The Journal of William Thomas Emerson Discussion Guide
- Grades: 3–5
To the Discussion Leader
For his third book in the Dear America series, Barry Denenberg offers readers a view of the American Revolution as seen through the journal entries of twelve-year-old William Thomas Emerson. Denenberg writes, "The American Revolution, more than any event in American history, has been presented to young readers as an abstract, artificial, distant, and disembodied occurrence involving old men who wore funny clothes and later became statues and oil paintings."
Through Will's journal, youngsters get an insider's look at events in the city of Boston in 1774 that eventually led to the Revolutionary War. While you won't find Sam Adams, John Hancock, and the other commonly studied high-profile heroes of the American Revolution, you will meet quiet heroes — ordinary people who exhibit extraordinary courage and patriotism. Will's story is one of intrigue, filled with clandestine meetings, messages written in secret code, and snares baited to capture traitors.
When Will watches a best friend die from a beating given by British soldiers, readers can put a human face on the war. Will's sadness is mixed with anger and bravery as he fights for his life when confronted by a British lobsterback. The Journal of William Thomas Emerson is a portrait of the building anger against the British felt by the common folks in the city of Boston.
On an early summer morning in 1774, Will Emerson, who is running away from his abusive foster parents, awakens to see a dusty-faced stranger who has discovered his roadside bed. After hearing the boy's story, Mr. John Wilson, who is a writer and organizer of the revolutionary cause, invites will to accompany him into Boston. From that day forward, Will lives and works at the Seven Stars Tavern, eventually even risking his life for Mr. Wilson's patriotic cause.
Much is happening during the summer of 1774 in Boston. Will runs errands, takes inventory, babysits, and gradually earns the trust of the adults as well as his new teenaged friends. Through listening to the tavern talk and closely observing Mr. Wilson, Will begins to grasp the importance of the colonial cause. One day, Mr. Wilson tells Will that he's "a boy who could be counted on in a pinch," and asks Will to carry out a dangerous assignment: "Tomorrow night I am to help a British soldier desert." The soldier's words, spoken as Will escorts him through Boston's dark alleys, influence Will's attitude and life: "The most important decision a man can make in his whole life is what he is willing to die for."
From that moment on, Will becomes an active spy for the colonial patriots. Early in spring, 1775, Mr. Wilson asks Will to ride out of Boston, under the cover of darkness, to "observe everything you can" at a meeting between a traitor and British leaders. As the British raise their glasses to toast the traitor, Will hears a sound. "It was not animal, that was certain, it was too large...and he was coming toward me."
During the year that Will's journal records, colonial Boston and its citizens suffer indignities and hardships at the hands of the British lobsterbacks. With each confrontation, hostility and the potential for armed conflict increase. Through Will's writing we obtain an insider's perspective on the sacrifices patriotic colonials made so that others could live in freedom. These are the everyday stories of ordinary citizens — the heroes history has ignored.
Thinking About the Book
- In which scene do you think Will shows the most bravery?
- Why did Will's friend Henry come to America? Why is he apprenticed to Mr. Armstrong for six years?
- Why do you think Barry Denenberg focused on the actions of regular people and not the heroes of the American Revolution we read about in textbooks?
- One of the strongest editorials Mr. Wilson writes is about Henry Moody's death (p. 113). Is it a fitting remembrance of Henry, or is it a political statement? What is the reason for the three pictures-crown, skull and crossbones, and bag of coins-he uses as a border at the top of the article?
- Discuss your interpretation of these curious words and phrases that appear in Will's journal:
Viper (British ship in Boston harbor)
"The sands of time are running out."
"They're not a bunch of rebels, they're just a bunch of rabble."
"Now there is blood on their Brutish British hands."
"Blood has been shed and for it blood must atone."
"New England is a powder keg. One spark and it will explode."
- Discuss the incident between Will and the British soldier outside Mr. Dudley's house. Why did Will react the way he did? Was he right or wrong?
- Read the author interview for this book. How would you answer Mr. Denenberg's question about staying with Mrs. Thompson or going with Mr. Wilson?
- What is one thing you learned about the American Revolution that you didn't know before reading The Journal of William Thomas Emerson?
- William Thomas Emerson begins his journal by telling the story of his family's tragic accident with the lightning. Write an opening for an imaginary journal that will hook your reader's sympathy and curiosity like Will's writing does.
- Many students find that the decade before the Revolutionary War is very confusing because of all the legislative acts passed by the British Parliament. Make a time line of the events that led up to the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Visit the Library of Congress Time Line: America During the Age of the Revolution 1764-1775.
- Will shares many newspaper articles and pamphlets in his journal, some written by Mr. Wilson or other colonists and some written by the British and their supporters. Working in small groups, choose current issues that you consider important. Write newspaper articles, letters to the editor, pamphlets, or broadsides (posters) taking both sides of the issues. Use the examples in Will's journal as models. Try to use inflammatory language like the authors did in 1774.
- Will's journal mentions messages written in secret codes. Invent a code of your own. Pretend you are Will writing a secret note to Mr. Wilson. Share your note with the class and see if they can crack your code and figure out the secret message.
- In your discussion group, brainstorm reasons why the American colonists wanted to break free from England. What are some of the things the British did to anger the Americans? Which one of these things would have bothered you the most?
- How would this story have been different if Will had been a girl instead of a boy?
- In the fall of 1774, Will asks Mr. Wilson's advice "for someone who wanted to be a fine writer like him." The answer is quite brief: "Never use two words when one will do." What one word do you think best describes William Thomas Emerson? Explain.
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.