Treasure Island, Forerunner to YA Fiction

If it’s been years since you’ve read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, you should consider giving it another look. Originally published in 1881 in a magazine, the book has landed the classics list for years.

Having read it in junior high, it had been long enough that I had very little memory of the novel. I remembered the names Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver and a tropical island but very little else.

On a quest to find a worthwhile book for my rising 7th graders to read over the summer, I launched into Treasure Island.

I’m glad I did.

In re-reading Island, I had the privilege of re-discovering an adventure. A swashbuckling, pirate-romping, pistol-firing adventure.

How Treasure Island Relates to Contemporary YA Fiction

Very possibly, strands of this storyline, with its iconic characters and high adventure, paved the way for future pirate tales, notably Pirates of the Caribbean and a less popular but still poignant Isle of Swords.

Also striking is how Stevenson applies the very tactics modern YA writers employ. He ends his chapters with cliff-hangers. He writes in what seems to have become the universal YA voice of first person.

He forces 15-year-old protagonist Jim Hawkins into situations in which he must use agency.

The boy’s father dies in the first few chapters (readers do not even meet the man), and he leaves his mother in England to sail with a band of seamen and pirates.

Worth the Challenge

At first, the language of the novel feels distracting, difficult even. To a reader in 2023, the sailing jargon and pirate speech can be almost indecipherable.

Yet readers still catch the tone. They may not know what “shiver-me-timbers” means, but they can snag when a pirate is swearing and when he is excited.

If the reader commits, though, the language fades into the background as the story, and her cast of complex characters, emerges.

Memorable Characters

Like Pirates of the Caribbean, Island keeps a cast of characters ranging from noble, upright Englishmen, to scared mutineers, to pirates who constantly change sides, always leveraging situations for personal gain (Jack Sparrow, anyone?).

Characters Jim first hates later appear trustworthy. Characters who charm him eventually expose their deceitful selves.

Questions the Book Raises

Questions of honor and loyalty and morality arise as Jim navigates splitting sides and western-like shoot-outs.

The book raises important questions:

  • What makes a person honorable?
  • Why causes our initial trust of people?
  • What causes our initial preference of people?
  • What separates boys from men?
  • What treasure is worth pursuing?
  • If two people are pursuing the same thing, can they make that pursuit from two very different motives?
  • How can a man have empathy towards someone with whom he disagrees?
  • Where is the line drawn between compassion and integrity?  

If you’re a parent of a middle school kid, this title might be one worth exploring this summer.

Besides, doesn’t hitting the seas, salt spray in your face and sun on your brow, just sound like fun?

And the conversations that arise may just be worth your while.

Photo Credit: Asad Photo Maldives

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