Fun, surprises and inspiration at John Matteson’s book signing of The Annotated Little Women

This past Sunday, November 8, a group of Alcott enthusiasts had the distinct pleasure of attending a book signing and reading with John Matteson, the editor of The Annotated Little Women at The Concord Bookstore.


louisa may alcott played by Jan TurnquistAs he was about to speak, we were greeted with a surprise guest, “Louisa” (aka Jan Turnquist) herself! She seemed flummoxed at first by our presence and then astonished as she learned we were about to hear about a gorgeous and rich version of her classic novel. We all smiled knowingly. She saw the book and was pleased at the beauty of the volume and then caught sight of Matteson who introduced himself and kissed her hand.

kissing the hand of louisa may alcott

It was a sweet and humorous moment, a great way to begin this reading.

The connection of family

john matteson talksMatteson went on to speak of his personal connection to Little Women, and how the importance of family brought him to know and write about the Alcotts. He shared of his years as a struggling grad student, married and with a daughter. He became a stay-at-home dad all the while wondering how he would advance in his career as he saw colleagues publishing papers and making names for themselves. This season of waiting would end up becoming a rich time of formation.

Approached for a book project

Publishing his first essay in 2001 in the New England Quarterly (an essay which had nothing to do with the Alcotts), Matteson was approached by a literary agent who wanted to discuss a book project. Matteson had no particular book in mind but the agent in his wisdom, continued to work with him. A book on nineteenth century Utopian communities was decided upon and Matteson began his research by visiting Fruitlands where he first encountered Bronson Alcott. As they say, the rest is history.

Family parallels

eden's outcasts bigMatteson was fascinated by Bronson and decided to write the book about him. As he researched the family, he came to know Louisa and saw some amazing parallels between his life and that of Bronson, both teachers and “quixotic” fathers intimately involved in the raising of strong, “verbal” daughters; for one thing, the age difference between father and daughter were nearly the same (off by just seventeen days).

And thus, the idea of Eden’s Outcasts, a biography of Bronson and daughter Louisa, was born. It would go on to win the Pulitzer prize. Quite a feat for a first book!

How The Annotated Little Women came to be

Annotated-LITTLE-WOMEN_978-0-393-07219-8The love affair between Matteson and the Alcotts continued with his work on The Annotated Little Women. Published by Norton, Matteson was approached by the company to produce this book which is part of their ongoing series of annotated classics. Originally thinking the book would be a simple project, it ended up being an intense and amazing discovery of endless and fascinating connections between the fictional world of the March family and the reality of the Alcotts.

Intimate connections

No other book, not The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland nor any other classic can boast the intimate connections that Little Women can. There are no silver slippers from Oz but there are real artifacts from Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. The coffers were opened to Matteson revealing astonishing links: Meg’s (Anna’s) wedding dress, Louisa (Jo) and Lizzie’s (Beth) sewing kits, May’s (Amy’s) foot cast, Abba’s (Marmee) chess set … the list goes on and on; Matteson connected such artifacts to actual passages in Little Women. These artifacts, not normally available for public viewing, are on display at Orchard House during the month of November. Photographs of these mementos appear throughout The Annotated Little Women.

Stories and more stories

reacting to miss alcott

photo by Kristi Martin

Matteson told fascinating stories about some of the other 220 illustrations in the book. He cited a passage where Amy, writing from Europe, described a purple dress (which she thought horrid) worn by the Empress of France. Matteson then gave the background: how a chemist discovered the color of magenta, how the Emperor Napoleon III had won a military victory in the town of Magenta, and how the Empress wore magenta dresses in honor of husband whenever she could to honor him in public.

He spoke about the seemingly random inclusion of a photograph of a queen from Hawaii whom Louisa happened to spot during her trip to Europe–Amy writes of this in her letters home to her family.

Personal story that resonates

By far the most interesting connection was the inclusion of a precious artifact belonging to Matteson, a simple autograph of Bronson with the phrase, “Follow the Highest!” (found on page 347). Earlier in his talk Matteson spoke of an unfavorable review of Eden’s Outcasts by Publisher’s Weekly, leaving him feeling dejected. It took the wisdom of his then thirteen-year-old daughter to remind him of his reason for writing the book: because he had something unique to say and people needed to hear it.

