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Sarah, Plain and Tall

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This beloved 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.

64 pages, Paperback

First published April 25, 1985

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About the author

Patricia MacLachlan

116 books715 followers
Patricia MacLachlan was born on the prairie, and always carried a small bag of prairie dirt with her wherever she went to remind her of what she knew first. She was the author of many well-loved novels and picture books, including Sarah, Plain and Tall, winner of the Newbery Medal; its sequels, Skylark and Caleb's Story; and Three Names, illustrated by Mike Wimmer. She lived in western Massachusetts.

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5 stars
25,293 (30%)
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3 stars
22,423 (26%)
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1,987 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,201 reviews
July 30, 2016
This is a slight book, an hour or two's read at most, yet it's deeply moving and addresses the existential problems of life in a straightforward way.

The book is as plain as Sarah, but neither the word "plain" nor Sarah's beauty or lack of it are ever defined. Does 'plain' mean not-good looking, not beautiful on the surface or does it mean unadorned, without unnecessary ornament, both in looks and her character. In the context of the book either way makes perfect sense.

The story has but a small plot, a dead mother, a child who misses what he's never known, an older sister who is bored with comforting her younger brother, a father who does his best but is overwhelmed and lonely as the only adult holding his family together. And then comes Sarah. Answering an advert for a wife, we never learn why she never married and was willing to leave her home for an unknown man, hard work in a deeply rural setting and a ready-made family. Problems are presented, solutions suggested but most important in this book, are the feelings engendered by the meeting of this lonely family and this lonely woman and how they all bond, tentatively at first, into a beautiful family with a future expanded by love.

The most interesting part of the book for me was Sarah. Who was she? Who was this woman who was homesick for a life that is never described that she left because of loneliness? In the same way as the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre has her story unfolded in the Wide Sargasso Sea, I feel a book that tells of Sarah and what there was in her life that drove her to reply to an advertisement for a wife and mother in a place very far from home is a story waiting to be told.

The writing is simple, ideal for a child, but the book, the central mystery of Sarah, makes it just as interesting for an adult.

I loved this little book.
Profile Image for Sarah.
340 reviews97 followers
January 20, 2023
In my late 20s, I fell in love with a gorgeous woman. She had dark features, big, luscious lips, and intense, almond-shaped eyes. She was absolutely fearless, and she could cut a fool to half his size - or make him feel ten feet tall - with a single word, a look.

One night, we arrived separately to a performance event, and as I walked toward this spectacular woman in the venue lobby, her eyes became little forest fires of desire. My heart raced, thinking how insane it was that this woman - this woman! - had eyes for me. She leaned in and whispered, “Look at you ~ you’re beautiful.” Then she pulled back, looked me over from top to bottom: “And so… plain.”

What? That’s not what you’d want to hear, either?!

I understood, even in that moment, she somehow meant it as worship. Her eyes said it in a hundred different ways. But all night long, and ever since, that word has been an infected splinter.

Plain. Strawberry blonde. Plain. Wonder Bread Whitey. Plain. Blue-eyed girl next door. Plain. Plain. Plain.

Now, in Kansas or Kentucky, plain is normal. And I understand the undue privilege "plain" often brings. But in the vibrant sea of color that was my neighborhood growing up? Well, there it earned me the nickname güera (mildly pejorative) and resulted in more friends than I can count asking in complete sincerity, “Are you sure you’re not from, like, Montana or someplace?” (At least no one asked if they could touch my hair).

I’m telling you this because it’s the reason I’ve stayed away from this story.

The title alone - Sarah, Plain and Tall - a poke to a wound gone septic because it was dealt to a wide open heart. First a compliment, then a curse. How does one make sense of that?

Sometimes, though, you have to spin around and look a thing in the eye to make it quit fucking with you. That’s why I started listening to this audiobook yesterday while driving toward my home state of California.

