There was no doubt that John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (reviewed here) was written to teach both children and adults lesson about Christianity and life; there was little attempt to veil the message behind the story.
While the message in modern children’s literature may not be so thinly veiled, to me it seems obvious that authors still impart their subtle messages into a text that is otherwise a story. This is all the more obvious in stories for children.
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes (a Newbery Award winner) and My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier (a Newbery Honor book) both tell the story of a 12- to 16-year-old boy during the American Revolution of the 1770s. Both books were written by both accomplished children’s authors and historians; both are accurate portrayals of war. And yet, each story has a distinct message about war. What that message is should be obvious to adults when they realize that Johnny Tremain was written in the 1940s and My Brother Sam was written in the 1970s.
Note: While the following review and analysis may provide “spoilers,” these “spoilers” seem pretty obvious given the subject matter of the books: The American Revolutionary War. Therefore, I don’t believe they would actually “spoil” the book for an interested adult reader.
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
Johnny Tremain is a proud, orphaned, silversmith apprentice in 1773 Boston and the envy of successful silversmiths, like Paul Revere, when he is accidentally crippled. Newly humbled and searching for work in a print shop, he discovers a new world, that of rebellion, via his friend, Rab Silsbee. Over the coming years, he joins the revolutionary movement, working as a spy for John Hancock, Paul Revere, and James Otis in the increasingly interesting scene of revolutionary Boston. When war breaks out, he is eager to take his part to fight against the tyrannical British who unfairly tax the innocent citizens of Boston.
Johnny Tremain is written with an engaging story line and familiar characters from history. I imagine that Johnny’s story and Esther Forbes’ historical detail will captivate the imagination a young reader, especially as the events of the Tea Party and the opening shots at Lexington occur. Because the story occurs during the early stages of the revolutionary war in the political center of those years, politics are detailed throughout; therefore, it may be dense for some children. Nevertheless, I enjoyed rereading Johnny’s story, and the tender patriotism tore at my heart, even as the hopeful account of changing times reminded me of the significance of all those who fought for right.
My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier
Tim Meeker is just 12 years old in 1775 when his 16-year-old brother Sam leaves Yale to enter the Rebel army. When the war visits Tim’s quiet Tory town of Redding, Connecticut, it is changed forever, and yet Tim cannot decide which side is right: the Rebels, who are sometimes called Patriots, and who Sam is willing to die with, or the Tories, who believe the King is the lawful leader of the American colonies. As both the Patriots and the Tories take his loved ones and friends away from him, Tim mourns the pain that comes with growing up. In the end, Tim despises the horrors of war and hates that it leaves no person untouched.
My Brother Sam is Dead is written in captivating, easy-to-read modern English that drew me into the story and conversations. As each event unfolded, I felt I was a part of the action and I eagerly awaited the resolution. Though I’d read this as a child, I’d forgotten the heartbreaking details and mourned along with Tim as the horrors of war entered his idyllic village and broke his heart.
Signs of the Times?
Johnny Tremain was written in the post-World War II era, in which returning veterans were applauded and cheered for their patriotism in saving others in the world from tyranny. In like manner, Johnny was a patriot who fought so that “a man might stand up.” In fact, during a secret meeting of the Sons of Liberty, James Otis says:
[We fight] for [the rights of] men and women and children all over the world. … There shall be no more tyranny. A handful of men cannot seize power over thousands. A man shall choose who it is shall rule over him. The peasants of France, the serfs of Russia. Hardly more than animals now. But because we fight, they shall see freedom like a new sun rising in the west. … (page 178-179)
Johnny Tremain also contained murders and deaths. This was war. Yet, it ultimately ended on a note of hope for the future:
Hundred would die, but not the thing they died for. (page 256)
My Brother Sam is Dead, on the other hand, was written in the post-Vietnam era, during which time the violence of war was broadcast on television screens around the country and protests against the murder of innocent citizens were common. The novel included the murder and death of many innocent victims, many of whom really lived and died, as the historical note at the end of the novel explains. It ended with this:
Free of the British domination, the nation has prospered and I along with it … But somehow, even fifty years later, I keep thinking that there might have been another way, beside war, to achieve the same end. (page 211)
For Tim Meeker, the war personally hurt him; it was ultimately a negative solution.
What’s Your Preference?
I completely enjoyed both accounts of the American Revolutionary War. Both were accurate: war can be honorable and full of excitement when one feels the cause is worth fighting. But it can also be horrifying when one simply wants to live life. Each side did both right and wrong in various circumstances. Which side would I have been on?
In the end, it interests me that the post-war era during which each novel was written dramatically influenced the underlying message of the Revolutionary War for the novel.
It’s also interesting to consider the violence in each novel. My Brother Sam is Dead (as indicated by the title) has lots of violence in particular.
Should violent acts of war and murder be edited out of children’s literature? In Puritan times, such as when Pilgrim’s Progress was written, violence was not kept from children. Seth Lerer writes of the Puritan philosophy in Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History:
All children’s literature recalls an unrecoverable past, a lost age before adulthood. And all children die – they must, to become grown-ups. (page 83-84)
Johnny Tremain, while it did contain violence, seemed to have “contained” violence: it was more tame than My Brother Sam.
- Do you think war violence should be present in children’s literature?
- What new perspective do you think we would put on the Revolutionary War if we wrote about it today?
- Have you noticed an author’s agenda (or era) coming through in any other children’s books?
If you reviewed Johnny Tremain or My Brother Sam is Dead on your site, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.