J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Johnny Tremain’s Path to Publication

Last month I had the pleasure of meeting Neil L. York, professor of history at Brigham Young University. He kindly sent me a copy of his 2008 Early American Studies paper, “Son of Liberty: Johnny Tremain and the Art of Making American Patriots.” Which gave me material for my second installment of back-to-school season commentary about books for young readers.

I think Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain is a very good American “novel for old & young,” as its title page describes it. It deserves its place in the culture (though the Disney version, which York’s article also discusses, is an all-too-typical “Disney version”). Forbes’s historical picture of Boston in the early 1770s isn’t flawless, but it’s very good. She drew on the research for her 1942 biography, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, which won a Pulitzer Prize.

I’ve long said that Johnny Tremain reflects the values of America during World War 2, and York confirms that was in fact Forbes’s vision. She called the book “my great war effort,” and hoped to see it published quickly, by the end of 1942. Since she finished her manuscript only that summer, that would have been a fast turnaround, but the book business was smaller and thus more agile in those days.

Publication didn’t proceed according to Forbes’s plan, however. She sent the manuscript to Harcourt Brace, publisher of her past novels. And the editor there, Elisabeth Hamilton, suggested changes to “simplify the prose for a juvenile audience,” in York’s words. Hamilton recommended deleting one scene, adding another, and making “not-so-subtle shifts in character and plot development.”

Forbes felt she and Hamilton didn’t share a common vision, so she took Johnny Tremain to her nonfiction editor at Houghton Mifflin, Ferris Greenslet. He advised expanding the book, but didn’t push. Forbes chose not to revise further, and Houghton had copies on the market in the spring of 1943.

It was a good deal all around. Johnny Tremain won the Newbery Medal in early 1944, and was soon a staple of school libraries and classrooms. Houghton continues to enjoy good sales each year. Forbes received steady royalties, which now benefit the American Antiquarian Society, where she and her mother did much of the research.

In between the two publishing houses, however, Forbes actually took some of Hamilton’s advice and edited her manuscript. Only five pages of that early version has survived, so we don’t know how much changed between that and the final text. But York reports that Forbes took out one complete scene, still preserved among her papers.

TOMORROW: Johnny Tremain’s deleted scene.


Anonymous said...

Hi John,
"Johnny Tremain" is one of my childhood favorites--because of the sense of place. I'm enjoying your children's book discussion here. Linda G. in Toronto

DAG said...

I was not aware that Esther Forbes had written "Johnny Tremain" although I must admit that has a child I loved the Disney version. In fact I could say it helped give me a hankering for history.

I have read Ms. Forbes "Paul Revere and the world he lived in" and enjoyed it. I had felt that it read more like a novel and had wondered about it's accuracy.

Nice post, love this blog.

J. L. Bell said...

Linda! I recall you grew up here in Johnny Tremain territory, but I wonder how the novel speaks (if at all) to kids from other countries.

York’s article notes that the book was published in Britain during World War 2, even though Johnny and his friends are fighting the British government. I think in that regard it’s significant that the book presents several British individuals—especially the luckless soldier Pumpkin—as sympathetic, and that Johnny is also part French. All the western Allies together!

Is there an equivalent to Johnny Tremain in other nations?

J. L. Bell said...

Few writers, if any, have matched Forbes’s back-to-back Pulitzer and Newbery winners, DAG. Wouldn’t mind having her career at all.

pilgrimchick said...

This actually was very enlightening for me--like many former grade-school students, I read Johnny Tremain, and it was a fabulous read. However, I didn't know very much about the author or how when it was written affected the plot and the tone of the story.

Kim said...

A favorite book as a child and the first book I read to my children when they were in 5th grade. When we visited Boston, I paid far too much for a tour just because it was called the "Johnny Tremain" tour. Thank you for some of the back story to the book.

Carl said...

The book was graet. I'm doing it for a book report.