Skip to Main Content

Joshua's Song

Boston, 1919. It's been a terrible year for thirteen-year-old Joshua Harper. The influenza pandemic that's sweeping the world has claimed his father's life; his voice has changed, so he can't sing in the Boston Boys' Choir anymore; and now money is tight, so he must quit school to get a job. It's not fair!
Joshua begins working as a newspaper boy, hawking papers on the street, but he soon finds himself competing with Charlestown Charlie, a tough, streetwise boy who does not make things easier for Joshua. It seems that fitting in is not as easy as it once was. Then disaster strikes the city of Boston. Joshua must do what he can to help, and in doing so he finds the place -- and the voice -- that he thought he'd lost.

By Joan Hiatt Harlow
Joshua's life has changed dramatically with the death of his father during the influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919. He now needs to help support the family, which means he must stop being a schoolboy and become a man with a job. Joshua adapts to the changes in his life, and when disaster strikes Boston, he proves that people can rely upon him.
• Why didn't Joshua want his mother to know that he was working as a paperboy? Should he have told her what he was doing?
• Why couldn't Joshua sing at his father's funeral? How can you help someone who is grieving?
• Children don't need to find jobs to help their families anymore, but are there other ways they can be helpful? Do you help your family? How?
Find a picture of the disaster online or locate a copy of Yankee Magazine, January 1965, or Smithsonian, November 1983 for articles pertaining to the subject.
• Have the students place a small amount of molasses on their hands. After removing the molasses (was it difficult?), have them write about what it felt like, or how they would try to remove it when everything is covered with molasses.
• Work math problems using the facts about Joshua's newspapers. For example, each paper costs $.01, Charlie gets $.01 for delivering the papers to Joshua, and the papers sold for $.03. If Joshua got a $.25 tip, how many papers would he need to sell to make $1.00? For older students you can have them compare the cost of six apples in Joshua's day ($.05) as a portion of Joshua's daily income ($5.00) to the cost of six apples today (have the students find the price) as a portion of daily income at today's minimum salary ($5.15/hr x 8 hours/day).
• Have the students make a newspaper for the day after the molasses disaster. What information would they want to include? Have the students look at a present-day paper to see what a newspaper contains.
This reading group guide is for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Prepared by Betty Neal
© William Allen White Children's Book Award
Please visit for more information about the awards and to see curriculum guides for other master list titles.
Photograph courtesy of the author

Joan Hiatt Harlow is the author of several popular historical novels including Secret of the Night PoniesShadows on the SeaMidnight RiderStar in the StormJoshua’s Song, Thunder from the Sea, and Breaker Boy. Ms. Harlow lives in Venice, Florida. For more information, visit her at

More books from this author: Joan Hiatt Harlow