiti? (p. 235-236)
  2. How is Toussaint’s plan for the English different than for the French? Explain why this is. (p. 239)
  3. How does Toussaint defeat the English? (p. 240-244)
  4. Describe the kind of leader Toussaint l’Ouverture was. Use examples from the text to support your answer (p. 234-244)

Now | Pages 245-265

  1. Why does Stéphanie call Biggie a gangster? Why does Biggie believe he isn’t a gangster? (p. 247)
  2. Why is Stéphanie worried about Biggie? What has she heard about the MINUSTAH? (p. 248-249)
  3. Why does Shorty want a war? (p. 250-251)
  4. Describe Shorty’s interaction with the houngan. (p. 253-255)
  5. What happens when the houngan attempts to bring down Ogou Badagry? What does Legba tell Biggie and Shorty? (p. 256-258)
  6. How does Shorty plan to take out Boston? (p. 260-262)
  7. Is Shorty’s plan successful? Does he find Marguerite? (p. 263-265)

Then | Pages 266-278

  1. Why do you think France has returned? Do you think they come in peace or to take back Haiti and enslave the blacks again? (p. 266)
  2. How does Bonaparte respond to Toussaint’s leadership and the Constitution he published? Which of the two versions do you think is more likely to have happened? (p. 268-270)
  3. Why does Toussaint burn the coast? How is this different from how he has lead up to this point? (p. 272)
  4. Who comes to see Toussaint in the uplands of Haiti? What does Toussaint learn from him? (p. 275-276)
  5. What does Brunet’s letter say? Do you think Toussaint should trust him? Why or why not? (p. 277-278)

Now | Pages 279-292

  1. What happens almost immediately after Shorty finds Marguerite? (p. 280-281) Who warned them this about this?
  2. Who stops them from shooting at Shorty? (p. 281-282)
  3. What does Shorty realize about the girl? Is she really Marguerite? (p. 282-283)
  4. What does Biggie admit to Shorty before he dies? (285)
  5. What stories does Shorty share with the reader after he reveals what Biggie did to his father? Why do you think Shorty shares these specific things? What is he trying to tell the reader about Biggie? (p. 286-292)

Then | Pages 293-300

  1. What does Toussaint realize once he enters Brunet’s home? What has Brunet done? (p. 295-296)
  2. What do they arrest Toussaint for? (p. 296)
  3. What does Toussaint give to Isaac before he’s arrested?
  4. How does Toussaint view death? (p. 298)

Now | Pages 301-307

  1. Why does Shorty think he will die soon? What happened while he was trying to dig himself out? (p. 301)
  2. What does Shorty learn from Manman? Why did she tell Shorty that Marguerite was still alive? (p. 305-306)

Then | Pages 308-325

  1. How is Toussaint treated during the beginning of his imprisonment? (p. 308-309)
  2. What does Toussaint read while imprisoned? How has the play misrepresented Toussaint? Why do you think the French writer did this? (p. 308-309)
  3. What crimes is Toussaint accused of? (p. 310-311)
  4. What do the French want from Toussaint? Can Toussaint give this to them? Why? (p. 310-311)
  5. Do the French plan to give Toussaint a trial? (p. 315-316)
  6. What scenes does Toussaint see while he his dying in his cell? (p. 317)
  7. In what way do the French sentence Toussaint to death? (p. 315-320)
  8. Where does Toussaint find himself after he dies? (p. 323-325)

Now | Pages 328-337

  1. Does Shorty realize that Toussaint is with him? (p. 329)
  2. What things does Shorty realize as he is being rescued? (p. 331-332)
  3. Did Manman survive the earthquake? (p.336)
  4. How has Shorty changed by the end of the story? How does he describe himself in the last line? (p. 337)

Reflective Writing Questions:

  1. How do the men like Biggie and Dread Wilmé from the Site represent moral ambiguity? What kinds of men are they? What do they do for the Site? What do they do that would be considered immoral? Is it easy to say they are simply bad men?
  1. Think about all of the things that Toussaint and Shorty witness as young boys. How do you think this impacted them and the kind of men they become?
  1. Do you think that Toussaint, Dread Wilmé and Shorty were all the same person in some way? Why? Explain your answer (p. 108)
  1. How do Toussaint and Shorty represent the continued survival of Haiti?
  1. What do you think of Shorty’s statement about the blancs: “These blancs, they look very proud, though, so I try to smile, cos I know how much they love to help, how much they’re always helping, how they can’t just mind their own zafe and keep off our island. Look where their help got us; look at the mess we’re in. . .” (p. 335). Think about the history of Haiti presented in the book. How has the involvement of the blancs shaped the present state of Haiti?
  1. Think about the connection between Toussaint, Dread Wilmé and Shorty. Then, explain the following line from the end of the book: “I’ve lived and died so many times for this country and there’s nothing that can get in and hurt me” (p. 337)
  1. How does Shorty’s last line of the book contrast with the section Always (p. 326-327)? Who do you think wrote Always—Shorty or Toussaint? Who do you think is right? Or, are they both right?
  1. Do you think Shorty changes by the end of the book? Why or why not? How?


Written by staff at the UNM Latin American & Iberian Institute (LAII), Vamos a Leer Educators Guides provide an excellent way to teach about Latin America through literacy.  Each guide is based upon a book featured in the Vamos a Leer book group.  For more materials that support teaching about Latin America in the classroom, visit the LAII website.  This guide was prepared 6/2014 by Katrina Dillon, LAII Project Assistant, and Neoshia Roemer, LAII Graduate Assistant.


3 thoughts on “Educator’s Guide: In Darkness

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Serafina’s Promise | Vamos a Leer

  2. Pingback: ¡Mira Look!: Eight Days, A Story of Haiti | Vamos a Leer

  3. Pingback: WWW: Reparations and Confronting the Legacy of Slavery in the Island Nation Known as the First Black Republic | Vamos a Leer

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