A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What 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.
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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.
Talk to your kids 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.
- 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
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 9 - 11
- Number of pages: 76
- Available on: Paperback, Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
- Award: Newbery Medal and Honors
- Last updated: June 4, 2020
Our editors recommend
For kids who love family stories and books with strong female characters
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