From the first line, I found myself crying in dribs and healing in drabs. And by novel’s end, I felt whole again. The protagonist, Sarah Elisabeth Wheaton, is beautiful. She’s wild and stubborn and in love with music and the sea.

And while listening to her story, I kept thinking of the woman I once loved. About the way she made me feel on the occasion mentioned, and on so many other occasions during our time together. Truth be told, she was a bitch-and-a-half more often than not. But she is exceptional in many ways, and my heart was right to love her. To this day, I’m convinced she's part prophet, part queen.

And I suspect, now, or at least I choose to believe that the word she spoke that night - plain - which brought so much pain… was actually a prophecy. She wasn’t commenting on my hair or my face or my clothing. She was seeing deeper, into a part of me that wouldn’t be strong enough to emerge for many, many years. She was addressing the Sarah Elisabeth Wheaton in me. A woman who never tried to be anything other than precisely herself and who never even thought to question her value.

Maybe we have to fall in love with assholes, sometimes. And maybe we have to carry the wounds they deliver for longer than we’d like. But the silver lining is how unbelievably strong it can make us, to fight persistent accusations that we aren’t enough, and to eventually answer them in truth: of course I’m enough; get yourself a pair of glasses to help you see that, or just… go… away.

Highly recommend this one! I wish I had written it myself.

Song/book Pairing: Enough for You (Olivia Rodrigo)
Profile Image for Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽.
1,880 reviews22.7k followers
June 30, 2018
This is really a lovely little story, beautifully told, deceptively simple, full of hope and fear and love. Sarah, Plain and Tall, winner of the Newbery Medal (one the shortest books ever to win that award), was written in 1985 but feels like something from a much earlier time. It could have been written 80 or 100 years ago. It's timeless.

It's based on a true story about the author's ancestors.* There are a lot of mail order bride romances out there, but this is one from the children's point of view, although you catch fascinating glimpses of what's going on in the minds of their father Jacob, and Sarah, his potential bride.

Anna and Caleb are two young children who in the U.S. plains with their widowed father, in maybe the late 1800s? Their mother died the day after Caleb was born.
They had come for her in a wagon and taken her away to be buried. And then the cousins and aunts and uncles had come and tried to fill up the house. But they couldn't.
Now Jacob has advertised for a mail order wife, and Sarah Wheaton from Maine, who describes herself as "plain and tall," writes a letter to him. They arrange for Sarah - and her gray cat, Seal - to come visit their family for a month, to see if it's a good fit, before making a permanent decision.

Caleb wears his heart on his sleeve, desperately wanting Sarah to stay but afraid that their house is too small, and that he is too loud and pesky. Anna hopes too, but is more cautious and watchful. Their father Jacob learns to laugh and sing again, even as he is arguing with Sarah about whether she should wear his overalls, ride his skittish horse, and help fix the roof.

And Sarah ... Sarah misses the sea. But "there are always things to miss, no matter where you are.” And things - and people - that work their way into your heart and find a home there.


* I'd love to know more about the original story but there's not a lot out there, at least that I've been able to find so far, other than that MacLachlan's mother and/or aunt begged her to write a book about this story.
Profile Image for Sheri.
1,101 reviews45 followers
January 22, 2018
Captures the many emotions of starting a new life while still remembering the old. A short and simple yet tender and touching story.
Profile Image for Suz.
1,073 reviews548 followers
October 19, 2017
This was lovely. I did have quotes I wanted to share, but as I read this one weeks ago, I've lost the drive to look them up. A nice addition was the notes at the end from the author which include her acceptance speech from awards the novel won. Interesting were her thoughts on the writing process, and what her children taught her along the way. I think this is a classic that does not have a lot of recognition here in Australia. Sarah, who happens to be plain and tall, comes to a farm of a widow and his two young children, who hope she will stay for the long haul. Each member of this family having things to teach one another.
Profile Image for Calista.
3,803 reviews31.2k followers
January 29, 2018
Patricia did some amazing character development for such a short story. With this, you are in and you're out. A family lost their mother and Sarah answers an ad in the paper. They write letters back and forth. Sarah goes from Maine to the plains. The kids love Sarah. There is a big Squall to be the big piece of this book.

