Tag Archives: Louisa May Alcott

Little Women

I was about eleven, maybe twelve, and I thought it was a stupid title. Unga Kvinnor it was called in Swedish. But it was a gift – most likely from the Retired Children’s Librarian – and in those days I combed the shelves at home for possible books to read, so I read it. Despite the title.

It didn’t take many pages before I was hooked and I loved it and I read everything about the March girls, like generations of other young females.

Little Women

We went to see the film this weekend and on the way home Daughter and the Resident IT Consultant ‘fought’ over who’d get to read it first. It’s probably a reflection on them having enjoyed the film… As did I. The director, Greta Gerwig, is quite possibly a genius.

Starting at the end made a tremendous difference. If nothing else, it created a sort of Schrödinger’s Beth; you never knew whether she was still alive, or not. At times it was a little hard to be sure where in the story we were, although the length of Jo’s hair helped.

I hope lots of young readers will see this film, and not just us oldies who know what to expect. I hope it means they will read the book, and that it will change many lives. Apart from my early dislike of the title, I grew up at a time when classics got the attention they deserve. Now, I suspect most younger readers stick with new fiction [because there is so much of it]. Emma Watson has helped, by hiding/leaving copies of the book in London, as well as thousands across the UK as a whole.

Find it, read it, and leave it for someone else to discover.

Louisa May Alcott, Unga kvinnor

Women

For International Women’s Day I thought I’d tell you about Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science, as well as Ma Isabel Sánchez Vegara’s books about Agatha Christie and Marie Curie in the Little People, Big Dreams series. They are the perfect way for children – boys and girls – to learn about Agatha and Marie, as well as the many intelligent and successful women in Rachel’s illustrated book about female scientists.

But I’m going to tell you about Mother-of-Witch instead. For obvious reasons, newspapers have had more ‘women articles’ in the last week. And the more I read them and the more I thought of this special day for women, the more irritated I got. The Q&A with Gloria Steinem in the Guardian was better than expected, but when even someone like her can write about reading Little Women as a child saying ‘it was the first time I realised women could be a whole human world,’ I thought enough is enough.

It’s the kind of thing I never discovered. Because I didn’t need to. As the only child of a single mother I never harboured doubts about what women did or could do or were allowed to do. The whole idea is alien to me.

My mother had a humble start, but she pulled herself up by her bootstraps, achieving a lot in her life. For me it seemed so natural and obvious that I hardly appreciated her efforts. (I’m a bit of a disappointment, not following in her footsteps or anything, but that’s another story.) If it needed doing, she did it.

That’s not to say she repaired the car exactly, but she had a car. And when our landlord came to change the washers in the bathroom taps, she peered over his shoulder to see how it was done. Later on as a house owner, she knew what to do (while her male colleague barely knew what a washer was).

For girls of her background the choice at school was cooking or typing. She was intelligent, so was allowed to learn to type. The – prizewinning – typing took her away from her home town, and she perfected her secretarial skills and was doing really well. And then I turned up, so she took those skills and got herself a teaching job, passing on her knowledge to countless students at a sixth form college, while still being the girl who’d left school at 15.

So she could enjoy the same level of education as her students, she did some distance learning by correspondence, and when I was seven she achieved her goal. A few years later she got herself a university degree in much the same way. That was ideal for me; evening lectures meant we didn’t see much of each other, and for a young teenager that’s a good thing. We were also so poor we ate a lot of macaroni and pancakes, which I loved. I didn’t spare much thought to how hard she worked, or how much she worried about money.

Teenagers!

Her old boss, the head teacher at her first school, was getting old and wanted to surround himself with his favourite staff, so he designed a teaching post requiring such specific qualifications that only she could apply for the job, and almost overnight we found ourselves back where we started.

At fifty she bought a house, even though some of her students told her that houses ought to be for younger people who could ‘enjoy them properly.’ She changed washers as required and enjoyed that house until she died, many years later.

Mother-of-Witch didn’t need any special days for women. She needed a job and an education and a home, and she got it all. She also surrounded herself with lots of friends, nearly all single women, which meant that I grew up in an almost exclusively female environment.

And that house purchase; for the second viewing she brought me along. The salesman was dreadfully disappointed as he’d counted on a sale when she came back [‘with her husband’]. I’m still working on perfecting the look she gave him as he enquired about her lack of male company.