Looking out intently at his audience, he urged us all to do the same: “Follow the Highest!” Many of us left that book signing with far more than an autograph inscribed in our books.

a cherished signed copy

photo by Kristi Martin

Thank you John Matteson for retaining that true teacher’s heart so present in the spirit of Amos Bronson Alcott.

p.s. Don’t miss the special exhibit of artifacts at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House only through the month of November. See locks of hair from Louisa and Lizzie, Abba’s chess set, Lizzie’s sewing box and New Testament, and more!

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Book Review: River of Grace from In the Bookcase blog

00 cover drop shadow 150 pixels

louisa-may-alcott-2015-reading-challenge-bannerI received a comprehensive and beautiful review of River of Grace from our friend Tarissa of the In the Bookcase blog (she’s the one who did the Louisa May Alcott reading challenge with us over the summer). Here’s a taste of it:

Susan Bailey is an accomplished researcher of all things pertaining to American author Louisa May Alcott (Little Women). Myself, also being a reader of Miss Alcott’s books, found joy in the way that Susan Bailey shares about her favorite authoress. Miss Alcott’s books, which all exude child-like happiness, wedged themselves into Susan’s soul and allowed her to identify parallels and discover herself again. It’s funny how words that were penned over 100 years ago still create fresh currents in our minds and hearts; it can happen to any of us.

You can read the rest of the review here, and be sure and browse the other posts on Tarissa’s wonderful blog for book reviews and selections.

Thank you Tarissa!

You can order your copy of River of Grace from Amazon.

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The Annotated Little Women edited by John Matteson is a treasure

Just when you think there can’t be anything more revealed about the Alcotts, something new and wonderful comes our way.

A treasure chest

This rich and gorgeous volume of Little Women is filled with treasures that delight any fan of the March family from the casual reader to the Alcott wonk (like me). John Matteson never fails to amaze me with his insight into Louisa May Alcott; in his introduction and biographical account he brings a fresh approach to the children’s classic and its author that goes far beyond the familiar feminist interpretation. Matteson presents a well-rounded picture of each sister, focusing on what Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy bring to the table for readers today. As a Beth fan myself, I was so pleased to see how he gave this often misunderstood character her due, praising her faith, courage and graciousness when facing certain death.

From the vaults of Orchard House

There are many never-seen-before photos in this book from the archives of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House–stunning remnants of a memorable family which include locks of hair from Louisa and Lizzie, rare new photos of Anna, Lizzie’s New Testament (only recently discovered) and drawings by May of her nephews. Such remnants link the real Alcott sisters to their fictional counterparts in such an intimate way.

Beautifully designed

Norton did a magnificent job with assembling and designing this book–my husband said it looked like a Bible! My only quibble is that some of the paintings and drawings printed on the dark side.

edit_c_michelle_rollo_mattesonLouisa’s gift and genius

Matteson concludes his biographical account with this sentence: “As a writer, as a person, Louisa May Alcott’s greatest success lay in the invisible gifts she gave to others.” So true. John Matteson does a magnificent job in extracting those gifts and revealing them to the world.

More to come

P1080229In the next few days I will get into more detail about what I found in the introduction and the biographical account. I have pages of notes to sort through; that’s how rich this was!

In the meantime, help yourself to this great book!
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Announcing a musical soundtrack to my upcoming book, “River of Grace”!

I’m getting pretty excited; the launch date for River of Grace is a mere 7 weeks away! (It’s available now for pre-order on Amazon at a reduced price.) But there’s something else in the works too.

  • Imagine that you are reading River of Grace and you find it really speaks to you.
  • Now imagine that book accompanied by a musical soundtrack.
    • A song for each chapter that will play in your head as you think about what you read.
    • A way to carry that book with you all throughout the day.

I dreamed a dream …

susan with book coverI have been a professional singer for many years; four years ago I thought I had lost my voice forever. Yet somehow, miraculously, my voice did return. Ever since I have dreamt of having a collection of songs recorded to go along with River of Grace. These were the songs that came to mind as I wrote the book. Summarizing the stories and lessons, these songs are a great way to ponder and pray on the message of River of Grace, a message of the creative power of life and how each day can become an adventure even in the worst of circumstances.

