Newbery Challenge | Sarah, Plain and Tall (1986)

Newbery Challenge | Sarah, Plain and Tall (1986)Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
Published by HarperCollins on 2013-06-25
Genres: Classics, Family, Farm & Ranch Life, Lifestyles, Newbery Gold Winner, Stepfamilies, Young Adult
Pages: 96
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"Did Mama sing every day?" Caleb asks his sister Anna.

"Every-single-day," she answers. "Papa sang, too."

This Newbery Medal–winning book is the first of five books in Patricia MacLachlan's chapter book series about the Witting family. Set in the late nineteenth century and told from young Anna's point of view, Sarah, Plain and Tall tells the story of how Sarah Elisabeth Wheaton comes from Maine to the prairie to answer Papa's advertisement for a wife and mother. Before Sarah arrives, Anna and her younger brother Caleb wait and wonder. Will Sarah be nice? Will she sing? Will she stay?

This children's literature classic is perfect for fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie books, historical fiction, and timeless stories using rich and beautiful language. Sarah, Plain and Tall gently explores themes of abandonment, loss and love.

Supports the Common Core State Standards


I was going into 9th grade when Sarah, Plain and Tall came out. The book didn’t interest me and was below my reading level. At that age, reading to level is very important. Once you hit the adult stacks, you don’t go back! It would have been a different story if this book came out when I was in the 4th grade. The synopsis is correct. If you loved the Little House series, you’ll love Sarah, Plain and Tall. I loved the Little House series.

I tried all year long to sell the Little House series to the students, but few of them were interested in trying the books. I can think of two reasons why this was the case. One, they look old fashioned and kids want new and glossy. The Little House series isn’t packaged with the slick cover art that is so popular today.

Two, the series is challenging for some of the elementary school kids. The language is old fashioned and prairie life is so far removed for the kids that they can’t relate. Many of them don’t have the critical thinking skills to realize that setting doesn’t always matter in a book. A young girl growing up during the 1800s experiences the same successes and defeats as one growing up 200 years later, but all they’re wondering is what a churn is, and what it has to do with butter. I won’t even touch Manly’s head cheese.

This book, though, I think I can get quite a few kids to read. I’m going to sell it to the 4th grade kids at the beginning of the year and the 3rd graders at the end of the year. The book is slim and shouldn’t take a child more than a coule of days to read. And adult can read it in 1-2 hours. Of course, it also appeals to those who like historical fiction. The language is easy, the point of the story direct. Like Sarah, the book is plain but also special. Sarah, a plain and tall spinster, changed the life of a small Midwestern family in one short visit. I’m hoping this book does the same for my students by opening the door to lifelong reading. All it takes is one child and one book.

Artwork by Elizabeth Metz is available at Image Kind.

Jules Kendall writes about books, family, and easygoing simplicity.


  1. Annie says

    I LOVED this series growing up. There’s also a move or two (maybe Hallmark did them) that was well done (or at least I thought so in 3rd or 4th grade).

    • says

      Yes! I remember the movie being really popular. IT HAS CHRISTOPHER WALKEN! I was watching the trailer for it last night and all I kept thinking was, “More cowbell!”

  2. says

    1. I loved SP&T. And the Hallmark movie with Glenn Close. I got a typewriter for my 8th birthday and I taught myself to type by practicing with SP&T.

    2. I reread LHOTP last year and I loved it just as much as I did in fourth grade, but it was challenging. A lot of the descriptions and directions didn’t make sense, so I spent a lot of time Googling.

    • says

      I’m glad you confirmed that LHOTP was difficult for you, even as an adult. I was beginning to wonder if I was reading the kids wrong or making allowances for them.

  3. Susan says

    My kids enjoyed both the Little House series and the girls liked Sarah Plain and Tall. They tried watching the Little House reruns on TV though and couldn’t get past the 70’s vibe! Funny how the 70’s comes through even though it is set in the horse and buggy days! I think their favorite book of the series was Little House in the Big Woods. Perfect winter book!

