I’m in the minority, I suspect, to be reading Johnny Tremain as an adult.’  Many people were assigned to read this novel, set during the early days of the American revolt against the British, in school as part of units on the American Revolution.’  It’s a pleasure to find out that reading it as an adult is an exciting, enjoyable process.’  But how might a modern teen react?

Johnny Tremain
Esther Forbes
Published 1943

The title character is an apprentice to an elderly silversmith, surrounded by Mr. Lapham’s family and his fellow apprentices.’  Blessed with a natural gift, Johnny is arrogant, quick-tempered, and disrespectful.’  He bosses the other apprentices, Mr. Lapham’s family–even Mr. Lapham himself.’  And then, one day, when Johnny breaks the Sabbath while working on a sugar basin, there is an accident.’  With a crippled hand, Johnny is unable to work any longer and must find a new position.’  When he starts working as a delivery rider for the Boston Observer, a newspaper with anti-British sentiments, Johnny starts a journey of growth amid the early days of the American revolution.

In novels like this, it’d be easy to focus more on the historical figures at the expense of the imagined ones.’  With personalities like John Hancock and Sam Adams, Johnny could have been a cardboard cutout.’  Instead, he’s a living, breathing boy, slowly becoming a young man over the course of the novel.’  Esther Forbes possessed a gift for mingling these sets of characters together, not losing sight of either the development of Johnny’s character or the historical people surrounding him.’  Just as America was starting on its coming-of-age, so is Johnny.

Johnny’s story is intertwined with the early days of the American Revolution; the subtitle for the novel is, in fact, “A Story of Boston in Revolt.”‘  Johnny has a front-row seat for these early days–and so does the reader.’  You get to experience the tumult of living in Boston in 1773 through 1775, the reasons why the colonists objected so mightily to the taxing of tea to the point of refusing to accept shipments of it, and how the tide turned towards revolution.’  There’s a wide range of viewpoints, from the Tories (those loyal to Great Britain) and the Whigs (who support representation in Parliament).’  Notice that there’s not much said about independence; the truth is, America was the first set of colonies who succeded in revolting and throwing off their overlord.’  Only the most radical people would advocate declaring independence–most people had not even considered it at this point.

All in all, Johnny Tremain is a great novel, one that has stood the test of time.’  With much action and a touch of romance, it’s definitely a book that would appeal to middle-school readers.’  Yes, it is perhaps a touch dated in its language and style, but I think that helps to underscore that this is historical fiction: we know what the outcome was.’  Many middle-schoolers, though, would enjoy reading this book, I suspect (especially if it got repackaged with a photo-realistic cover).’  So, if you haven’t read Johnny Tremain, give it a try!

About Melissa Rabey

I'm a teen librarian for a library system in Maryland. I became a librarian because I love books, I love technology, and I wanted to connect people with those two things. I'm happy that I get to do all this and even more.

9 Thoughts on “New to Me: Johnny Tremain

  1. It’s still required reading here, at least in the Catholic school system. My son, a very modern teen, loved it.

  2. LizBurns on April 15, 2009 at 8:09 pm said:

    I, too, read it as an adult, just a couple of years ago and loved it. Have you read Rifles for Watie? Another great “old” book that I didn’t read until now.

    As for “who will read it”, I suspect that a good number of kids would. OK, not all — not to mistake it as popular reading — but for kids who enjoy history? Or those who do like things that are a bit more old fashioned? This is a keeper.

  3. I just remember reading it in junior high and thinking it HILAROUS that he liked to get dressed in front of the open window. Such 7th grade humor 😉

  4. I was in my 50s when I read Johnny Tremaine (and also Rifles for Watie) as part of my plan to read all of the Newbery winners. No idea why I’d never read it before, as I’ve been aware of it at least since junior high. Not one of my favourite Newberys, but a good book nonetheless.

    My 8th-grader liked the movie, which she saw in school, and says she would like to read the book.

  5. Read Johnny Tremain when I was a kid in the ’80s, and I have always loved it. Was surprised to learn as an adult that it’s frequently an example of “book I was forced to read in school that I hated.” I’m probably lucky that I wasn’t forced to read it. When I visited Boston for the first time, in my 20s, I wasn’t thinking too much about Paul Revere or John Hancock or any other historical figure. Walking in Johnny Tremain’s footsteps is what felt real to me.

  6. I loved Johnny Tremaine when I read it in…fifth grade, probably. But my favorite part was the movie version we watched after finishing the book. The kid who played Johnny was just so cute. I just looked it up on IMDB and found out it was filmed in 1957. How ’bout that?

  7. I read Johnny Tremain as a 5th grade homeschooler and loved it – I probably reread it at least a few times for fun. But then, I was one of those historical fiction nerds who read everything except contemporary, realistic fiction. I haven’t tried rereading it as an adult, though, but everything I know about silver comes from JT.

  8. Angie Manfredi on April 16, 2009 at 7:37 pm said:

    I *still* get chills when I read the last page. …Thousands would die. But not the thing they died for: a man can stand up. One of my favorite Simpsons episodes is the one where Bart is is inspired by and loves Johnny Tremain. (Wacking Day.) IT’S JUST THAT POWERFUL! 😉

    Johnny was one of my first fictional crushes: headstrong, stubborn, a little arrogant, but at heart, a quick learner, a good friend, and interested in doing the “right” thing and learning about the world around him. Mmmhmm. That’s STILL my type! 😀

    As for who would read it? The same kids that have for the past 50 years, of course! I often hand-sell and booktalk it on sight to kids who are looking for historical fiction: I tell them about Johnny and how he’s kinda a jerk and about how the Revolutionary War was fought by every day people, some just about their age, about how it wasn’t ONLY like what they read in their history books. I ask them what THEY would do.

    And sometimes I use that line, which STILL makes kids eyes get round and big: whoah!

    Love it!

  9. I’m late commenting on this as I catch up with my blog reading, but I just had to weigh in because this was required reading in my middle school. I still remember it fondly because it was the first required reading that I loved and happily reread after the end of the school year (I was a voracious reader but generally didn’t care for the assigned stuff — STORY OF A BAD BOY and the like).

    I can definitely see modern MG’ers enjoying this, and jumping over, like I did, to other historicals or historical paranormals (my next move after this one was GHOST CADET — anyone remember that one?)

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