It was a quick, enjoyable read. If you loved Little house on the Prairie, then you need to read this too. Great for 3rd and 4th grade readers.
Profile Image for Rachel Aranda.
871 reviews2,259 followers
October 6, 2020
3.75-4 stars

What a nice read. There was an audiobook available that was nice to read-a-long with the print book. The audiobook had music at some of the end parts and it was quite soothing to listen to.

This wasn’t the most thrilling book I’ve ever listened to but I wasn’t expecting it to be. It was supposed to soothe me and my hurting spirit. The kids telling their point of view and letting all their emotions out helped me greatly. The adults offering bits of wisdom was also a comfort. Sometimes when we’re hurt, it helps to have a comfortable read.

I had no idea that there was a series about this family when I first started reading “Sarah, Plain and Tall,” but now that I know I am determined to read the entire series.
Profile Image for PattyMacDotComma.
1,397 reviews801 followers
March 27, 2017
Warm and fuzzy story told by Anna, about her father seeking a wife and mother for them and her little brother, Caleb in the 1800s. Heart-warming, short, easy, and the first of several books, I see. A simple story for kids that is appealing to adults for the underlying meaning as well as the 'plain' story.

The children have commented that their father doesn’t sing anymore. Widowed many years ago after the birth of young Caleb, Jacob realises it’s time to find a wife and mother so advertises for one, as his neighbour did so successfully.

He receives a reply from Sarah, a girl in Maine, who wants to move from the home she’s shared with her brother so he and his new wife can have it to themselves. He and Anna both exchange letters with Sarah, who agrees to come for a month’s visit.

“ 'Dear Jacob, I will come by train. I will wear a yellow bonnet. I am plain and tall.

‘What’s that?’
asked Caleb, excitedly, peering over Papa’s shoulder. He pointed. ‘There, written at the bottom of the letter.’

Papa read it to himself. Then he smiled, holding up the letter for us to see.

Tell them I sing was all it said.

When she arrives, she speaks so often of the sea and loving to live near the shore, that the children read all kinds of meaning into each comment, worrying she will decide not to stay.

Quite delightful - I figured if Glenn Close had been involved in the film versions of this saga, it must be good, and it was.

I see it’s been written to meet the Common Core State Standards, so it’s obviously a good choice for parents and teachers to encourage young readers. And there seem to be a lot of teaching resources available too.

The beauty of books like this for kids is that they really don't 'date', since it's historical fiction.

Probably appeal to fans of Little House on the Prairie.
Profile Image for Deacon Tom F.
1,704 reviews129 followers
April 11, 2021
A great book for all ages.

This is a recent addition to my projects of learning more and more about life on the plains in life in rural America, I see gems like this or the library shelf. I remember seeing my sisters read this book but I’ve never had my opportunity to read it until now.

Characters are absolutely charming! Sarah is a strong woman beyond her years. I even wonder how this went over as current no 1850-ish.

If you’ve read it go back and treat yourself. If you haven’t read it then I would pick a child of age or someone and share it together.

I highly recommend
Profile Image for Whitney Erwin.
190 reviews
January 1, 2022
I remember reading and loving this book as a child. When I was cleaning out my daughters bookshelf the other day, I came across this book and decided to re-read it. It’s a great, classic book every child should read.
Profile Image for Juli.
1,859 reviews473 followers
May 17, 2018
I have loved this sweet story since I saw the Hallmark movie starring Glenn Close and Christopher Walken back in the early 90's. At that time, I didn't know the film is based on a book. I now have a rule that before I can watch a film adaptation, I have to read the book first. I'm a few decades late on this one....but decided to make it right and enjoy this book.

OMG.....this book is just so sweet and beautiful. I don't often read sentimental stories like this, but I'm glad I took the time to enjoy this one.

