Playing Pirates with Tom Sawyer: The Intersection of Reader-Response Theory and Play Theory

Mark I. West

Abstract


Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer tells the story of a boy’s adventures in a Midwestern American town during the mid-nineteenth century, but it also provides an insightful account of how many children respond to literature. Although Tom is not seen reading over the course of the novel, the depictions of Tom’s play provide amble evidence that Tom enjoys reading adventures stories. The novel includes many instances of Tom incorporating elements from stories, especially pirate stories, in his pretend play. Tom’s response to pirate stories has significant connections to both reader-response theory and play theory. Although the terms reader-response theory and play theory were not yet coined when Twain published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, Twain’s depiction of Tom’s playful response to pirate stories anticipated many of the key arguments and observations that these theorists have made concerning children’s responses to literature.

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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680