Considered an early feminist novel, The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver, addresses many societal issues that are still relevant today. Women are the primary focus in the novel: their roles, children, family, friendships, support, and struggles. The story also includes themes about human rights, colonialism, nature, and community, among others. A lesson on the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the Sanctuary Movement during the Guatemalan Civil War will give students important background information to better understand the social injustice issues addressed in the novel. You could follow that with a class discussion or project that draws comparisons to today’s society.

This novel presents a coming-of-age story, perfect as an introduction to the genre or for comparison with similar works. The main character, Taylor, is a young adult who faces some weighty challenges as she travels across the country on a journey of self-discovery. Students will enjoy her wit, and they’ll relate to her quest to find her identity. Students will be able to visualize Taylor’s travels by plotting significant locations on a map. They could accompany each plot point with a journal entry from Taylor’s perspective. In doing so, they will have a timeline of both her literal and figurative journey.

Lastly, Kingsolver’s liberal use of literary devices, such as simile, metaphor, hyperbole, and allusion, allows for many different kinds of activities. For example, students could use a chart, word map, or storyboard to trace various symbolic iterations of birds in relation to Taylor’s growth.

Take a road trip with us to find out more about Taylor’s story below.

Summary of The Bean Trees

Key Facts

  • Publication Date: 1988
  • Length: 256 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 900L
  • Recommended Grade Band: 9-12

Most of the girls in Marietta (Missy) Greer’s rural Kentucky town want nothing more than to marry and have children. She, however, wants to take a different path. She saves her money, buys a car, and then heads into the unknown. She decides that getting a fresh start also means changing her name. She chooses Taylor based on a town she drives through.

When Taylor stops for food in Oklahoma, a Cherokee woman insists that she take the toddler she has with her. Taylor takes on the challenge of finding a home for herself and the child she names “Turtle.” Along the way, she meets a diverse group of kind people who take her in and become like family. These people help her in her quest to adopt Turtle, and she, in turn, helps them overcome the social injustices they face.

Content Warning: The Bean Trees contains some discussion about sexuality and sexual assault, which makes it more appropriate for older students. In addition, Kingsolver uses the word Indian instead of Native American throughout the book.

What Your Students Will Love About The Bean Trees

  • The smart, resilient young protagonist
  • The author’s use of humor throughout the story

Potential Student Struggles With The Bean Trees

  • The social justice issues that can be difficult to navigate

Learning Objectives for The Bean Trees

  • Discuss the significance of the novel’s title and chapter titles.
  • Consider The Bean Trees as a feminist novel.
  • Evaluate Taylor as a hero and her journey as an archetypal quest.
  • Explore the role of women in society as it relates to the novel.
  • Identify examples of figurative language and imagery and analyze the effects they have on the reader.
  • Note the author’s use of dialect, sarcasm, and humor to lend realism to the characters and highlight the social issues addressed in the novel.
  • Discuss what the broken arrow, the cameo, the “Damn I’m Good” T-shirt, and the dead blackbird symbolize or represent in the story.
  • Examine the question of what defines “family” and “home.”

Literary Elements in The Bean Trees

  • Allusion
  • Coming of Age
  • Foreshadowing
  • Hero
  • Idiom
  • Irony
  • Metaphor
  • Personification
  • Proverb
  • Simile
  • Symbolism
  • Theme
  • And more!

Major Themes in The Bean Trees

Family, Friendship, and Community — Taylor and the women she meets form tight bonds and take care of each other. The relationships they develop allow them to experience life’s joys and sorrows together.

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Social Injustice — The novel deals with the atrocities of social injustice, but also demonstrates that people working together can make a difference.

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Women and Feminism — The novel’s most significant characters are female, and the central feminist issue the story explores is the burden of gender.

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Other Resources for The Bean Trees

Order The Bean Trees Resources from Prestwick House

Resource Format
The Bean Trees Paperback Student Edition
The Bean Trees Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
The Bean Trees AP Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
The Bean Trees Activity Pack Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
The Bean Trees Response Journal Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
The Bean Trees Multiple Critical Perspectives Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
The Bean Trees Complete Teacher's Kit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set