• It’s the birth date of Maria Edgeworth (1767–1849), Moral Tales for Young People; J.D. Salinger (1919–2010), The Catcher in the Rye; and E.M. Forster (1879–1970), A Room with a View, A Passage to India.
  • It’s also the birth date of Betsy Ross (1752–1836), credited with crafting the first American flag for the fledgling United States. Read Betsy Ross by Alexandra Wallner.
  • It’s National Soup Month. Read Soup by Robert Newton Peck, Mouse Soup by Arnold Lobel, Stone Soup by Marcia Brown, and Chicken Soup with Rice by Maurice Sendak.
  • It’s National Book Blitz Month, an opportunity to promote books we love, which is what happens every day here!

On January 1, 1735, Paul Revere, patriot, silversmith, and engraver was baptized in Boston’s North End. Although made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” our birthday boy’s story has attracted many fine writers over the years, including one of the descendants of Samuel Adams, the organizer of the Sons of Liberty: Esther Forbes.

Although Esther Forbes would become a brilliant writer for both adults and young people, she suffered from a type of dyslexia. She could not spell words and used the dash as her only form of punctuation. These problems did not deter her from beginning her career as the Assistant to the Editor in Chief of Houghton Mifflin. But she longed to write herself and worked on a biography of Paul Revere, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, that won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1943. An editor at Harcourt Brace suggested that Forbes try her hand at writing history for young readers. Because American soldiers were going into World War II, Forbes thought about how in peace time adolescents are protected but in war time we ask them to fight and die for us. Remembering the story of a young boy who delivered a critical message to Paul Revere, she produced the first draft of Johnny Tremain.

Not pleased with the story, the Harcourt editor suggested changes—but Forbes refused to alter her text. So she brought the book to Grace Hogarth at Houghton, telling Grace that she could publish the book as written. Normally, publishing a great story by a Pulitzer Prize winner would have been a “no brainer” for an editor—but Hogarth could not help but notice that Forbes never spelled any word the same way twice and had little comprehension of punctuation. Hogarth gathered her courage to tell Forbes that although she loved the book, she would have to standardize the spelling. Forbes merely said, “My editors always do that.” So a very messy manuscript got transformed into the greatest work of historical fiction for children in the twentieth century. However, according to editors on staff at the time, Forbes did drive two aging proofreaders almost out of their minds in the process.

This complex and brilliant novel spans two years in the life of Johnny Tremain, an orphan and silversmith apprentice. While casting a sugar basin for John Hancock, he burns his right hand and must abandon his position. But he finds work as a messenger for the Sons of Liberty, becoming swept up in the American Revolution. Forbes brought an amazing amount of historical detail to life and brings young readers behind the scenes as the colonists decide to rebel against the British. As the New York Times said of her, she was “a novelist who wrote like a historian and a historian who wrote like a novelist.”

I can think of no better way to begin a new year than rereading Johnny Tremain. It reminds all of us just how great historical fiction for young readers can be. Thank you Esther Forbes for showing us that spelling, grammar, and punctuation do not make a novel brilliant—only the story a writer needs to tell matters. Happy New Year—to all of those who love to read, and to write, children’s books.

Here’s a passage from Johnny Tremain:

Johnny slipped into the shop so quietly that Mr. Hancock did not even look it. It was he who owned this great wharf, the warehouses, many of the fine ships tied up along it. He owned sail lofts and shops, and also dwelling houses standing at the head of the wharf. He owned the Lapham house. He was the richest man in New England. Such a wealthy patron might lift the Laphams from poverty to affluence.Mr. Hancock was comfortably seated in the one armchair which was kept in the shop for patrons. (When I’m master, thought Johnny, there are going to be two armchairs—and I’ll sit in one.)

Unobtrusively, Johnny got his notebook and pencil. Dove and Dusty were paralyzed into complete inaction. “Do something,” Johnny muttered to them, determined his master’s shop should look busy. Dusty could not take his eyes off the green velvet coat, sprigged white waistcoat, silver buttons and buckles on the great man, but he picked up a soldering iron and nervously dropped it.



Originally posted January 1, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: Award Winning, History, Newbery, Revolutionary War
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Johnny Tremain


  1. Esther says:

    Everyone who begins their day reading “Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac” will have a happy new year indeed. I am hopeful you have received the proper amount of feedback to know deep in your heart what a valuable resource you are providing. Please accept my gratitude for sharing your knowledge and best wishes for a healthy 2011.

