I have a hunch that Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian will feature on many of your children’s back-to-school reading lists, a classic choice for English teachers everywhere since it was first published in 1981. Perhaps some of you even remember it from your own schooldays. I’ve been revising our school reading lists and spied Goodnight Mr Tom on our Year 7 list. I hadn’t read it since I was in Year 7 myself, and I wanted to find out why it’s such a permanent fixture in our children’s literary canon.
The story takes place during the first year or so of World War Two. Sickly evacuee ‘Willie’, just off the train from London, is dropped off with Tom Oakley, a gruff, lonely old man who lives in a small village in the country.
‘Come on in,’ repeated Tom harshly. ‘I ent got all day.’
We soon learn that Willie was abused by his mother, both emotionally and physically, and the first part of the novel sees kind Tom nursing him back to health. Little by little, Willie becomes physically stronger and more confident, making friends in the village and, with Tom’s help, finally learning to read his beloved books.
‘We’ll begin this evenin’,’ he said sharply. ‘That do?’
‘Learnin’ to read and write. I’ll teach you to write yer own name fer a beginnin’.’
Willie’s eyes stung as the ground moved in a gentle haze beneath him. He beamed. ‘Aw, mister,’ was all he could manage to say.
Tom was surprised to find a lump in his own throat.
‘Go and have a run with Sammy,’ he growled huskily. ‘I’ll get supper.’
‘Mister Tom’ and Willie grow to love each other, Tom softening after a lifetime of loneliness spent grieving for his wife Rachel, who died when he was a young man. Willie flourishes under Tom’s gentle care. However, when Willie’s mother writes for him to return home, things take an unbearable turn for the worse…
Yes, it was even better than I remembered. I can’t deny the style’s a bit old-fashioned: children today are exhorted by their English teachers to ‘show, not tell’ the reader how their characters are feeling. Magorian often ‘tells’ us how Tom or Willie are feeling, with adverbs, ‘nervously,’ ‘reluctantly,’ ‘miserably,’ peppering the pages. But honestly, I think it just makes us fall even more in love with Mister Tom and ‘Will’, as he likes to be called. I was teary most chapters; it would take a hard heart not to be affected by their sweet relationship.
Older children will love Goodnight Mr Tom, but younger children might find it upsetting, and descriptions of poor Willie’s physical abuse are graphic. I’d say for 11 to 14 year olds, or children in Years 7-9, this book is a must-read.
Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian is published by Puffin Books, 358 pages.