A Difficult Boy

A Difficult Boy . M.P. Barker; Holiday House, New York, 2008.

Grade Level: 6-8

ISBN & Cost: 978-0-8324-2086-5, $16.95, $7.95 paperback.

Cover Art by Marc Tauss. A Difficult Boy ©2008 by M.P. Barker


Nine-year-old Ethan is an indentured servant in 1839, and being trained to do his job on the Lyman's well-to-do farm by Daniel (called Paddy by others), an older Irish boy who is also a servant. Daniel doesn't seem to want to be Ethan's friend, but Ethan observes how Daniel is mistreated even more than he by the landowner, simply because he is Irish.


General Review: 

Ethan is a boy that readers will be able to relate to, because the author lets us listen in on his thoughts throughout the story as he deals with a tough life situation. Although young, Ethan has a clear sense of right and wrong, but he can't always understand why he and others are being mistreated when they didn't do anything wrong in his view. It is hard for him to accept that he has been sent away from his own impoverished family to be a servant in another household because his father felt that he couldn't give Ethan as good a start in life as this landowner would be able to provide. Ethan believes that he needs to fight for the rights of others, like Daniel, an older indentured servant who is sometimes his friend. However, appearances can be deceiving, and the story reveals that there are secrets that have been hidden for many years from Daniel, Ethan's father, and many others in the community who see the landowner Lyman as a fine, upstanding citizen. This book may be difficult for younger readers due to harsh realities it conveys.


Indentured servants -- Juvenile fiction. ; Social classes -- Juvenile fiction. ; Prejudices -- Juvenile fiction. ; Irish Americans -- Juvenile fiction. ; Swindlers and swindling -- Juvenile fiction. ; Massachusetts -- History -- 1775-1865 -- Juvenile fiction.


Author information: Ms. Barker states that she is an archivist, historian and a freelance historical consultant. She has served as costumed interpreter,. Her website is http://www.mpbarker.net/

M. P. Barker." Contemporary Authors Online . Detroit: Gale, 2009. Literature Resource Center . Web. 27 Apr. 2010.Document URL http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?&id=GALE%7CH1000187331&v=2.1&u=ksstate_kckcc&it=r&p=LitRC&sw=w Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000187331

Discussion Questions: (Standard 3; Benchmark 3)

•  Ethan unhappily leaves home to work as an indentured servant for Mr. Lyman. When away from his family, he has to make some serious choices at a very young age. How does he show courage even though he is on his own without adults to guide him? What are some of his courageous acts?

•  What part do horses Ivy and Phizzy play in the story? What do they represent when ridden by the horseback riders in the story?

•  The titles of books often relate to the story line. Who is “A Difficult Boy” in this story? What do you think the title means?

•  What assumptions about other people (for example Daniel, Mr. Lyman, Silas, and Mr. Stocking, the peddler) did Ethan have to change when he got to know these individuals? Have you ever made a snap judgment about someone that you had to change once you got to know them? Think of some examples of judging someone from a distance rather than personal knowledge.


  1. Research information about indentured servitude in the early 1800's when this book took place. What was required to hire an indentured servant? How did the system work? Relate this information to Ethan in this book by designing a contract that might have been signed by Ethan's father and Mr. Lyman. (Standard 3, Benchmark 4)
  2. Look through the story, and brainstorm as a group words found throughout the book that you are not familiar with. Make a list of these words and the page numbers on which they are found. Dividing into small groups, assign a word to each group. After groups discuss the words, they should then make an effort to define them using clues from the context. Share with the entire group definitions each small group came up with, and clues as to how definitions were decided upon. (Standard 9, Benchmark 1)

•  When we hear the word, “immigrant” in the news of 2010, we may be reading someone's opinion about problems with the immigration of people into America, often as “illegal immigrants” today referring to Hispanics in particular. The treatment of people moving from Ireland to America in the 19th century may be considered similar to the experiences that immigrating Hispanics are facing in the early years of the 21st century.  Immigrants of different origins have faced differing amounts of prejudice throughout history. Research prejudice toward Irish immigrants during the time period this book took place. (Standard 2, Benchmark 4)

  1. Daniel is a “Papist.” What does this mean? Ask students to research the meaning of this term, its history, and how it was regarded during the time period discussed in this book. (Standard 2, Benchmark 4)


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