When Louise May Alcott published Little Women in 1868, it was after years of publishing and trying to publish material for adults. But in order to support her family, Alcott agreed to her publisher's request that she write a novel for young readers--something she was not entirely interested in doing. But Alcott was a pragmatist and her father, Bronson Alcott, failed transcendentalist, brought in exactly zero money to the household. So, again, at the urging of her publisher, Little Women, which was originally published with that title as Part I, and Part II (originally published as Good Wives) came to be.
A little more history: Since then, Little Women, while largely positioned as children's literature before Young Adult was a thing, has never been out of print. Further, it has been the subject of numerous film adaptations (notably the 1949 version with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy, 1994 with Winona Ryder as Jo, and 2019's Greta Gerwig's celebrated--and significantly altered--version with Saoirse Ronan as Jo). The Canadian Opera staged a Little Women opera. And there have been numerous retellings of the novel: The Spring Girls: A Modern-Day Retelling of Little Women by Anna Todd, Littler Women: A Modern Retelling by Laura Schaefer, The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly, The Little Women: A Novel by Katharine Weber, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, a graphic novel version of the story, by Rey Terciero and illustrated by Bre Indigo, and, most recently, Meg and Jo by Virgina Kantra, which will be followed by its sequel, Amy and Beth (Perry and Kantra).
In other words, as a coming-of-age novel, it has had a significant and lasting effect on young readers, primarily young women, for a century and a half.
FULL DISCLOSURE: My own experience as a young reader was greatly shaped by reading Little Women. I did not come from a family of readers, though my mother became one. I had an Aunt who would, in the summer months, take me and my sister to a local library to escape brutal summer heat. And, as is probably a story not unfamiliar to you, I found solace and comfort of another sort in books. I raced through all the Little House books and through all the books about horses, queens, and First Ladies available to me. And then my cousin Susan, who was many years my senior, seemed to notice that I was a reader, and, in a tremendous show of support in a family that did not entirely trust or value books, Sue bought me my copy of Little Women.
Here is a photo of the cover of my copy that I read, every summer, like a pilgrimage, from roughly the time I was 9 years old until I went away to college--and even every once in a while after. You can also see here the book plate with my ridiculous hand-writing and, finally, the inscription from my cousin--I look at her writing and she seemed as young as me, though she was my older, glamorous cousin who had a job and a car and an apartment.
The March girls became touchstones to me, marking different parts of my personality at different points in my life. And, as a text, it challenged me as a reader when I was young and led me to other texts as I grew older--The Brontes, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton. And then on to Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison. And on and on. My cousin Sue died this past year of an aggressive cancer, and I tell you that to commemorate this person who was so important to the person I've become now. For me, it's the books and the people that gave them to me that make me the person you know in class each week.
NOTE: I owe a debt of gratitude to my former honor's thesis student and former 344 student Jess Rinker who wrote her own revisioning of the novel this past summer and whose research on the retellings I rely on here.
WHAT TO POST THIS WEEK: In your Book Club Journals, I've asked you to talk about the text as "young," "adult" and "literature" and to consider the characteristics of YA fiction that we touched on in class (I've posted more about this in each groups book club google.doc). And I've discussed at length the longevity of the story of Little Women and that is for good reason: in so many ways, it is a novel that I a predecessor of a great many of the kinds of stories that populate the YA lexicon. This week I'm challenging the idea of the timeless of the novel. Instead of a teaching discussion post this week, I'm challenging you to re-imagine Little Women for a 21st Century YA reader.
If you were going to update Little Women, how might you do it? In 300 words, provide a synopsis of your 2020 version of the classic Little Women. RESPOND in roughly 100-200 words to at least one of your colleagues by either building on their update idea and/or suggesting why you think, as a reader or a teacher, this would work as an update (or wouldn’t).