While she was researching her nonfiction history book Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, Esther Forbes became interested in the lives of ordinary people in colonial Boston. This interest resulted in Johnny Tremain, a coming-of-age story for young adults set during the American Revolution. Forbes wrote Johnny Tremain in the early years of World War II, and the political climate of the times influenced her work. In both the Revolutionary War and World War II, the daily lives of young Americans were deeply influenced by the political strife. Forbes hoped that Johnny Tremain would inspire young people to be as patriotic and self-sacrificing as Johnny becomes by the end of the book.
Many of the story's details––from characters like John Hancock and Sam Adams, to facts about what Johnny might have eaten for breakfast––are historically accurate. Although the main characters––Johnny, Rab, and the Laphams––are fictional, many of the story's themes are true to what life was like during the Revolutionary War. For example, the complicated relationship between the Whigs and the Tories often affected daily life, even for people who were not interested in politics. The Whigs and the Tories disagreed passionately, but they also had to live side-by-side. Opinions about whether the colonies should rebel often divided families, friends, and co-workers.
Johnny Tremain won the Newbery Medal in 1944. It is still widely-read today, both recreationally and as an assignment in schools. It is estimated to be among the 20 best-selling children's books of the 20th century.