The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Book review by
Barbara Schultz, Common Sense Media
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Book Poster Image
Twain's classic has humor, suspense, language issue.

Parents say

age 11+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 11+
Based on 18 reviews

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Teaches readers what life was like for White youngsters growing up in a small town on the Mississippi River during the mid-19th century, pre-Civil War era. Twain provides a vivid portrait of family life, school subjects, religious school, transportation, food, clothing, and attitudes that were prevalent at that time.

Positive Messages

Although this book is sometimes avoided -- even banned -- because of its racist language, it also offers life lessons. Tom is a rascal with a conscience and a loving heart. Twain teaches readers that many times children's careless antics are natural; a child can misbehave and still be "good" inside. The book also shows young readers that thoughtless actions have consequences, such as Aunt Polly's despair when Tom and his friends go "pirating."

Positive Role Models & Representations

Tom's guardian, Aunt Polly, loves Tom and treats him the same way she treats her own children, despite his antics. Much of Tom's behavior makes him more real than role model, but when his conscience overrules his understandable fear of Injun Joe, he sets a very good and brave example.


Not terribly violent by teen standards, but parents should be mindful of sensitivities of younger children. A knife murder takes place in view of two kids in the book, and a menacing villain talks graphically about cutting up face and ears of an older woman to exact revenge on her late husband.


Young Tom Sawyer (probably 11 or 12, but Mark Twain does not tell his age) flirts with girls and kisses the girl he likes best, Becky Thatcher.


No curse words, but offensive racist language, including the "N" word, which is used 10 times. Native Americans are also portrayed in a derogatory way. Not only is the villain called "Injun Joe," the author attributes Joe's ruthlessness to his race. And Tom uses the word "injun" in other ways, such as "honest injun" and "injun-meal" (referring to corn).

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Injun Joe and Muff Potter drink whiskey to excess -- enough to cause them to pass out. We don't see Huckleberry Finn's father, but readers are told that Huck is neglected and ill-behaved because he is "the son of the town drunkard." Huck smokes and teaches his friends Tom Sawyer and Joe Harper to smoke a pipe.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is one of this great American author's best-loved novels. First published in 1876, it portrays childhood during the pre-Civil War 1840s in an affectionate but realistic way; Twain's characters are full of wild ideas and antics that sometimes get them into trouble. Tom Sawyer is often avoided, and has at times been banned from schools, because of the characters' use of the "N" word (which appears 10 times, often said by Tom and Huck) and the derogatory portrayal of Native Americans, especially in the form of the dangerous villain named Injun Joe. The novel is extremely enjoyable, full of humor and suspense, if readers can accept that its racist depiction of people of color is more a function of the characters' views than the author's.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Parent of a 10-year-old Written bySonofKatieElder January 31, 2013

Boys Getting into Trouble, Surely Not!!

This is a classic adventure book. If you are a parent, especially with boys, you know the mischief they can get up to. Times havent changed all that much.

Ma... Continue reading
Teen, 15 years old Written byaditikothari May 17, 2016
Teen, 13 years old Written byVolkswagon20 April 13, 2020

People are confused.

Tom Swayer is a great book! Don't listen to what everyone else is saying! I think the problem here is that the book Huckleberry Fin is not a good book and... Continue reading

What's the story?

Mark Twain's classic novel THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER takes place in fictional St. Petersburg (a town on the Mississippi that is patterned after Twain's hometown of Hannibal, Missouri), where Tom lives with his Aunt Polly and cousins Sid and Mary. A mischievous, imaginative boy of about 11, Tom is often on the wrong side of the rules at school and at home. Late one night, Tom sneaks out with his friend Huckleberry Finn, and the two witness a violent crime. Afraid for their own safety, Tom and Huck promise each other to keep the night a secret, and Tom carries on his usual activities: playing pirates with his friends, flirting with the pretty Becky Thatcher, and worrying his Aunt Polly. But Tom and Huck soon find themselves in serious trouble, because they can't ignore their consciences, or the fact that the criminal has some treasure they can't resist.

Is it any good?

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has stood the test of time because Twain's perceptive and humorous portrayal of young boys is so perfect and so universal. Twain's sardonic wit keeps the proceedings from ever seeming precious or teachy; Tom is a realistic character who could exist in any time, and his story is full of engaging slapstick and suspense. Tom Sawyer may offend readers because of the author's use of bigoted language, including the "N" word. But as with Twain's masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, readers should keep an open mind to understanding the difference between the worldview of the author and that of his characters.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the racist language in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Do you think books with bigoted language should be read in schools? Why or why not?

  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was written in the 1870s. What aspects of the book seem "historical" to you, and what seems like it could happen in any time?

  • To gain further insight into Mark Twain's views on race and slavery, read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

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