Sarah Wheaton lives in Maine. Her brother is getting married soon so she answers an advertisement placed by a man named Jacob in Kansas who is looking for a wife and mother for his two children. Anna and Caleb lost their mother six years before. She died soon after giving birth to Caleb. The story relates the family's meeting Sarah and the month that she stays with them to see if a relationship with Jacob will work. Just a beautiful story!

There are actually 5 books in the Sarah, Plain and Tall series. I knew that there was a second book, Skylark, because I watched the movie version when it first came out. But I have never read the other books. I'm definitely going to read them now! Some stories just make you happy in your heart and soul, and this one does that for me. A entertaining, feel-good, just totally enjoyable book! I can't wait to read the rest of the series!

I listened to the audiobook version of this story. At just over an hour long, it's a quick listen. Perfect for enjoying with kids. Glenn Close narrates, which is perfect! Loved it!
Profile Image for Hilary .
2,195 reviews398 followers
March 6, 2017
This was lovely, almost 5 stars, just too short, we wanted more details of day to day life and felt we didn't really get to know the characters as well as we would have liked to. The story describes how a young family who are suffering the loss of the mother following childbirth a few years previously meets someone new who comes in to their lives as a potential wife/mother. The description of the the book says that the father advertises for a wife, I think describing Sarah as a mail-order wife and that Sarah answers this advert and comes for a months trial. This sounded rather strange, but I suppose times were different and living in such a remote place perhaps this was the only way of meeting someone new. However the months trial was for both parties and Sarah soon establishes that she does things her own way and the childrens dad respects this and trusts her choices. I liked the way the relationships gradually strengthened and their happiness came in a subtle and realistic way, I expected parts to be a bit sickly and romantic, but it wasn't. I would love to read more about this family and hope the following books live up to this one.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
Author 1 book145 followers
December 10, 2017
“The dogs loved Sarah first.”

Years ago someone recommended this children’s book to me, and I’m sorry I waited so long to read it. Not a hint of condescension in here; just beautifully evocative simplicity.

“Gophers ran back and forth across the road, stopping to stand up and watch the wagon. Far off in a field a woodchuck ate and listened. Ate and listened.”

It’s a touching, feel-good story, but much more: strong characters, subtle emotions, a well-drawn setting, and threads of tension carrying it along. Perfect for readers of any age, and I loved it.
Profile Image for Andrea Cox.
Author 2 books1,629 followers
May 19, 2018
by Andrea Renee Cox

Aw! This story is so sweet every time. Will I cry each time I read it? Probably. It's just that sweet. (And I'm a bit of a weeper when it comes to those types of stories.) Sarah is such a fun and spunky heroine. I love how great she is with the kids. Now I want to dig out my movie version and watch Glenn Close as Sarah, plain and tall. She always makes me smile in that role.

I was not compensated for my honest review.
Profile Image for Manybooks.
3,071 reviews104 followers
June 8, 2022
I never encountered Patricia MacLachlan as a younger reader (mostly because when MacLachlan was first becoming popular in the mid to late 1980s I was in fact no longer a younger reader but an undergraduate university student reading and also writing detailed term papers about German, French and English literary classics). And therefore, with Patricia MacLachlan (for whom we are doing a retrospective in the Children’s Literature Group in May and June 2022 due to her recent death), I also do not really have any fond and special memories perusing her novels as a child, and that yes, this might well have made me more critical in general approaching Patricia MacLachlan’s novels. For although I was hoping to greatly enjoy reading MacLachlan, I do have to admit that thus far I have been rather majorly disappointed, finding a writing style that is often removed and distancing and texts generally much too short and choppy, with huge story gaps, feeling more like outlines and sketches than finished tales.

