A Prayer for Owen Meany

Common Sense Media says

Affecting, darkly comic novel has heavy, mature themes.





What parents need to know

Educational value

Kids can learn about Protestant Christianity. They can also get a sense of American history and politics from the 1950s through '80s, particularly during the Vietnam War and the Reagan Administration.

Positive messages

Friendship and faith are the constant themes, with many positive messages about loyalty, family, faith, and forgiveness woven throughout the book. Strong enduring friendships, selfless acts of courage, and characters standing up for their convictions are among the positive takeaways.

Positive role models

While every character in the novel's flawed in some way, there's also much to admire in many of them -- especially Owen Meany. He's a magnetic and angelic character whose impressive intellect, courage, loyalty, self-discipline, and kindness are wonderful attributes for kids to aspire to. However, he's not perfect; he vandalizes property, manipulates others, and smokes cigarettes. Kids shouldn't take his character too literally. John's stepfather, Dan Needham, is an incredibly strong character and great role model. He proves to be a terrific teacher, supportive father, and resilient friend.


Causalities and traumas of the Vietnam War, an accidental death caused by a fly baseball, a chopped finger (intentionally dismembered to avoid the draft), and fights and bullying among siblings are all here. There's also a traumatic scene involving a bomb and children, during which a main character dies.


John was born of an illicit love affair and much of the book is spent trying to find out who his father is; his mother calls him her "little fling." Breasts are a topic of discussion from early on, those of John's mother and also bawdy parishioner Barb Wiggins, who runs the Christmas pageant. As Owen and John become teenagers, they share many candid conversations about sex as they become sexually active (with varying degrees of success). And while the descriptions of sex aren't explicit, there's a lot of tempestuous behavior and plenty of talk about it. Hester's regarded as sexually promiscuous; one of her (many) divulged exploits was with a much older man. She and Owen end up having a romantic, sexual relationship.


All the big ones are in here -- "f--k," "s--t," "damn," "hell," "ass," "bitch," "goddam" are strewn liberally throughout the book.

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Owen and John smoke cigarettes and drink to get drunk on several occasions. Many of the adult characters drink and smoke. Hester becomes known for her bawdy drunk behavior and gets drunk enough to throw up (in the grandmother's rose garden) every New Year's Eve.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that A Prayer for Owen Meany, American novelist John Irving's seventh novel, is about two childhood friends whose lives intersect with class, war, family, and faith. There are lots of mature themes in this darkly comedic read, particularly about politics, war, and religion, and there is some candid sex talk. There's drinking and smoking, sometimes to excess, destruction of property, causalities of war, and class issues. Though it's dense and challenging at times, A Prayer for Owen Meany is also a deeply affecting story with unforgettable characters and thought-provoking themes.

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Kids say

What's the story?

John Wheelwright and Owen Meany are best friends growing up in smalltown New Hampshire. As a Wheelwright, John was born into the town's elite, with all the entitlements that come with a prestigious name and notable ancestors. Owen's the only son of distant, financially strapped parents in the granite quarry business. But despite his diminutive size and "wrecked" voice, Owen's magnetism, brilliance, and self-assurance make him stand out as something truly special. As John and Owen move through life together, facing death and tragedy, controversy and spirituality, Owen has a deep impact on everyone he meets. And as he grapples with his faith while challenging the conventions of church, school, and country, his fate becomes clear -- and he refuses to turn his back on it.

Is it any good?


 A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY is a dense and darkly comedic novel that has heavy themes and explores serious issues. But it's also incredibly affecting and relatable. The characters are brilliantly crafted and the dialogue is so rich that it's easy to get swept into the story and feel every plot twist and downturn along the way. Irving's ability to lace heavy subject matter -- like war, religion, and tragedy -- into the tribulations of endearing and flawed characters makes for truly a distinctive story.

A Prayer for Owen Meany is an emotional investment, but it's satisfying from start-to-finish. It's ludicrous and heartbreaking, hilarious and horrifying -- and ultimately unforgettable.


Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the character of Owen Meany. Why do you think the author created a character with such distinctive physical characteristics? Why does he consider himself "God's instrument"?

  • Talk about the meaning of faith. What's the difference between faith and religion?

  • Talk to kids about the Vietnam War and the turbulent anit-war movement. Do you think John and Owen were right to take extreme measures to avoid the draft?

Book details

Author:John Irving
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:William Morrow
Publication date:March 1, 1989
Number of pages:640
Available on:Paperback, Nook, Hardback, iBooks, Kindle

This review of A Prayer for Owen Meany was written by

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Teen, 14 years old Written byABOAD June 20, 2015

Unique and unforgettable

There's a hell of a lot of things that parents don't like their children to read, which basically means that this is a book that discusses things all teens or young adults know or will know; however, I'd say it approaches them with neither exaggerated caution nor forced acceptance. This book is a really phenomenal way to make someone think without putting them into an unfamiliar setting.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models


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