Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Louisa May Alcott: Essential Guide to Children's Books and Their Creators

Folks, I was a little ambivalent when I saw that the next entry in The Essential Guide to Children's Books and Their Creators was Louisa May Alcott. Don't get me wrong-Beth's death gets me every time when I reread Little Women. Unfortunately, I've met her other novels with mixed results. While I am initially charmed by the old-fashionedness (if that's a word) of the novels, I eventually can't take it anymore and have to read something written within the previous century, at least.

Again-I don't have anything against old books! I won an Illustrated Junior Library edition of Heidi when I was in second grade (it was for reading the most books in the library's summer reading program). I still have it. I thought it was gorgeous! It even had a paper bookplate with my name in it. I still love it, even though the Swiss may hate it. Colleen Dunn Bates thinks that Heidi is one of the more accessible children's classics for 21st century children, and I would have to agree (Bates took her family on a worldwide tour of children's literature landmarks-it's a fantastic read. Heidi's Alp: One Family's Search for Storybook Europe follows the same concept, but the travel is concentrated in Europe and it's more of a travelogue than a travel guide). The evocation of the mountain life, the golden cheese and warm bread eaten by Heidi, Heidi's loft, her friendship with Klara, and the very free life lived by Heidi on the mountain are things that children can definitely grasp and even envy.

But I digress. I merely wanted to point out that I have nothing against older books.

But those of you who aren't Little Women fanatics understand what occasionally crawls my skin when I read Alcott. The sentimentality, the gets old. Of course, if you know anything about Louisa May Alcott, you know she was more interested in writing stories involving blood and guts, murder and mayhem (not unlike Jo March). Alcott wasn't merely drawn to write because of her passion to write; she also wrote to support her family. And in her day, sentiment and cloy were what people wanted to read (if they weren't interested in blood and guts, murder and mayhem).

(Not that I abhor sentimentality. I adore Lucy Maud Montgomery, and Anne is as romantically and sentimentally minded as anyone. However, she has an inner spark and delight that has captured millions of fans, even if L.M.'s waning interest in the series is noticeable in the later books.)

Of course, Alcott's real character can be seen simmering beneath the surface of her writing, particularly in Little Women. You can see it in Jo's refusal to act dainty and demurely, in Jo's longing for further education, and in Marmee's admittance that she is frequently very angry. That's what makes it unique among her other novels, such as Eight Cousins.

Eight Cousins, Or the Aunt Hill, is the story of Rose, a young orphaned girl sent to live with her aunts. Rose is pale and a bit frail upon her arrival. The book is a series of vignettes with Rose and her boisterous boy cousins, Rose and her aunts, and Rose and her uncle, a doctor who's determined to make her well.

Alcott's readers know that she emphasizes young girls freely enjoying outdoor adventures and indoor imaginative play. This is no less apparent in Eight Cousins; Rose's aunts (some more so than others) would prefer Rose act like a sedate and demure young lady, while her uncle wants her to build up her strength.

It's undoubtedly a charming novel, and I'm interested enough to want to read parts of it every night. There are one or two sequels to the book, so we shall see what happens to Rose when she gets closer to young adulthood.

Some children react positively to older books, and others do not. Some older books clearly stand the test of time (Laura Ingalls Wilder's novels, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women), while others do not. The values of adventure, family, friendship, and growing up transcend the occasional "old fashioned" language and behaviors of the characters. While I'm not sure if I would place Eight Cousins in that category, I'm certainly more eager to sample Alcott's novels than I was at the start of this adventure (I'm saving a reread of Little Women for last).

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