What’s on the CD?

The CD will contain my take on two classics, the Quaker hymn “How Can I Keep from Singing” and a favorite of the Unitarian faith, “Spirit of Life.” I am re-imagining three of my own songs (one of which is the tribute to Louisa and Lizzie), and, I have two new songs I’ve written. Each song relates directly to a chapter in the book. Learning the song and listening to it in your head (or even singing it) is a wonderful way to think about what you have read.

How you can help

Recording a CD involves a lot of work and expense. While you can’t help with the work, you can help through your contribution to my Indiegogo campaign.

The campaign

IGG_Logo_NEWI am looking to raise $1600 in 30 days to cover the cost of producing this CD. No contribution is too small – $1, $5, whatever you feel moved to give. I’ve included some cool rewards for those of you who wish to contribute more—you can see it all here on my Indiegogo campaign page.

If you can’t contribute, you can still help by spreading the word to everyone you know—there are easy ways to share on my campaign page.

Campaign video

The campaign is introduced by a short video where I explain the project and provide samples of songs on the CD. I will be updating my progress on the CD through the 30-day period with additional videos and sound bites.

Excited? I am! Come on over to my Indiegogo campaign and let’s get started!

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Why are you obsessed with Louisa? Why am I?

River of Grace is available for pre-order through

I pondered that question during the two years spent writing my book, River of Grace. Because Louisa was an important part of this book, I had to figure out first, why I was obsessed with her, and second, how she has acted as my grief counselor, and as a result, guiding me back into my creative life.

Early attraction

I knew that as a child I was attracted to tomboy Louy. In River of Grace I wrote,

Louisa had captured my imagination as a girl. I was introduced to her through a story of her life given to me by my aunt. I felt a kindred spirit with the tomboy who put on plays with her sisters in the family barn, struggled with a bad temper, wrote stories in the apple tree, and longed for a room of her own. As an adult I identified with Louisa’s severe mood swings and how she lost herself in her writing, falling into what she called her “vortex.” Having experienced many of these things myself, I found that reading about Louisa helped me to understand myself a bit better. (from Chapter 4 of River of Grace, published by Ave Maria Press)

joan howard story of lma 190That children’s biography was Joan Howard’s The Story of Louisa May Alcott. It was wonderful meeting another little girl who loved to put on plays and write, and had bad temper tantrums, just like me. And she craved time alone, cherishing her sacred spaces, just like me.

Meeting the adult Louisa

cover of Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott by Martha Saxon

cover of Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott by Martha Saxon

My first adult encounter with Louisa was Martha Saxton’s biography, Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography. As much as Saxton has been criticized for her scholarship, that book taught me a lot about depression and its relationship to anger (depression being anger turned inward). The mood swings I experienced in my twenties were epic; at the same time I was at the peak of my musical creativity and songwriting. Knowing there was another young woman who had experienced that made me feel a little less alone in the world,

Going to the source

Louisa May Alcott Her Life, Letters and JournalsReading Louisa’s own words certainly helps in figuring it all out. I am currently going through Ednah Dow Cheney’s book, Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters and Journals. While I don’t care all that much for Cheney’s writing (too disjointed), I am enjoying hearing Louisa speak for herself.

The misery …

I had to smile at this passage from Louisa’s journal:

John Brown’s daughters came to board, and upset my plans of rest and writing when the report and the sewing were done. I had my fit of woe up garret on the fat rag-bag, and then put my papers away, and fell to work at housekeeping. I think disappointment must be good for me, I get so much of it; and the constant thumping Fate gives me may be a mellowing process; so I shall be a ripe and sweet old pippin before I die.

I am not the only one who throws a hissy fit when my creative plans are interrupted. I’ll bet she vented out loud a lot in that garret! And I’m willing to bet she suffered from aggravation as much as I do. No wonder she had headaches (I do too!).

And the pleasure …

This was during her first draft of Moods:

All sorts of fun was going on; but I didn’t care if the world returned to chaos if I and my inkstand only “lit” in the same place.