And indeed, because of the above, I was naturally rather hesitant to even try Patricia MacLachlan’s Newbery Award winning Sarah, Plain and Tall (since this story seems to be rather universally loved by many of my Goodreads friends and I was definitely worried not finding it to my reading tastes, I was worried that the short number of pages for Sarah, Plain and Tall would also and once again mean that in particular with regard to the featured penmanship, I would be finding Sarah, Plain and Tall frustrating and gap filled). But no, I am happy to say that (even though I do find it a wee bit annoying that there is not more to be read and enjoyed in Sarah, Plain and Tall) Patricia MacLachlan’s writing for Sarah, Caleb and Anna’s story (and also of course for the father) is not only intensely beautiful and poetical, there is a delightful sense of completeness regarding Sarah, Plain and Tall and that everything that needs to be described within its pages (love, loss, homesickness, joy, laughter and acceptance) yes indeed Sarah MacLachlan manages to completely textually achieve this with Sarah, Plain and Tall and also in less than seventy pages.

Furthermore and finally, while Sarah, Plain and Tall is obviously meant for and geared towards young readers, I really both as an older adult and equally from the point of view of my inner child am delightfully happy that even though Patricia MacLachlan writes simply and concisely, her writing style and narration never in Sarah, Plain and Tall once feels in any way as though MacLachlan is trying to talk down to her audience, that Sarah's story never feels too childish with regard to style, syntax and penmanship (something that I do very much appreciate and that for me and my reading tastes, Sarah, Plain and Tall is even with the story being quite short and not overly expansive a piece of writing suitable and appropriate for both very young and considerably older readers listeners, and a wonderful and warmly recommended five star reading experience).
Profile Image for Luisa Knight.
2,727 reviews683 followers
March 20, 2020
I know it's hard to believe, but the book was sweeter than the movie; which, ironically, I actually wasn't expecting. The book is, after all, only 67 pages and I wasn't aware that such character development and likableness could occur in such a short span of time. But give a great author a pen and I guess magic can happen.

The characters were great! I liked the fact that Anna was on board with having Sarah come. I'm not sure why they changed that in the movie. More drama perhaps. The dialogue, which I found somewhat silly in the movie, really worked in the book. It somehow made Anna and Caleb more endearing with their one-word repetitive replies.

It's a quick little read, but one that shouldn't be forgotten or missed for family reading time.

Ages: 6 - 10

Cleanliness: nothing to note.

**Like my reviews? Then you should follow me! Because I have hundreds more just like this one. With each review, I provide a Cleanliness Report, mentioning any objectionable content I come across so that parents and/or conscientious readers (like me) can determine beforehand whether they want to read a book or not. Content surprises are super annoying, especially when you’re 100+ pages in, so here’s my attempt to help you avoid that!

So Follow or Friend me here on GoodReads! You’ll see my updates as I’m reading and know which books I’m liking and what I’m not finishing and why. You’ll also be able to utilize my library for looking up titles to see whether the book you’re thinking about reading next has any objectionable content or not. From swear words, to romance, to bad attitudes (in children’s books), I cover it all!
Profile Image for Mango.
208 reviews303 followers
June 16, 2021
I read this book 3 times, for the same reason. School.

Honestly, this book was quite good! It addressed some real world issues and can open children's eyes that we don't live in a perfect world. However, 1 star off because the plot was very slow.

And also, reading this book and analyzing it 3 times does something to you...lol.

I wouldn't say this is worth a re-read, but it is definitely a must read for young children. :)
Profile Image for Kellyn Roth.
Author 24 books898 followers
February 28, 2017
This is a sweet story that I loved when I read it as a small child and loved again when I read it a year or two ago. It's really simple and easy to understand, but there are subtle things that I didn't catch when I was little that I caught when I read it more recently ... so I think it's good for all ages, not just children. :)
Profile Image for Jeanette (Ms. Feisty).
2,179 reviews1,897 followers
January 23, 2012
My mother is a retired librarian, and this was one of the books she recommended most frequently for young readers. Now many years into retirement, she still suggests it regularly.

