Do take-offs on classics always work? Little Women and Me by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

I thought for fun I would try one of those fiction books based on Little Women.

The premise of Little Women and Me by Lauren Baratz-Logsted looked interesting: a 14-year-old high school freshman (Emily March) must write a paper for English class on a favorite book, where she is to pick three things she loved, and one thing she would change. Emily chooses Little Women (a favorite because of her last name), deciding she would like to save Beth from dying (although she’d also love to see Laurie end up with Jo). When she opens the book, she is transported back in time, into the story. She becomes the “middle March” sister!

Little Women with a twist

Little Women and Me follows the original Little Women faithfully, chapter by chapter (even skipping 3 years when the first volume ends and the second one begins – pretty confusing for Emily!). Baratz-Logsted explains in the Author’s Note how she would read a chapter in Little Women and then write the chapter for her book, inserting Emily into the mix.

What did I think?

I wish this book had worked for me but it didn’t. In fact, about a third of the way through I so disliked it that I scanned the rest of the book to see what happens, just to get it over with.

Not believable

The book didn’t work because the premise wasn’t believable. Much as I tried to go with the flow, I wasn’t buying it. This made the big twist at the end (which I won’t give away) even harder to swallow.

Unsympathetic main character

I couldn’t bond with Emily. She was disagreeable, self-absorbed, whiny … a typical teenager. Supposedly her experience of being a part of Little Women changed her but I didn’t care.

Little to go on

There was no character development of Emily before she was transported into Little Women. I never met her parents and only knew she had two sisters whom she was competing with for the affections of a boy. She also had a best friend. Oh, and I found out she was a middle sister and enjoyed writing. That’s it.

Lifeless characters

The original March sisters were, for the most part, flat stereotypes: Meg was prim, Jo was wild and boyish, Beth was sweet, Amy was selfish . . . yawn!

Laurie was flat too and Emily’s interest in him (she thought him “hot”) was lame.

A Jo I couldn’t like??

Baratz-Losted’s treatment of Jo made her almost as unlikeable as Emily. Jo came across as snarky, rude, brusque and uncaring. Where was the vibrant and strong spirit, the talented creative force that inspired so many readers? That Jo was not in this story. She was an unsympathetic character, constantly at odds with Emily. It should have been fun, but it wasn’t.

Beth the saving grace

No life was breathed into Meg and Amy was, well Amy. This is why Beth was a port in the storm. She was the only character that seemed real to me and she was the perfect foil for Emily.

The one winning part of Little Women and Me was Baratz-Logsted’s insights into the character of Beth. Emily’s observations of Beth’s tender care of her mutilated dolls, her love for her pets and her passion for home were touching and amusing. When Beth and Emily were together, Emily became someone I could like.

Feeling cheated

The most frustrating part of the book was that Emily was catapulted out of Little Women (and back to her own life) before the climax was reached – Jo turning down Laurie and Beth’s death. I never got to see how Emily would react to either event and that was my whole interest in the story!

Distractions

Finally, I found the constant references to current trends (computers, cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) and the use of slang words distracting. The book has only been out since 2011 and already it’s a bit dated (what teenager has a flip phone anymore?). Little Women and Me is missing that universal appeal that Little Women has.

Have any of you read Little Women and Me? What did you think of it? What do you think of books that work off of classics?


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Interview with Lauren Baratz-Logsted about her book, “Little Women and Me”

The Girls in the Stack blog posted a great interview with Lauren Baratz-Logsted about her “novel within a novel,” Little Women and Me. Sounds like a good read, I’ll have to add it to my ever-growing list. Here’s a sample of the interview with a link to the rest.

Writing a novel that takes place in another novel seems like a daunting task. (We picture endless re-reads of Little Women.) How much time and research went into for preparing to write Little Women and Me?
Mostly it involved re-reading it one chapter at a time and then deciding what Emily would think of things and how her presence might change each chapter. Readers may be surprised by two things in my book: 1) there are times when Emily suffers from “story amnesia,” finding herself surprised at certain plot twists that most readers of the original book would find hard to forget – it makes perfect sense to me that sometimes the story would surprise her because, just like there’s a difference between reading about a country and actually visiting it, I imagine there would be a huge difference between reading a novel and actually becoming part of the story; plus, over time, I think all our perceptions are affected by film adaptations of the novel. 2) Emily jumps out of the story before it ends, but again that makes sense to me because she was only ever supposed to be there until she did the one thing she needs to do to get out and at the point she leaves it’s because she and the writer and – hopefully – the reader have a big Eureka! moment.

