How to Teach The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Mark Twain's 1876 classic, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer tells the story of a young boy growing up in St. Petersburg, Missouri—a fictional town that parallels the author's childhood home of Hannibal, Missouri. In the novel's preface, Twain tells the reader that many of the events that transpire "really occurred" and that Tom Sawyer is a composite character developed from the personalities of three boys he knew in his youth.

Like much of Twain's earlier work, Tom Sawyer contains elements of satire, but ultimately seeks to portray Tom's idyllic, carefree childhood.

When teaching this novel, be sure to provide students with an introduction to the life and work of Mark Twain. Understanding the author's past will help readers understand this particular novel more clearly

It is also important to promote classroom discussion about St. Petersburg's xenophobic attitude towards "Injun Joe"—a half-Native American, half-white man who commits murder. Spend times analyzing Twain's use of this character and his implications about race and "otherness" in society.


Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer tells the story of Tom's childhood escapades in and around St. Petersburg, Missouri. He and his mischievous friends, Huckleberry Finn and Joe Harper, seek out thrills that exhibit the idyllic nature of youth.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer


Twain’s classic, imaginative story of boyhood follows Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer through their hilarious misadventures. Though less weighty than Huck Finn, the light-heartedness of the story and its telling makes this a favorite among teachers and students.

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Content Warning

This novel includes some profanity, including racial slurs.

Objectives for Teaching The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

  • Discuss Tom's adventures and analyze how Twain uses them to depict youth.
  • Define episodic novel and explain how the term applies to the story
  • Identify the components of small-town life present in Tom Sawyer, and discuss ways in which Twain criticizes them.
  • Analyze and discuss the racist and xenophobic attitudes of St. Petersburg residents.
  • Discuss the ways in which adulthood is depicted.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Caricature
  • Dialect
  • Foil
  • Idyll
  • Setting
  • Tone

Themes and Motifs

  • Individual & Society — Tom and his friends behave outside of normal social conventions, and Injun Joe is ostracized from the community.
  • Innocence & Experience — Tom's adventures teach him about life and adulthood.
  • Superstition & Religion — Tom and Huck believe in superstitions and their consequences and have an obsession with ghosts and graveyards.

Key Facts

  • Length: 224 pages
  • Publication Date: 1876
  • Lexile Measure: 950
  • Recommended Grade Band: 7 – 9


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has a long adaptation history, as early as the silent film Tom Sawyer (1917), and as recent as Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn (2014). Certain adaptations have received largely negative reviews, including Tom and Huck (1995) and Tom Sawyer (2000). However, the early 1938 film The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, though criticized for excessive slapstick, was praised for its dialogue, casting, pace, suspense, and design. It went on to be nominated for Best Art Direction at the Academy Awards. Similarly, the musical Tom Sawyer (1973) was nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Song Score and Adaptation.

Your students will love:

  • Tom's sense of adventure and humor
  • The young boys' witty analysis of adulthood and society

Students may have problems with:

  • The depiction and treatment of Injun Joe
  • Understanding the dialect of Twain's characters

Available from Prestwick House:

Available Formats
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
AP Teaching Unit
Response Journal

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