Anna and Caleb live on the prairie with their papa. Mama died from childbirth complications, and the house feels hollow now that Papa doesn't sing anymore.

Sarah comes from Maine for a one-month trial period to see if she and Papa might want to marry. Sarah is plain and tall, which is probably why she hasn't yet found a husband. But she has the inner beauty and a lot of lovable qualities the prettier girls don't always offer. Sarah brings a quiet patience, a love of song, a joy in nature and all beauty, a sense of fun and mischief, and most important, adaptability.

As the trial period progresses, Anna and Caleb fall ever more in love with Sarah. They watch anxiously for signs that she might not be planning to stay, rejoicing when she shows any little possibility of putting down roots. They're watching Papa, too, hoping he'll be as fond of Sarah as they are.

This story is a model of perfect simplicity. Read it and you, too, might fall in love with Sarah. It's not often that a children's book will move me to tears, but this one did at the end.
Profile Image for DivaDiane.
932 reviews84 followers
November 10, 2022
I think I checked this book out of the library, or rather, put a hold on it because it was up for discussion on the children’s Book group I’m a bad member of. I’m sure they read it quite a while ago but I should be sure to go there and comment now that I’ve read it.

I read it while standing in line to go on rides at Disney World.

It’s a delightful book that reminds me a lot of Little House on the Prairie with characters that are just as vivid. And now that I’ve been to Maine, I feel like I can understand Sarah a bit.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
1,440 reviews1 follower
March 17, 2017
Classic literature remains and endures through time. Sarah, Plain and Tall is one of those classics that will endure. Written in a simple style that imitates the simple life people lived while farming the frontier of America, this book is a poignant reminder of the hardships endured by families in that era. It touches on lives affected by death, by loss, by separation. It shows a young boy worried about new separation. And it shows how a grown woman deals with separation in her own way. Beautifully written.
331 reviews214 followers
August 26, 2009
I'd forgotten all about this gem, until I saw someone elses review on here..I loved this and so did my daughter.
Profile Image for David.
226 reviews1 follower
September 5, 2009
Can we say overrated? This is supposed to be one of the greatest classics in Children's Literature, and the winner of the Newbery in 1986. There's no character development...no action...just a bunch of waiting around for some kind of story to develop.

I can summarize this story with these questions and answers coming from the snot-nosed, little children in the novel: "Will we have a mother? Will Sarah come? Will she like me? Will she stay? Yes."

Boring. Thank God Glenn Close made the character somewhat more tolerable in the made-for-TV version of this book. If I had to read this again, I think I'd KILL myself.
Profile Image for Relyn.
3,396 reviews56 followers
March 13, 2016
This is my absolute favorite book. Well, OK, top 10. You know how it is with me and favorites. I have lost count of how many times I've read this little gem of a book. Every sentence is perfect and adds to the story. Each sentence has not one word or description too many. The prose is spare and perfect. The books reads like masterful storytelling instead of novel reading. I love this book!

I've lost count of how many times I have read it. Until this year, I taught it every year to my fourth graders at the end of our Westward Expansion unit. Some time ago I found it as a recorded book with Glenn Close as the reader. She is the perfect narrator. She is Sarah, after all. Glenn Close produced and starred as Sarah in the Hallmark Hall of Fame version. That movie is also amazing. With her talents, you know this audio book is a winner.
Profile Image for Ann☕.
291 reviews
July 23, 2022
Sarah, arriving from the seashores of Maine, contrasted with an isolated mid-western farm, makes a great story. Despite the hardships portrayed, I found the story comforting when I was younger and I still do. The book is well deserving of the Newbery Medal, among other literary accolades it has received. The TV mini-series starring Glenn Close and Christopher Walken is equally good, which is saying a lot since I generally avoid watching the Hallmark channel, especially the saccharin sweet holiday movies. (My apologies to any fans of the channel!)

Rating: 5 stars
Original date of publication: 1985
Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,201 reviews

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