It was very pleasant and queer while it lasted; but after three weeks of it I found that my mind was too rampant for my body, as my head was dizzy, legs shaky, and no sleep would come.

Oh yeah. Totally get that! Especially the first part.

I’ll continue on this vein in the next post where I will explain how Louisa became my grief counselor.

Why are you obsessed with Louisa?

Elizabeth’s form of genius; Beth’s power in Little Women (guest post by Kristi Martin)

Warning: this is a long post but I believe, well worth the time. I was so fascinated when I first heard the presentation at the Summer Conversational Series that I opted not to take notes and just enjoy it!)

560 kristi martin

Kristi Martin

At the recent Summer Conversational Series, Kristi Marti (tour guide de force; she has been a guide at nearly every major historical home in Concord) presented her paper on the genius exhibited in each of the Alcott sisters. Normally we don’t think of genius extending to the quieter sisters Anna and Elizabeth; Kristi presented a compelling argument in favor of Lizzie’s form of genius which extends in the character of Beth March in Little Women. Kristi was kind enough to send me a copy of her paper, a portion of which I am presenting here as a guest post.

From “Beth’s Stage-Struck!”: The Alcott Sisters and “the Difference Between Talent and Genius,” presented on Monday, July 14, 2014 at the Summer Conversational Series at Orchard House:

Surrounded by genius

560 kristi teaching2The daughters of Abigail and Amos Bronson Alcott were no strangers to “Genius.” Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May were immersed within a community of New England’s most renowned literary and artistic intellects, with Lydia Maria Child, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and artist Washington Allston among their parents’ dignified and intimate friends. Indeed, Hawthorne and Emerson were the Alcott family’s sometime neighbors in Concord, with Thoreau living in the same town. Like the four muses, each of the four sisters possessed striking talents in different branches of the arts: Anna possessed a passion for theater, Louisa had a gift of words and expression, which took a literary bent; Elizabeth was a musician; and, the youngest, May, was an accomplished artist …

Henry David Thoreau, Lydia Marie Child, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Henry David Thoreau, Lydia Marie Child, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Kristi weaves her discussion of the Alcott sisters in with the fictional March sisters. Here she begins her discussion of Beth’s importance to the story, and the real life young woman Beth was based upon:

Beth’s unsung role in Little Women

jo and beth… But Jo does have a conscience. As Beth lay ill with scarlet fever, Jo tells Laurie, “Beth is my conscience, and I can’t give her up.” (Little Women, pg. 188) With Beth confined to her sick bed it becomes clear that quiet, shy, and domestic Beth has perhaps the largest sphere of influence in the novel. “Everyone missed Beth. The milkman, baker, grocer, and butcher… even those who knew her best were surprised to find how many friends shy little Beth had made.” (Little Women, pg. 186) As Jo witnessed Beth’s physical distress, she “learned to see the beauty and the sweetness of Beth’s nature, to feel how deep and tender a place she filled in all hearts, and to acknowledge the worth of Beth’s unselfish ambition to live for others, and make home happy by the simple virtues which all may possess, and which all should love and value more than talent, wealth, or beauty.” (Little Women, 185) Meek and too often taken for granted, I contend that Beth is in fact the most powerful character in the novel. Her influence is quiet, but potent. It is Beth who suggests the girls buy Christmas presents for Marmee, rather than themselves (Little Women, pg. 7) It is Beth who sanctions Laurie’s admittance into the Pickwick Club. “Yes, we ought to do it, even if we are afraid,” Beth advises her sisters, “’I say he may come…’ This spirited burst from Beth electrified the club…” and Laurie was voted in unanimously (Little Women, pg. 108). It is Beth who makes the invalid Frank laugh more than he has in “ever so long.” Amy boasts of her sister’s captivating qualities, “Beth is a very fastidious girl, when she likes to be…,” Amy, of course “meant ‘fascinating.” (Little Women, 104) Beth’s strength is both a moral power and a useful power.