    • says

      I loved the Little House series on TV. I need to see if I can find it! Growing up in the 70s, of course I didn’t notice any 70s vibe at the time. I wonder if I would now? :)

  4. Jenn says

    I loved the little house series! I listened to most of the series with my boys when they were 4 and 6 or so, when they were more open to a variety of books. They both enjoyed the books, but in particular my younger son was fascinated with pioneer life. We listened to A LOT of books when they were younger– we listened to something every day. Now we have a family read aloud, but no more books on “tape”.

  5. YJ says

    That’s actually pretty funny/sad that the oddness throws them off. Growing up in Hawaii I distinctly felt that life was not the same everywhere so I loved books like the Little House/To Kill a Mockingbird which showed how life was like for different young people in different places, both geographically and historically.

  6. Laura says

    I love SP&T. I have such a hard time selling it to my students, but once I manage to get one to read it, they become my best salespeople.

    I agree the Little House series is much more challenging than I remember it. I decided to read it to my international class while teaching in Shanghai. The kids loved it, but with all the stopping and starting to explain things it was not the smoothest read aloud. A group of eight year olds from ten countries just didn’t have the background experience to understand American pioneer life, but with help they loved it. We made butter as a celebration after we finished the book and the kids were amazed it could be done. There is definitely value in these books for kids, but as adults it’s important for us to reread them before our kids do to anticipate what the challenges might be. It occurred to me after the Little House in the Big Woods incident that my mom and I had read the series together. As a kid my strategy was to skip over anything I didn’t understand, which would have made the Laura Ingles books unimaginably boring.

  7. says

    Like you, I was the wrong age for Sarah when it was published, and I loved the Little House books (even before the series came on when I was in 4th grade). I couldn’t wait to share them with my kids and was disappointed when they didn’t love the books the same way I did. I don’t think it was so much the language or the necessary background knowledge as much as the general style of writing. Contemporary kid lit is much faster-paced, with more action. (I think?) I know my kids found the Little House books slow, and it was much harder for them than me to imagine how the things that Laura found compelling were compelling. I’ll be interested to hear if Sarah can be some sort of gateway book to Little House.

  8. says

    I remember listening to a teacher read that book when I was in 4th grade. I remember loving the book… and then learning to hate it when people began to use the title of the book as a way to tease me. Because yes, I am Sarah, I am tall, and I’m fairly plain. It’s a good book. But if you have anyone named Sarah around… well, bear that title in mind.

  9. Toi says

    Sarah Plain and Tall is one of my most favorite books ever. And the movies are just wonderful.

    I bought Alyson the Little House on the Prairie books before she was even born. And I started reading them to her when she was only a few days old. I cannot explain my love for these books. It never once occured to me that children may not be able to picture the prairie life. I guess I just take that for granted since we actually live on the prairie. I have also bought her the entire Anne of Green Gables series. It will just break my heart if she grows up not loving all of these books as much as I do.

  10. says

    The kids don’t know what a churn is. Hunh.

    Just had this epiphany moment that as a Canadian who grew up in rural Ontario and saw a lot of old farm equipment around, and made many trips to Upper Canada Village and visited many blacksmiths (and sucked up to them to get my own handmade nail, and my own handmade iron wallhook) that urban kids who don’t live near a place like Upper Canada Village would literally have no idea.

    I know how to make a broom out of a sufficently thick stick. 1) I am ready for the apocalypse. 2) nnneeerrrd 3) Maybe you should see if there’s a historical village where they teach kids stuff like this, and get them out there. Because like…. because… REASONS. Knowing how to card wool is serious business, it’s a life skill. Right? I think so. Maybe this is a Canadian thing.

  11. J.Lee says

    Humbly- Have never read it, but liked the Glenn Close version. I mean, Christopher Walken meets Little House.. it should be a cult classic by now.

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