Fever, 1793 is a historical fiction novel that allows for collaboration with science and history classes. When teaching this novel, teachers should explain the historical context of Philadelphia during the late 1700s. The author's well-researched depiction provides a realistic account of what it would have been like to live through the fever epidemic in Philadelphia. The novel also discusses previously used medical practices, the Free African Society, and other topics that could be better understood with historical context.

This novel deals with the themes of mortality, family, and overcoming hardships. While these issues may be tough for a young reader to encounter, the author makes them relatable through Mattie. The novel will prompt students to question how they would react in a time of crisis. It may also be beneficial to take a look at public health crises facing the world today. Discussing HIV/AIDs, Ebola, COVID, and Influenza, among others, will make the novel seem more relevant and also give the students a chance to compare medical practices and reactions to crises of different time periods.


Key Facts:

  • Length: 256 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 580
  • Publication Date: 2000
  • Recommended Grade Band: 6 – 8

Fourteen-year-old Matilda Cook lives above a coffeehouse in Philadelphia with her widowed mother and grandfather, spending her days avoiding chores and dreaming up plans for the future of their small business. Then, fever strikes in the bustling capitol, killing her best friend Polly. Residents begin to seek refuge in the country, leaving the disease-ridden city for fresh air and open spaces. After her mother is touched by the fever, Mattie and her grandfather head to the country, only to realize that the fever has spread outside the city limits. As the story unfolds, Mattie returns and is forced to grow up as she finds herself alone, fighting to stay safe and make a home in the city that was once known for its brotherly love.

Your students will love:

  • The easily understandable and current language
  • Relating to Mattie's stubborn, spirited character
  • The vivid descriptions of Philadelphia in its heyday

Students may have problems with:

  • Descriptions of symptoms of yellow fever and death
  • Some sparsely developed characters
  • Occasional use of eighteenth-century phrases

Objectives for Teaching Fever, 1793

  • Identify and discuss the themes in the novel.
  • Learn about the historical context of Philadelphia during the 1700s.
  • Describe the growth of Mattie's character.
  • Identify the meaning of the symbols used throughout the novel.
  • Compare the medical techniques from the story to those used today.
  • Discuss how having access to Mattie's thoughts and feelings enhances the story.
  • Analyze Mattie's relationship with her mother and how it changes throughout the novel.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Allegory
  • Imagery
  • Metaphor
  • Symbolism
  • Tone

Themes and Motifs

Overcoming Hardships — Mattie deals with physical and mental losses of all kinds. She watches family members suffer and die and emotionally and physically suffers herself. She must learn to get through these hardships by creating and maintaining new ways of achieving happiness, helping others that are sick or poor.

Related Works:

Mortality — Although death does play a major role in the novel, it is repetitively followed by something brighter —new life. Rebirth is shown through many aspects in the story, from Mattie and Grandfather's garden to the finding of Nell after the death of Grandfather.

Related Works:

Family — The book shows both losing and learning to appreciate family. As Mattie struggles with the loss of her family members, she begins to create her own circle of family through her friendships with Nell, Nathaniel, Eliza, and other characters. As Mattie becomes more responsible, she also learns to respect and care for her mother.

Related Works:


  • American Library Association (ALA) Best Books for Young Adults
  • A Junior Library Guild selection
  • Parent's Guide to Children's Media Award
  • Children's Book-of-the-Moth selection
  • "Pick of the Lists," American Booksellers Association
  • 100 Best Books of Fall, New York Public Library
  • ALA Edwards Award (2009)

External Resources

More Teacher's Guides to Literature:

See all our Teacher's Guides to Literature here.