St. Louis In Depth Study: Tom Sawyer and Mark Twain

Read Tom Sawyer together!

Mark Twain’s boyhood home is in Hannibal, MO, about two hours north of St. Louis on the Mighty Mississippi. The setting and characters of Tom Sawyer are based on his childhood experiences in Hannibal.


The language is advanced, the sentence structure is complex and the descriptions are at times agonizingly detailed, but stick with it, it gets easier to understand at the plot develops.  Expect to stop reading frequently at the beginning of the book to recap and explain meaning if your kids are on the younger side.


Writing Ideas: these can be done as you are reading Tom Sawyer. Most of them are based on ideas provided on the website for the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, MO.


  • (After the first few chapters) Have them list the characters that have been introduced in the story up to this point and pick one to describe in detail. Use an example from the book to support your description.  Do this for several characters to get the hang of it, especially if your child enjoys doing it.
  • Talk about how Mark Twain is known to have based the characters on real people that he knew; explain how he used exaggeration and imagination to elevate them from regular people to memorable works of fiction.  Have them pick someone they know well and describe them.  Physical traits, personality traits, things they like to do or have done that they remember.  When done, go back through each trait and brainstorm ways to exaggerate that particular trait in an effort to develop a fictional character based on the person you know.
  •  Repeat the above exercise except based on a picture instead of a memory of someone they know.  The process is the same though.  What can they infer about what this person likes to do based on a static image? Use images cut from a kid’s magazine or the cards from the Story Cards game set.
  • Discuss how superstition plays an important role in the story.  How would things have gone differently had the boys not been so superstitious?  List as many superstitions from the book as you can.  Make up one of your own, make it detailed.
  • Reenact the graveyard scene so that everyone is clear on exactly how it went down.  Discuss if you think Tom and Huck were right to make a pact to keep what they saw as secret.
  • Read a Mark Twain quote to your kids, discuss the meaning and have them write the meaning in their own words and whether or not they agree with it or disagree with it.  There are so many great quotes that are easy to access, pick the ones that you think will most strongly speak to your children.  We did “Travel is fatal to prejudice” and “The man with a new idea is a crank until the idea works.”  This spurred a great conversation and research on scientists that were thought to be crazy until their inventions and ideas were successful or proven correct.  We also had coincidentally watched the “How We Got to Now: Cold” documentary, so they had a perfect example in their head already about the man who invented early refrigeration.
  • Create a “memory box” for the book.  We took a large coffee can and wrapped it in construction paper to look like the sky.  We then “whitewashed” popcicle sticks and glued them around the can.  I asked the kids to put things that were relevant to the story inside the can.  My son went outside and made a mini-raft out of sticks and string and drew a picture of a dagger to put inside. My daughter put a little toy cat and a treasure box inside.  I put other less obvious things in there to try and get them recalling what part of the story I was referencing.
  • After finishing the book, do a detailed character description of Tom Sawyer using at least one example from the book for each adjective that you use to describe him. He turns out to be a complicated character, so it is interesting to compare their description of him at the beginning of the book v. the end.

Field Trip: The Mark Twain Museum and The Tom Sawyer Cave (Hannibal, MO)

At the museum, you can walk through the childhood home of Tom, Huck and Becky; pretend to white wash Tom’s fence; walk through some interactive scenes of Mark Twain’s stories; see original Normal Rockwell paintings of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; and walk through an illustrated, chronological description of Mark Twain’s life and family.  Just outside of the museum in the historic district of Hannibal, you can shop for small-town treasure at one of the gift shops, take a trolley tour or a haunted tour of the town, and pose with a statue of Tom and Huck.


A few miles down the road is the cave that Mark Twain was known to play in as a boy and inspired all of the cave scenes in Tom Sawyer.  The tour was great as they retell the cave scenes from the book to the group, which was really fun for the kids.  As an added bonus, we got to see one of Jesse James’ hideouts and a picture of his signature in the cave although they don’t let you approach the real signature.  We also got really close to sleeping bats on the walls.


 Science and Nature: All About Caves

Not only are the cave scenes really exciting in Tom Sawyer, but Missouri is actually called the cave state as it has the most natural caves of any state in the country.  Many caves are still being discovered each day in Missouri. There are many, many books on the geology and zoology of caves. Here are a few that we enjoyed:

  • Caves (True Books: Earth Science) by Larry Dane Brimner
  • Caves and Caverns by Gail Gibbons
  • Cave Animals by Francine Galko

 Videos: Bill Nye the Science Guy has an episode (Season 5, episode 12) on caves.