They have all been young

More thoughts on older, former child characters in books. In the Guardian article one author didn’t feel that reading about Jo March as a mother was quite as wonderful as when she was one of four young sisters. And someone else didn’t care for Anne Shirley as a mother.

I felt the opposite way about these two characters. It was a bit of a shock to find that young girls grow up and become old, and mothers, even vaguely sensible. But not all that sensible. There is still a bit of the girl in there.

Which to me is important to learn. I never knew what Mother-of-witch was like as a girl. I obviously knew she had once been one, and I have the photographs to guide me. But in some odd way I gave the girl in the photos exactly the same personality and level of maturity as the woman I lived with.

It wasn’t until I heard the story of how her older brother teased her when she was doing the washing up, that I could see how it might have been. She was six and he was twelve. She tried to retaliate by throwing water at him with the help of a jug she was washing up. Only, it slipped from her hands and broke.

And the tale of her plaits. Her father wanted his little girl to have girly long hair, but this was the early thirties and all the other girls at school had the new bobs. Her ten year older sister – always a very practical woman – cut off her plaits when their father was away, and then there wasn’t a lot he could do about it. (Whereas I had looked at her school photo and assumed plaits were what she wanted.)

So, I like having known Anne and Jo as girls, and then seeing them as women and mothers. It sort of explained to me how life works, and I felt you could always see the girl in them. Anne might be telling her own child off, but she remembers what she herself had been like. And so does the reader.

I’m very much in favour of finding out what happened after, as long as the author hasn’t lost their touch and written a dreadful book. That’s what matters, not the age of the character.

Besides, I know how childish I am, deep inside.

Dare to be honest?

When asked for the best children’s books, do you a) list the ones you truly loved the best, or b) mention the ones you reckon are expected of you? The ‘proper’ books of childhood.

Last week I was impressed to find I wasn’t totally alone in thinking the new list of 11 best books for under tens, published by the BBC wasn’t one I agreed with. They asked critics, who are supposed know about this. All adults, I imagine.

Charlotte’s Web, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Where the Wild Things Are, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Little Women, The Little Prince, Winnie-the-Pooh, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, A Wizard of Earthsea, A Wrinkle in Time, Little House on the Prairie.

These are fine books. But how much were they even the favourites when these critics were under ten, and how likely is it that they will continue to please young readers of today? Under ten 25 or 50 years ago is not the same as now. Much as I loved Little Women, I’d give it to an older reader today.

I’m not too keen on Roald Dahl. Never read Narnia, but accept that many have and will continue to do so. I have a feeling I’ve not got round to Charlotte’s Web, either. It’s one of those books that are always mentioned, and so well known that it can be hard to keep track of whether or not you’ve actually read it.

Surely this is primarily a list of the books a group of adults believe they loved the best, or feel are the books they ought to admit to in public? Rather like the castaways on Desert Island Discs, who were always asking for the Bible and Shakespeare, and I suspect, not always because those are the very best books in the world. True, there is a lot to read in both, but the choice feels more to be about what you dare say in public. Brave is the person who’d admit to not being a reader, or one who’d prefer Enid Blyton or Lee Child, to pick a couple of very popular writers.

As a foreigner, I feel I’m allowed not to know all these books from childhood. But if I were to choose my favourites, I feel I would be expected to go for Astrid Lindgren, rather than some unknown or forgotten light fiction (by that I mean there were lots of books I loved to bits, but where I either didn’t note the author’s name, or can’t remember it now). Nothing wrong with Astrid, I hasten to add, but whereas I liked Pippi Longstocking back then, today I’d rather not suggest her, but go for one of the others.

And there is that difference between now and then. What I liked 50 years ago, and what I reckon a little Bookwitch today would enjoy. It’s not the same. These critics would also not all be the same age, so their choices show a top eleven from the mid-20th century onwards.

If Offspring were under ten today, there are about four books on the list I’d give them (wouldn’t prevent them from picking any of the books themselves, of course). If I ever end up with Grand-Offspring, I might offer two of these books, and after that I’d go for much more recent books. There are countless wonderful reads for under tens from the last 25 years.

The Nights Before Christmas

This gorgeous, large volume of collected Christmas classics, illustrated by Tony Ross, contains 24 stories, poems and extracts from wellknown books. As anyone can work out from that – apart from me, initially – you have one thing to read for every night through December. In other words; the best kind of advent calendar.

