Native Son

Book review by
Terreece Clarke, Common Sense Media
Native Son Book Poster Image
Gritty novel of violence and race best for older teens.

Parents say

age 17+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 17+
Based on 5 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

This book provides important historical context for issues of race and poverty in the United States, and shows how societal institutions, pressures, and isolation can lead to the mental, emotional, and moral breakdown of individuals who find themselves feeling trapped in a no-win situation and without hope. Bigger Thomas is a striking example of what can happen when fear that comes from isolation and oppression meets rage and desperation -- and how many lives can be destroyed as a result.

Positive Messages

The ultimate message is that people, when they are not isolated from one another, experience each others' cultures in a positive way. The common ground we find creates a stronger society, better relationships, and conditions for us all. The worst thing we can do as a society is set people apart from one another and create an environment of fear, mistrust, oppression, and inequality -- as we see in how the character of Bigger Thomas develops and behaves for most of the book.

Positive Role Models & Representations

This book is full of flawed characters who have good qualities, but there aren't many strong role models. Jan, Mary Dalton's boyfriend, and his friend Boris Max, who defends Bigger in court, are the best role models the story has to offer before Bigger's own transformation.


There is quite a bit of violence, both intentional and accidental, including instances of bullying, fighting, and the use of guns and knives. There is also a description of a rape, an accidental killing (which looks like a murder) followed by the burning of a body and a premeditated, somewhat gruesome, bloody murder and callous disposal of another victim's body. 


There are several consensual sexual acts and encounters in this book, as well as a rape. Kissing, groping, and other sexual touching, public masturbation, and sex between characters are all mentioned at various points during the story. The descriptions are never particularly graphic but do describe touching of body parts and emotional descriptions of the characters.


Though maybe not as frequent or strong as many contemporary works of literature, this book does contain cursing ("sonofabitch," "goddammit," "damn," "hell," "bastard"), provocative sexual innuendo as well as racially insensitive language (the "N" word).

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Characters smoke and drink alcohol, at times heavily. There are several depictions of drunkenness and its correlation to sexual acts, killings, and murders.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this book, a literary classic, takes place in a racially divided, violent, and sometimes sexually explicit setting. The power of this book lies in its gritty, straightforward,  and controversial depiction of the results of institutionalized racism and bigotry in the United States. There is racially charged language, two murders, a rape, other sexual activity, and capital punishment.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written bynytylie July 3, 2020

Incredible book

I read this my senior year for my summer reading assignment in AP Literature and I have to say it changed my life. I’m now a junior in college and it’s still by... Continue reading
Teen, 17 years old Written byakrause January 8, 2019

A Book about Blacks Written for Whites

This book features a flat, one dimensional character that the author attempts to use as a metaphor for the black community in the early 1900's. He succeede... Continue reading
Teen, 16 years old Written bykellie_116 August 24, 2016


This book is required summer reading for my English III AP class (11th graders, ages 15-17), and I found it really disturbing. It includes fairly graphic descri... Continue reading

What's the story?

Bigger Thomas is a 20-year-old man living in the 1930s on the very poor South Side of Chicago with his mother, brother, and sister. He has no job and makes money with a few of his friends by robbing and stealing, living the life of a petty thug and a bully. Bigger's whole life is characterized by feelings of fear, dread, and isolation. He hides his fear by being the biggest, baddest bully. His life takes a turn when he gets a job working as a driver for a very rich man, Mr. Dalton. After leaving the ghetto and moving into the white world, Bigger's greatest fears and insecurities begin to manifest with alarming speed. After a terrible accident involving Mr. Dalton's daughter, Bigger finds himself in the same position as a large rat he once killed in his family's tiny apartment -- trapped, desperate, and looking for a way out, no matter who he has to hurt. Will Bigger find freedom, or will his story end the way society has taught him to believe it will?

Is it any good?

NATIVE SON, Richard Wright's classic novel of tragedy and violence, is intense. Wright is masterful in taking readers into Bigger's mind and explaining the processes that shape his behavior, emotional state, and decision-making process. Readers will be confronted with several uncomfortable and tragic issues, not the least of which is wondering whether the world is still anything like the one Bigger endures in the book.

This is a great read for anyone wanting to delve into the societal and psychological consequences of oppression, segregation, and poverty -- historically and today. It is definitely not suitable for younger children, and parents should be prepared to discuss the tough questions and situations in the novel.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about other "isms" -- sexism, ageism, religious intolerance, etc. and how they affect people. Can you give examples of sexism, etc.? Have you ever felt as if people were judging you based on your age, gender, religion, or race? How did it make you feel? Did it change the way you see and treat people different from you?

  • Native Son is considered a classic of American literature, and is often required reading in high school. Why do you think it is?

  • Families can also talk about the effects of isolation and the fear. Have you ever felt alone and thought no one would understand how you felt? Do you ever put on an angry face when you are really just sad and lonely?

  • There is a continuing debate over capital punishment, and recent high-profile cases of wrongful convictions have added fuel to the fire. Should communities be allowed to decide who lives or dies?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love learning about African-American experience

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