Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

It’s a phenomenon familiar to all of us. Who hasn’t heard someone talk about going back to the school where they spent their childhood years and remarking “how small” everything is now – almost as if everything else is what has changed and not themselves? Of course it’s a matter of perspective, but still one that is charming and thought provoking.

(below: author Esther Forbes)


I wondered – would I experience a similar phenomenon when reading a book that I hadn’t opened since childhood (junior high in my case)? Enter “Johnny Tremain” by Esther Forbes, a Newbery Award winner from 1944. I first read it at Indianapolis P.S. #89 while in the sixth grade (I think). Unlike in my adult life as a reader, where I am surrounded by books I want to read, back then, even though I may have been surrounded by books, there were only a few I LIKED to read, and these I revisited many times. Johnny Tremain was one of these, which makes it even more remarkable how much of the book I had forgotten.

(pictured below: The Newbery Medal)


Briefly, it’s the story of an apprentice silversmith in Boston in the 1770’s – a time when rebellion was fermenting in the British Colonies. Though only fourteen or fifteen, Johnny is talented and precocious, effectively running the day to day business of the silver shop of his aged master, Mr. Lapham. Johnny is treated with deference by everyone in his immediate circle and this treatment goes to his head. As his master would say, “pride goeth before a fall,” however, and when Johnny takes the reckless step of working on the sabbath in order to complete an order for the wealthy John Hancock, an accident occurs which puts an end to his apprenticeship.

Johnny drifts somewhat idly for awhile until, while searching for a new trade, meets “Rab” – a printer’s apprentice at the shop where the Boston Observer is published. Through Rab, who, though only a couple years older, is mature far beyond his years, Johnny begins to learn more about responsibility and also how to act better and to better treat those around him.

Through his work at the printing shop and delivering newspapers riding his spirited horse, Goblin (of course, Goblin was one of the things I remembered well from this book!). Johnny quickly becomes deeply involved in the work of The Sons of Liberty, and plays a role in famous events such as the Boston Tea Party, and Paul Revere’s ride. In the process, Johnny “becomes a man” and perhaps this is the main appeal to young readers. In fact, while reading this book, I was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s famous “story graphs.” Johnny’s story would be the “man in hole” variety.


So, did re-reading this book feel like returning to an old school building and finding everything “smaller?” Not really, but one thing I did realize is that when I first read this book, I WAS Johnny Tremain (how could I not identify with him, reading it at that age, when I was admittedly a bit precocious and full of myself as well). Reading it now, though, Johnny was “just” a character – but a very good one and one that I will always remember fondly.

My blogging friend and former fellow-founder of a book club, Dale, has also just reread Johnny Tremain and posted about it on his blog, Mirror With Clouds. What about you? Have you, as an adult, revisited a childhood favorite book? What were your reactions?