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Johnny Tremain

Award-Winning Historical Fiction Set in the 1770s

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


Cover of Johnny Tremain a classic children's book

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Introduction to the Classic Johnny Tremain

Secrets, spies, and a simmering rebellion lurk in the shadows of Boston in 1773, and fourteen-year-old Johnny Tremain, an orphaned apprentice to an aging silversmith, is swiftly caught up in the dangerous uprising. Esther Forbes won the 1944 Newbery Medal for this revolutionary coming-of-age story about a young boy who must grow up quickly during an extraordinary time of American history.

Story Line

Fourteen- year- old Johnny Tremain is an orphan with a gift for silversmithing. A natural leader, Johnny takes charge in the small Lapham household where he and two other boys are apprentices to Old Lapham. Johnny, full of youthful arrogance born of confidence in his talents and a secret he holds about his family pedigree, becomes a victim of a mischievous prank gone awry that will change the course of his life.

Now, unable to do his work and on the brink of being cast out of the home where he’s been apprenticed, Johnny tries to take advantage of his secret family connection and finds himself accused of theft. Full of frustration and self-pity, he meanders into a printing press establishment and meets a young apprentice named Rab. Rab introduces Johnny to Boston’s most notorious Sons of Liberty: Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and John Hancock. Johnny’s long admired these men of wealth and status and quickly converts to their rebel politics.

Although Johnny is too young to participate in military training, he makes him useful by befriending British soldiers and their servants in order to glean valuable information. As a spy, Johnny finds himself involved in dangerous plots leading to major historical events. These include the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s midnight ride, and the battle at Lexington and Concord.

However, Johnny’s youthful delight in participating in exciting secret activities turns into a sobering reality upon seeing an acquaintance executed for desertion. War is brutal and death, Johnny painfully discovers, is part of the sacrifice being made in the name of freedom. Such harsh realities will change this reckless boy into a man who learns to value freedom, family, and friends.

The Newbery Medal

Johnny Tremain is the Newbery award-winner that almost wasn’t even published. When Esther Forbes sent her finished manuscript to Harcourt Brace, the editor wanted to make significant changes. Upset by the alterations, Forbes took her manuscript to another publisher, Houghton Mifflin, who published the book in 1943 with only minor edits. Esther Forbes was awarded the 1944 John Newbery Medal for Johnny Tremain and since then, the book has never been out of print. (Source: A City of Words: The Worcester Writers Project)

Author Esther Forbes

Esther Forbes, born June 28, 1891 in Westboro, Massachusetts, was the fifth of six children. Forbes, known for her excellent imagination and love of writing, did not excel at academics because of her dyslexia and nearsightedness. After high school graduation, Forbes worked as a typist for a publishing company, but because of her poor spelling skills, she was asked to read unsolicited manuscripts. Forbes published her first novel for adults in 1926. Esther Forbes was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for history for Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, a novel for adults that was published in 1942.

Johnny Tremain: A Novel for Young and Old, her first children’s book, was published in 1943 . The 320-page book explained history through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old boy rather than through the life of a historical figure as was generally the case then. Forbes died in Worcester, Massachusetts August 12, 1967. She donated all of her royalties from her books to the American Antiquarian Society where she did research for her books. (Sources: A City of Words: The Worcester Writers Project and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Johnny Tremain – My Recommendation

Although I love reading historical fiction about American history, I was prepared to slog through Johnny Tremain, figuring that, despite being an award-winner and a classic, the book would be full of archaic language and dense description interfering with the story’s pace. I also expected an early twentieth century moralistic story with flat characters that seemed to always make the right choices.

Imagine my surprise when I found the story to have diverse and interesting characters caught up in the confusion of being either loyal to a monarch or supporting a revolution. To add to my surprise, the story contained all the elements of a true adventure story: secret meetings, spies, a rebellion against the British crown, and a complex character who changes from arrogant boy to somber young man.

I like the character Johnny Tremain. He doesn’t hide his arrogance or ambition. He’s spunky, a natural leader and a risk taker- a character trait typical of invincible youth. However, a horrible accident starts a series of events that lead to great changes in this character’s life and put him in the middle of high action as the threat of war and revolution begin to swirl around him. One of my favorite lines from the story comes during the middle of a fierce battle when the once self-absorbed boy is asked if he feels like a man or a boy, to which Johnny responds: “A boy in time of peace and a man in time of war.”

On their own, some less experienced readers may get mired down in the historical landscape of this story, but I think this is an ideal book for classroom discussion, book clubs, or a family read aloud. Historical details, varied vocabulary, and a story line that lends itself to in-depth discussion about important subjects, such as war, freedom, and human rights, make this book worth reading. I recommend Johnny Tremain for readers age 10 and up. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. ISBN: 9780547614328)

More Historical Fiction, and Some Nonfiction, From Your Guide Elizabeth Kennedy

  • Kids 9 to 13 will enjoy a visit to the thirteenth century when they read Castle Diary: The Journal of Tobias Burgess, Page by Richard Platt. This fictional account of 11-year-old Tobias's year as a page in his uncle's castle is filled with colorful illustrations by Chris Riddell, adding to the reader's enjoyment and understanding of the time period.
  • Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool, the 2011 John Newbery Medal winner, is historical fiction set in the Depression era in a small Kansas town and featuring a long girl searching for the meaning of home. I recommend the book for ages 10 to 14.
  • Humor, history and mysteries combine in Dead End in Norvelt, for which author Jack Gantos received the 2012 John Newbery Medal for excellence. Set in the summer of 1962, this novel of just over 350 pages is a good book for ages 10-14.
  • Watch the video 5 Nonfiction U.S. History Books for Middle Graders to learn about some excellent nonfiction books, including Harlem Stomp! and Almost Astronauts.

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