Tony Ross, The Nights Before Christmas

There’s material you will already know, and hopefully brand new reads as well. I used to read The Little Match-Seller over and over as a child. It’s so very sad. And then there are things I didn’t know at all, like the fact that Christina Rossetti wrote In the Bleak Midwinter. That was a revelation.

You get extracts from Little Women and A Christmas Carol, and there are many tales about Christmas trees in various forms, and shoemakers seem to be big, too. The Bible and the hymn book both feature, as do Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain.

I believe I always say this about anthologies and collections, but I do hope it will lead today’s children to investigate some of the classics. There is more to Christmas than farting santas. This is a beautiful book, suitably ‘modernised’ by Tony’s pictures.

Next year I will begin reading on December 1st and I will enjoy every step of the way.

Unga kvinnor

Or Little Women to you.

I have just decided to get rid of my copy of Louisa May Alcott’s famous novel. Was that the right thing to do?

Louisa May Alcott, Unga kvinnor

When I began packing the contents of my bookshelves, I was hoping I’d find quite a few books – especially on the back row – that I no longer need. Prune hard, and my new life as a minimalistic witch will get off to a good start. But it turned out to be a disappointingly small number of books I could face parting with.

Unga kvinnor was one of them. I read and loved it when I was quite young. I’m guessing that must have been around its 100th birthday, and I was prejudiced enough not to want to read such an old book with such a stupid title. For whereas Unga kvinnor means exactly the same as Little Women (well, almost, since ung is young and not little), it seemed very antiquated at the time. Kvinna was a word used about old women (or so I believed), and I certainly had no need for a book about them.

But someone gave me a copy (probably the Retired Children’s Librarian again) and I read the book. It wasn’t the only stupidly titled book I had to eat my first opinion over.

Louisa May Alcott, Unga kvinnor

And ever since, the book has moved with me. It’s a classic. I liked it. You hang on to stuff like that. But as I tackled my shelves a couple of days ago, I looked at its mottled spine and – OK – its nice purple cover, and thought ‘we are done.’

It’s not that I believe I will never read it again. I definitely will, if I live long enough for my ‘house arrest’ reading. But not in translation. I have a copy of a recent Penguin Classics edition. And I’m snob enough that I see no reason for reading anything but the English language version from now on.

Does that make getting rid of a childhood friend all right?

Louisa May Alcott, Unga kvinnor

How old is old?

One correspondent I’ve found through this blog told me just the other day that her 14-year-old doesn’t read old books. The old/new boundary is currently set at 2005, so ‘not old’ means that fairly recent books will fail the age test.

And here I thought I was a failure for not persuading Offspring to read old-ish stuff more than once in a blue lagoon. Being old-ish (very -ish in fact) myself I find there is nothing strange about books not written yesterday or not featuring mobile phones. Or even relatively vampire free.

As we oldies keep saying; back in the olden days we had fairly few new books and it was natural to read old ones. In fact, I’d take that a step further and say that I actively preferred historical books, and in those days historical seemed to mean they were written in historical times, rather than just set a few hundred years ago.

OK, Dumas wrote about his musketeers long after the period when the story was set, but they were still pretty ancient. Ivanhoe and Oliver Twist and Tom Sawyer (to pick some childhood classics that come to mind) were all written long ago, even then.

I think I felt them to be more real. I know I did crave a book that would mention modern things occasionally, and was really happy when a Danish ‘current’ novel mentioned the Hep Stars. But with hindsight I see that it can’t have been a very valuable read since I don’t recall either the title or the author. Or what it was about.

Other than the Hep Stars book, ‘modern’ seemed to mean set in the 1950s. Perhaps that’s why the musketeers made more sense? Would Offspring’s lives be richer for more Dumas or Dickens, Austen or Alcott? All excellent, but because they are old doesn’t mean better.

Anyone who won’t consider a pre-2005 book will miss a lot. On the other hand, there are a tremendous number of truly great books that do qualify. And since you can’t possibly read everything, age is probably as good a selection tool as any other.

Reading only books with blue covers, or just books by authors whose name begins with an M? Or only novels about vampires? No, the latter doesn’t narrow it down very much, does it?