    Tenacre Country Day School

  2. Anita says:

    Esther: Thank you for your words of support for the Almanac — such a wonderful gift of the first day of a new year. Anita

  3. G.Perry says:

    As with most children’s books, I read this for the first time as an adult because it was on Anita’s list. . I also listen to it on CD.

    I loved it. Having been to Boston several times, reading Johnny Tremain was not only fun because I could picture many of the things mentioned by Esther, but I learned new things I had never read or heard about before.

    As someone very much interested in children’s literature, I am also deeply touched and inspired by Esther’s struggle with words. Though I didn’t have Dyslexia, I have had to make of up for missing a great deal of grammar training in school. Learning language skiills as an adult has been slow moving but I think I’ve done fine, helped in great part to reading a good deal.

    After reading about Esther Forbes (thanks to Anita) my level of courage in my own work reached and maintained a new height. I was so encouraged by her story. There was also the lesson learned from Forbes that serious research and hard work can overcome much.

    I think it was Steven King who said a passion for writing, persistence, and simple hard would nearly always beat out talent. This lady of course, is clearly talented but I bet it came from great energy and passion for her writing.

    Thank you Esther and thank you Anita.

  4. Anita says:

    Thanks so much for all your excellent comments here. They all testify to the power of great children’s books — to inform and change our lives. Happy New Year to you.

  5. Christine says:

    My 11 year old daughter and I read this book for the first time last year. I read it to her because she is dyslexic and it takes her a really long time to make it through a book on her own. We both loved it! I am homeschooling her and enjoying reading so many great books that I missed when I was young. Thanks for including the inspiring story about the author in your review. I can’t wait to share it with my daughter.

  6. Rebecca says:

    I read this book in middle school and that is when I first realized the power of historical fiction to bring something out of focus into a much more clear light! With that in mind, I dug out Johnny Tremain to offer a bunch of very skeptical ninth graders in an urban school in Baltimore where my incredibly under-resourced students, most of whom had never been given an actual book of their own to read, nearly laughed me out of the room (not for the first time, I might add!). When we started reading it, though, they were hooked. I always think of this book with fondness and thanks to Esther Forbes for showing 45 very tough critics the power of a terrific story for the very first time.
    Happy New Year, Anita!!!! Wishing you a great one.

  7. Anita says:

    Rebecca: Thank you so much for sharing this story. All the best to you in the New Year.

  8. Trisha says:

    Thank you for presenting Esther Forbes’ inspirational back story, which I had never known about until now.

    As a homeschooling mother, I read this wonderful book with both my son and daughter. We thoroughly enjoyed the story and loved reading such a well researched and written book on my favorite time in history. This book is one of my favorites that I read as an adult with my children ensuring me the opportunity to appreciate wonderful children’s and young adult novels which I missed out on as a child. This is one of the many joys of homeschooling: reading, studying, and appreciating great children’s literature with my children and through the eyes of a child.

    Again, thank you for a wonderful post, and Happy New Year.

  9. Fascinating to learn about Esther Forbes I’ll have to add Johnny Tremain to my reading list. I’m tweeting this.
    Happy New Year!

  10. Betty Birney says:

    I always loved the book, but the inside info on Esther Forbes is amazing. Thank you so much for sharing and Happy New Year!

  11. Anita says:

    Betty: Thanks and Happy New Year to you.

  12. Jewell Stoddard says:

    Thanks for posting this again. I read Johnny Tremaine with 5th grade classes,
    and this year I will finally read her adult book. Happy New Year.

  13. Anita says:

    Jewell: Happy New Year to you as well. Wonderful to see you — if only in cyberspace.

  14. Charlotte Sidell says:

    Dear Anita,

    I just read JOHNNY TREMAIN for the first time! I am taking an online Newbery Course.
    Someone referenced your article about Esther Forbes and so I came here to the link. THANK YOU for the understanding of Forbe’s dyslexia and grammar/spelling problems.

    OAN – when I was reading JOHNNY TREMAIN I was struck by the rich vocabulary she used – I needed a dictionary! I was thinking that reading this book would have been good SAT prep!

  15. Anita says:

    Yes, the vocabulary, story structure, all are remarkable. Her papers are all at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester and worth looking at if you go there.

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