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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 May 2007, 10:08 GMT 11:08 UK
Is Tom Sawyer still a top read?
By Jenny Percival
BBC News

1952 BBC production
From left, Tom Sawyer, Jim the runaway slave and Huckleberry Finn
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was Education Secretary Alan Johnson's favourite book at the age of 11. And it's on a list of the top 160 books for teenage boys. But is Mark Twain's tale relevant today?

Tom Sawyer is an orphan who gets into scrapes with his friend Huckleberry Finn. In one adventure he is given up for dead and watches his own funeral, in another he witnesses a murder. It's a classic adventure tale about a loveable young rogue.

But even fans of the book, written in 1876, admit that the language is a bit archaic. Then there's the book's setting - Mississippi at a time when the slave trade blighted the southern United States.

Education secretary Alan Johnson got hooked on books after reading Tom Sawyer.
Tom Sawyer evokes the free spirit of childhood, which is why it has such an enduring appeal
Alan Johnson's spokesman
Like Mr Johnson, children's author GP Taylor - the author of Shadowmancer and Worwood - grew up in a council house with no books. But Tom Sawyer is one of his least favourite books.

"It's not really where kids are at today. It uses very dry language and isn't the sort of book to recommend if you're trying to encourage boys to read more."

The former vicar, who visits hundreds of schools every year to promote reading, says his own work was left off the list because of its religious content - the best-selling books are based on morality tales.

Objectionable language

Mr Taylor objects to Tom Sawyer because it uses the word "nigger" to refer to black people.

Mark Twain
Written in 1876 by Mark Twain (above)
Tom's an orphan who lives with Aunt Polly
Tricks his friends into painting a fence for him
Plays pirates with Huck Finn
He's a minor character in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Some versions cut out smoking and slavery references
Injun Joe is Tom's villain
"It's a racist book, I wouldn't have it on a bookshelf of mine. It should only be read under supervision so that children can understand the culture and history of America at that time, otherwise when they come to the n-word they may think that because it's in a recommended book they can use it."

A spokesman for Mr Johnson says the book has to be read in context.

"Of course the language of the book is a product of its time. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer evokes the free spirit of childhood, which is why it has such an enduring appeal."

Marcella Edwards, senior commissioning editor for Penguin Classics, the publishers of Tom Sawyer, says Twain's opposition to racism is shown through Tom's friendship with Jim, a black man.

"It would have been unheard of for a white boy to have a black friend, and to have an adult black friend would have been considered odd beyond belief. It shows you can subvert expectations and get away with it."

Ms Edwards concedes that it's not an easy read, with its "archaic" language and complex political backdrop, but adds that it's accessible and relevant.

"It's a pacy, well-written story of daring-do. Boys will respond to it because it's sheer escapism and a bloody good read. It's fantastic because there's this child who has mad adventures, yet comes to no harm. It shows you that the sky's the limit and you can do what you want to do."

Yucky stuff

The acid test is whether boys themselves will pick up classics like Tom Sawyer.

Harry Potter book cover, Bloomsbury
Harry Potter's not on the list
Thomas Clark, 10, of Leeds, likes the idea of reading a book about his namesake.

His current favourites are by the modern authors Darren Shan and Francesca Simon, the creator of Horrid Henry. "They're exciting and the people in them have adventures and do horrible things. It's better to pick your own books than have a list."

Isaac Brightmore, 13, of Daventry, says he does not read as much as he used to and instead spends his time "playing with friends, on the computer and studying for exams".

He says he would be more encouraged to read Tom Sawyer if he saw a film version first (he's currently reading a book version of Pirates of the Caribbean).

"I've heard of Tom Sawyer, it would probably appeal to boys that find adventure stories exciting. But for those that are more interested in the latest cars, I'm not so sure."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Why does reading always have to be about "where kids are today" so they can relate to the book. The fun of reading is the imagination and thought process required to imagine the scene, the characters and trying to be there. I read to escape into history or another place - Tom sawyer is just such a book, you can almost smell the fence paint...
Penny, Bexhill

I absolutely loved Tom Sawyer when I was a girl. I'm 39 now and will definitely be reading it to my two sons - the "complex political backdrop" is exactly why it is relevant today - this is our history, we can not rewrite it, we can only learn from it.
Sue Rensch, Crowborough, England

Amidst worrying about whether or not Tom Sawyer is racist, has anyone thought that the whole concept of books for boys is sexist? My 10-year-old daughter is as likely to read science fiction or spy adventures as she is to read about princesses or ponies.
Megan, Cheshire, UK

If GP Taylor would not have a copy on his bookshelf because of what he sees as its racist nature then he excludes himself from most adventure literature published before 1980. Robinson Crusoe, Biggles and even James Bond all have references that were acceptable then but not now.
Mark, Liverpool, UK

The Tom Sawyer I remember saved someone from an ethnic minority from hanging.
Ian Baldwin, Hingham, England

I have recently taken great pleasure in re-visiting, and reading, Enid Blyton's Secret Seven to my son. He enjoys the stories, and always looks forward to the next chapter. However, he prefers to watch films than read, and in this day and age, it's a shame that young people don't use their imagination more to picture how a scene from a book might look. I did this with Harry Potter, and was amazed that my imagination was re-created so closely when the films were released.
Julian, Manchester

Most early years teachers are female, choosing books for boys. How well do you think that will work? Note the emphasis on sending social/religious messages, and still they wonder why boys find the books available to them dull. Saying to a 13-year-old boy "read this book, it will make you more acceptable to vicars and teachers" and you won't get far. Boys don't want books that are much the same as those for girls with the gender changed. My boys like pirates and Thunderbirds, maybe Captain Scarlet. Robots, preferably evil ones, are always welcome.
Dominic Connor, London

Tom Sawyer is a wonderfully funny book. I am a woman who grew up in the South, I am also a woman of colour. I was a young girl when I first read Tom Sawyer, I remember laughing until tears ran down my cheeks - the language used is all in context. Tom Sawyer is a book I would reread, it is a book that I have recommended to my kids. Do not under-estimate the capacity of a child to understand and come away from a good story, no matter how archaic the language, with a true understanding of the story.
Sabrina, Abilene, Texas, US

I would much prefer a child of mine read Tom Sawyer than spend endless hours on a Playstation that instils multitudes of complete rubbish into children's minds. The words used and the setting are part of history. Lets install the sense of adventure back into our kids with these treasured books of our childhood. I simply loved the book and its like, and even the beloved Robinson Crusoe with his Man Friday didn't turn me into a racist.
Gordon Grubb, Bridgnorth, Shropshire

To say that Tom Sawyer is racist is like saying To Kill a Mockingbird is racist. The statement "It should only be read under supervision so that children can understand the culture and history of America at that time" contrasts sharply with this author-turned-vicar claiming his own work was left of the list because of its religious content. I would consider his religious propaganda far more poisonous to the minds of children. I wonder if his real objection stems from the fact that Mark Twain's writings are overtly critical of religion?
Franchesca Mullin, Belfast, NI

There's always someone who looks for "issues" in novels. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are all-time favourites of mine. I just read the stories and enjoy them for what they are - STORIES.
Margaret, Pontypridd UK

"Some versions cut out smoking and slavery references" - this is censorship at its worst. It's a good book.
Jenny, Oxford, England

The adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain was my favourite book as a child. On Friday afternoons ay my Junior school in 1964 our class room teacher used to read a book to us kids before we went home for the weekend. After hearing the story I talked about it that much that my parents bought me a copy for Christmas.
John Appleyard, Liversedge, West Yorkshire

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