Sarah, Plain and Tall

Common Sense Media says

Warm family story of children's wish for a mother.




Newbery Medal and Honors

What parents need to know

Educational value

Readers of this classic short novel will learn about farm life in the midwestern United States during the 19th century, including transportation, diet, gender roles, and child rearing. They'll also encounter differences between the landscape of the American prairie and the east coast.

Positive messages

There's always something to miss, but family makes a home.

Positive role models

Sarah sets an example of independence and self-sufficiency (within the confines of 19th-century gender roles) when she wants to be able to transport herself to town alone and insists on helping repair the leaky roof. She also models kindness to all creatures with her love of the animals and children. The character sends another subtle message: that a woman's goodness and worthiness of love and family don't hinge on physical beauty.


A mother has died after childbirth. A lamb dies, and Sarah shoos the turkey buzzards away before they can eat it.


Sarah and Jacob display mild physical affection, including one kiss, and once Jacob puts his arm around her.

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Drinking, drugs, & smoking
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Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that Patricia MacLachlan's Newbery Medal-winning novel Sarah, Plain and Tall -- set in the rural midwestern prairie during the 19th century -- is the simple story of a widower called Jacob; his children, Anna and Caleb; and Sarah, the woman from Maine who answers Jacob's newspaper ad for a wife. After letters are exchanged between father, children, and Sarah, Sarah journeys from the east coast to their farm to get to know them and decide whether she'll marry Jacob and join the family. The story highlights everyday life on a farm, the children's growing attachment to Sarah, and their wariness that she will find their home too small or too big a change and decide to return to Maine. There's very mild violence in the story itself (a lamb dies), though readers learn that the children's mother died before the book begins. The main source of tension is the children's yearning for a mother and their uncertainty about whether Sarah will choose to stay.

What's the story?

SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL is the story of a lonely family -- widower Jacob and his children, Anna and Caleb -- and Sarah, the east coast woman who answers Jacob's newspaper advertisement for a wife. Jacob informs his children that he's been corresponding with Sarah, who lives in a coastal town in Maine. The children then exchange letters with Sarah, too, asking questions about life by the sea, as well as about the qualities they hope to find in a new mother. They want to know if she can cook stew, bake bread, and braid hair, and they hope she likes small rooms. The children clearly want Sarah, even before she makes her way west. She tells them they'll know her because she wears a yellow bonnet, and she is plain and tall. Sarah's strong qualities are revealed slowly in this gentle story: She loves animals, likes to draw, and can also be quite fun-loving. She's independent and knows things not all women know, such as how to fix a roof. She wants to learn to drive the wagon so she can get to town on her own. This worries the children, who hope she doesn't miss Maine so much that she'll drive away and not return.

Is it any good?


Sarah, Plain and Tall showcases author Patricia MacLachlan's immense talents. She portrays family life in such simple language and heartwarming scenes, readers almost don't realize the depth of feeling that's building -- until we do. Anna and Caleb's longing for a mother is below the surface of every question they ask and every move they make, as they get to know Sarah and wonder what she will decide.

This is a beautiful and meaningful story for kids who enjoy family-centered books. It also can be a great read-aloud to share even with kids who prefer more action-packed fiction; sometimes kids need to be led a bit to perceive the impact of a book that seems this quiet.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about 19th-century women's roles. How does Sarah challenge her new family's expectations about women's jobs and skills?

  • Many of Patricia MacLachlan's books are heartwarming family portraits that have some worrisome situations. What are Caleb and Anna worried about?

  • When Sarah draws a picture of her seaside home for Caleb and Anna, they talk about the colors of water. Try drawing your own picture of the ocean.

Book details

Author:Patricia MacLachlan
Genre:Family Life
Topics:Brothers and sisters, History, Horses and farm animals
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:January 1, 1985
Number of pages:76
Publisher's recommended age(s):9 - 11
Read aloud:8 - 12
Read alone:9 - 12
Available on:Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle, Nook, Paperback
Award:Newbery Medal and Honors

This review of Sarah, Plain and Tall was written by

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  • ON: Content is age-appropriate for kids this age.
  • PAUSE: Know your child; some content may not be right for some kids.
  • OFF: Not age-appropriate for kids this age.
  • NOT FOR KIDS: Not appropriate for kids of any age.

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Learning ratings

  • Best: Really engaging, great learning approach.
  • Very Good: Engaging, good learning approach.
  • Good: Pretty engaging, good learning approach.
  • Fair: Somewhat engaging, okay learning approach.
  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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