The fifth of six children, Esther Forbes was born in Westborough, MA, on June 28, 1891, to William Trowbridge Forbes and Harriette Merrifield. William Forbes graduated from Amherst College and taught mathematics at Robert College in Constantinople for a short time, before moving to Westboro and opening a law office there. Esther's mother graduated from Oread Academy, in Worcester, traveling the United States until she married Forbes in 1884, when she was twenty-eight. She was an historian and a writer.
When Esther's grandfather Merrifield passed away, he left a large tract of land in Worcester to Harriette. The family built a house on the property, moving there in 1898. The sons were sent to Worcester public schools, while the girls became the first women to attend the Bancroft School. All of the children succeeded well in school except for Esther, who was extremely nearsighted and dyslexic, problems which seriously impeded her schoolwork.
Though Bancroft had a strict curriculum they expected to be followed, one of Esther's teachers had assigned the class to write about anything they desired. Esther, who was gifted imaginatively and told stories to her stories all the time, was excited at the opportunity to write about anything that interested her. Esther turned in her creative story, but did not receive the reaction she expected. After reading Esther's story, the teacher accused her of plagiarism in front of the class. After this unfortunate incident, Esther decided never to show her stories to teachers.
Esther spent two years at Bradford Junior Academy, graduating in 1912. When Esther was inspired by ideas that she wanted to write about, she would skip her classes to write, a habit that was not appreciated by her teachers. After graduation, she went to live in Wisconsin with her sister Cornelia. She took a few courses at the University of Wisconsin and finally found a teacher with whom she could share her work. It was during this time that she wrote a short story entitled "Breakneck Hill", which she submitted to the Grinnell Review. It won the O. Henry Prize for short stories for 1915.
Moving back to Massachusetts in 1918, she began work for Houghton Mifflin publishing company as a typist, but because she could not spell, the firm changed her job to reading unsolicited manuscripts. In 1926, she married Albert Hoskins, a lawyer, and published her first novel, O Genteel Lady!. She and Albert toured Europe for about a year, finally moving to New York. Soon after, they moved to Weston, after Albert took a job in Boston's probabtion department. The couple was unhappy, divorcing in 1933.
That same year, Esther moved back to Worcester to live with her mother, sisters, and brother Alan. Esther's mother assisted her with historical research for her novels, since Esther had such poor eyesight. She wrote Mirror for Witches in 1928. The book narrated the experiences of a witch from the perspective of a Puritan defending the actions taken against the witch. The New York Herald Tribune hailed it as "a terrific novel". It was not to be Esther's last.
She published several different books during the period between 1935 and 1954, including: Miss Marvel (1935); Paradise (1937), a book about the early settlements; The General's Lady (1938), based on the true story of Bathsheba Spooner, who plotted to murder her patriot husband so that she could run away with an Englishman; Paul Revere and the World He Lived In (1942), which won the Pulitzer Prize for history in that year; Johnny Tremain (1943); The Boston Book (1947); America's Paul Revere (1948); and Rainbow on the Road (1954), a novel about a painter who travels throughout New Hampshire.
Esther is best remembered for Johnny Tremain: A Novel for Young and Old. When she first sent the manuscript to Harcourt-Brace, the publishers altered it a great deal, which upset Esther. She sent the book off to Houghton Mifflin, under the agreement that they would publish it unaltered. Released in 1943, Johnny Tremain was unique because it told the story of the American Revolution through the eyes of an ordinary boy, rather than an important leader of the Revolution. The Saturday Review extolled Forbes' ability to recreate the face of "ordinary" participants in such spectacular events as "the Boston Tea Party, to the Battle of Lexington and of North Creek." The novel has never been out of print, and was later made into a film by the Walt Disney company.
Esther published The Running of the Tide in 1959. It won the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Novel Award, and MGM bought the rights for book, commissioning Clark Gable to play the lead. Unfortunately, MGM had financial problems at the time, so the movie was left unmade.
Esther was working on another book about witchcraft when she died on August 12, 1967. The first draft had already been sent to the publishing company, but the work was never finished. Esther was the first woman member of the American Antiquarian Society and left the rights to her books to the Society.