Lizzie’s sense of humor

lizzie alcott2Alcott scholars have been disappointed in the archival material left by Elizabeth Alcott. Unassuming and private, Elizabeth’s writings are not overtly revelatory when compared to the voluminous journals and letters left by other members of her family. Her family too was troubled by her quiet evasiveness, her father complaining that she hid her “feelings in silence.” (Madelon Bedell, The Alcotts Biography of a Family, pg. 247). Family biographer Bedell wrote, “One might seek forever in those childish pages for a word or even an intimation of a wish, a dream, a longing, a reaction, or a feeling, and never find it.” (Bedell, pg. 248) This, however, is somewhat of an exaggeration. Alcott biographer John Matteson refers to “spirited arguments” Elizabeth had with a friend over vegetarianism, but he too concludes that Lizzie seemed “never to have wanted more from life than a quiet, comfortable smallness.” (John Matteson, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, pg 186) Yet, Susan Bailey has uncovered some of Lizzie’s letters in the archives of Houghton Library, which are more telling. There is a passive aggressiveness in some of her letters to her father, the yearning for attention and affection. Other family members’ letters intimate her depression during her final illness, the “natural rebellion” that Louisa hints at in Little Women as well. Lizzie possessed a resiliency and the Alcottian humor of her mother and sisters, too. As she was dying in 1858, Louisa wrote in her journal that Lizzie was trying to keep her sister’s spirits up (The Journals, pg. 88). Louisa also delighted in Lizzie’s letters, telling Anna that Lizzie “writes me the funniest notes.” (The Selected Letters, pg. 9). This sense of humor comes through strongly in one of Lizzie’s extant letters written to her family, while she and her mother Abba were traveling for Lizzie’s health. Lizzie teasingly admonishes her father that if “he grows thinner on her account … I shant write any more letters … and he will not know how I am. It must seem so good not to have to run every minute to my bell or hush all the time. I know you miss your little skeleton very much don’t you.[sic]”. Telling of her journey, she recalled a woman who “put her head” into the carriage “very saucily to inquire if I was an invalid and where going if I had been sick long.” She seems to have disliked the impertinent concern of some: “Miss Hinkley came in, and was horridly shocked at my devouring meat … and stared her big eyes at me, she will probably come to deliver another lecture soon. I don’t care for the old cactus a bit,” (Letter, August 6, 1857; see previous post with entire letter) sounding like Louisa.

Was Lizzie actually like Beth?

beth and jo march from little womenDistinctly unlike Beth in Little Women, who “was too shy to enjoy society,” (Little Women, pg. 380) at the seashore, Lizzie was ecstatic at the idea of visiting the ocean. She wrote, “Joy, Joy, we are going to Lynn.” Far from not wanting a world beyond her home, she declared that she was “not homesick one grain,” but enjoying herself at the Sewall home in Boston. She reported that she played checkers in the evening, and went often to Boston Common in company with Tom, which was “delightful.” In this letter, Lizzie did not seem to shrink from society, but rather to observe those around her. As with the woman in the carriage, Lizzie wrote of her cousin Mary: “She is a queer girl and spends such funny days, mending old sheets and looking at me while I eat my food…” Those around Elizabeth seem to have been concerned and solicitous for her comfort and welfare. (Letter, August 6, 1857) Like Beth, Lizzie seemed to make friends wherever she went. Louisa wrote after the funeral that the family had longed for their uncle Samuel May or Theodore Parker to preside over the service, remarking that Parker “loved Lizzie and always missed her face when she was not at church.” (The Letters, 33)

