The Sign of the Beaver Critical Context
by Elizabeth George Speare

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Critical Context

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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Historical fiction provides an exciting reading experience from which to view historical information, and Elizabeth George Speare is a master of the genre. In 1989, she won the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for her body of work, which has made a lasting contribution to children’s literature. Through her books, children in the United States often connect with the strongly developed characters and gain a sense of time and place as Americans. Readers are drawn past the differences in people and are challenged to look to the common bonds that bring people together. As two cultures collide in The Sign of the Beaver, readers learn that through respect, acceptance, and friendship, different cultures can survive and thrive; neither must be sacrificed for the other. Each culture is strengthened by the challenge to grow and to change as a result of this contact.

Both boys in this novel battle with achieving the status of manhood. Matt must prove himself able to accept a man’s responsibility. Attean must find his manitou, or spirit, before he is considered worthy to hunt with the braves. Each boy is tested in mind, body, and spirit, yet both desire the same goal of acceptance into an adult world. Their relationship with each other matures as each boy grows into manhood. Speare develops these characters so carefully that the reader is able to identify the changes and maturity in each boy through his actions, without the assistance of a narrator.

The Sign of the Beaver is a highly recommended novel for literature-based instruction in reading and language arts classes in the upper elementary grades. Teachers can challenge students to predict events, record character traits, and suggest ideas for a sequel: For example, will Matt and Attean meet again? Language arts methods books for teachers frequently illustrate instructional techniques from Speare’s books.