Making sense out of death

Coming to terms with the inevitable

Coming to terms with the inevitable

In Little Women, Beth is able to die peacefully, content in the knowledge that “her life had not been useless.” (Little Women, pg. 427) She entreated Jo to take her place in the household, assuring her, “you’ll be happier in doing that than writing splendid books or seeing the world.” (Little Women, pg. 428) Both Beth and Lizzie’s death is presented as “the good death.” Like “Sylvia” in Alcott’s Transcendental novel Moods, Beth/Lizzie “proved that she did know how to die,” a Thoreauvian principle, that Alcott envisioned as “strength purified and perfected…,” an “unconscious power, which we call influence of character .. which is the nobelest.” Alcott, Louisa May. Moods. (Ed. Sarah Elbert. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999), pg. 203) Both Beth and Sylvia’s deaths, perform an Emersonian compensation, in which the true purpose is gained within a seeming loss. It is Beth, the domestic character, who is Jo’s conscious. Beth thus comes to represent true genius in the novel, which in Alcottian terms is the higher conscious that she embodies. In giving writing advice to an admirer, Louisa quoted Michael Angelo: “Genius is infinite patience.” (The Selected Letters, pg. 231) It is Beth/Lizzie who exemplified infinite patience, both in the novel and real life. When Jo finally has success with her writing, it is only when she writes a story with “truth in it,” and she credits her parents and Beth for the goodness that is in her book. (Little Women, pg. 446)

How do you feel about Beth’s role in Little Women? Did she possess genius? Were you surprised at the sauciness of the real life Elizabeth?

Kristi also had many interesting things to say about May Alcott which I will present in the next post.

Children’s book recommendation: Beyond Little Women by Susan Bivin Aller

Because a children’s book opened the way to my passion for Louisa May Alcott, I am always interested in reading other accounts meant for children. So when I came across Beyond Little Women A Story about Louisa May Alcott I was eager to read it. It was published in 2004, written by Susan Bivin Aller and illustrated by Qi Z. Wang.

beyond little women by Susan Bivin Aller

Rough start

Classified as “Juvenile Biography” the book is written as a narrative, laying out the story of Louisa May Alcott mainly as a writer. In general I enjoyed the book but unfortunately, the very first line in chapter one is in error: “Four years old today!” Aller is referring to the infamous incident at the Temple School when Louisa was celebrating her birthday and had to give the last plummy cake to one of the other children. It was her first bittersweet lesson in self-sacrifice; the reward was a kiss from her mother.

The book’s strength

The problem is that Louisa was three, not four, when this incident occurred. The author also cited Bronson’s age incorrectly (at least the mistake was consistent). Such an obvious error is off-putting but putting that aside, I found the book improved once Aller started describing Louisa’s writing. She did a good job of summarizing Louisa’s rather complex career beginning with writing for magazines, her “blood and thunder” tales, her first novel Moods, her first success with Hospital Sketches and then the move to children’s literature as editor of Merry’s Museum and finally, Little Women.

Description of the vortex

Aller is the first writer I’ve seen describe Louisa’s vortex in a way most could understand: “When Louisa was captured by an idea, she wrote almost nonstop for days. It was like being in the center of a whirl of ideas that she couldn’t escape until the work was finished.” She went to say that “These tremendous bursts of writing, followed by physical collapse, became Louisa’s typical pattern.”

Describing how Louisa found her writing voice

She did a good job of explaining how Louisa came to know of her true writing voice with the popularity of Hospital Sketches: “The lesson to Louisa was clear. Writing from her own experience, about things she knew, was going to be the key to her success as a writer.” Little Women was the successful outcome of that lesson. However, Aller left out a key fact about Hospital Sketches: that it was born from letters Louisa wrote to her family about her Civil War experiences. Letter writing the vehicle by which Louisa found that voice.

As a means of expression

Her explanation for the “blood and thunder tales” (and the need for the “made-up name” of A. M. Barnard) was simplistic but true. She briefly touched upon Bronson’s insistence that Louisa tame her emotions in order to become more “feminine;” Aller writes, “If she had to repress her true feelings in everyday life, then she would have to unleash them somewhere else.”

Lacking spark

In general the narrative was organized in a logical fashion and flowed well. The storytelling however, was dry. Louisa May Alcott is of interest to so many because of her own stormy personality and her passion for justice for the downtrodden, especially women and slaves. Very little of this spark and passion came through in the text. A child could read this book and come away with the facts but I’m afraid the inspiration would be wanting.

Rich artwork

The illustrations by Qi Z. Wang were wonderful and in some cases, filled in that gap of spark and passion. The resemblance of Louisa in the drawings to her photographs was very accurate. You can see samples here.

I enjoyed reading Beyond Little Women and would recommend it with the stipulation that children read other biographies and certainly sample Louisa’s books.

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