Here’s the rest of the interview.


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Children’s story suggests Louisa’s inspiration for her first poem (and inspires a little song)

Remember Louisa May Alcott’s first poem, written when she was 8?

To the First Robin

Welcome, welcome little stranger,
Fear no harm, and fear no danger,
We are glad to see you here,
For you sing, “Sweet Spring is near.”

Now the white snow melts away;
Now the flowers blossom gay;
Come dear bird and build your nest,
For we love our robin best.

In a delightful children’s picture book, Louisa May & Mr. Thoreau’s Flute, authors Julie Dunlap and Marybeth Lorbiecki offer an intriguing suggestion as to what inspired Louisa to write her first poem, and discover “her own inner music – a wild melodious river of words that could carry her wherever she longed to be” (p. 29).

The setting

Dunlap and Lorbiecki’s charming story begins in Concord when the Alcotts lived at the Hosmer cottage (pre-Fruitlands). Right away they introduce the idea of Louisa’s exuberant spirit as the seven year-old girl  jumps from the ceiling beam of the Hosmer farm because of a dare from Cyrus Hosmer. The consequences included two sprained ankles and the writing of a long list of rules (given by her father) on the things “good” girls are supposed to do. Here it’s revealed how tedious Louisa finds the exercise of writing.

This would soon change.

Enter Mr. Thoreau

Because Louisa’s older sister Anna was being taught by Henry David Thoreau and his brother, John at Concord Academy, the Alcott girls had the good fortune of accompanying Mr. Thoreau on nature field trips.

Magic time

The authors did a wonderful job of describing Mr. Thoreau’s oddities (“Some even said he combed his hair with a pine comb.”). He had a magical way of opening up the world of nature to the children, mixing a fairy tale mentality (describing a cob web as a fairy’s handkerchief) and the soothing sounds of his flute. It is the music he played on this flute that particularly captures Louisa’s heart. She noticed too that Henry jotted down quick notes in a notebook about what was seen along the way. Did he write such magical words in that notebook?

Life changing

Henry David Thoreau opened up a whole new world to Louisa, one that beautifully accommodated her boundless physical energy. Louisa discovered how freeing the outside world could be. She soon found the indoors with its chores and rules confining, especially during the long, cold winter. But while she could be outside, she reveled in all her experiences with Mr. Thoreau, from berry picking to excursions in his boat, the Musketaquid, to his stories about elves dancing on toadstools.

Unlocking the door

Louisa May & Mr. Thoreau’s Flute does such a beautiful job of setting the stage for Louisa’s first experience of creative self-expression. Knowing personally the power of music, I could feel the sense of longing inside  brought to life by Mr. Thoreau’s flute. It was a key that unlocked the door to the rest of her life.

The birth of a poem

I found myself shedding a tear when, after the long cold winter, the first signs of spring awoke the writer in her which produced her first poem. It fueled my own longing to allow those creative urges inside of me to be expressed more fully.

An inspiration to children . . .

Even though Louisa May & Mr. Thoreau’s Flute is a children’s picture book (and the pictures by Mary Azarian are beautiful), there is plenty of good and accurate biographical information in this story.

I would hope that any child would be inspired to unlock their door to creativity by reading this wonderful book.

And adults

I immediately went to Amazon and bought Louisa May & Mr. Thoreau’s Flute – I wanted a keepsake to remind me not to suppress, but to develop and express, my artistic, musical and writing abilities.

A simple song

Here’s a little fruit from my reading, a very simple little melody for “To the First Robin.”  I made a rough recording of it on my iPod and I thought I’d share it with you.


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Talking with Jeannine Atkins, author of “Becoming Little Women”

As promised, here is the follow-up interview with Jeannine Atkins, the author of Becoming Little Women.

Susan, Thank you so much for the opportunity to reflect back on writing Becoming Little Women and the fascinating people who inspired my novel! And, always, for spreading your passion for Louisa May Alcott. Someone who is certainly worthy of coming back to again and again.

1. Fruitlands is a difficult topic for adults, what prompted you to write about it for children?

Louisa kept journals for most of her life, a habit I expect was important to her writing of fiction. I believe the first journals, at least to survive, are those she kept at Fruitlands. I see this as the beginning of Louisa’s long, productive writing career, beginning at age ten.

Particularly in my generation, many girls who wanted to be writers, or dreamed of independence, identified with Jo in Little Women. I’m happy girls still read that novel, and still want to be like Jo, but I wanted to show that Louisa’s writing stemmed from enduring hardships as well as having good times, such as writing and acting in plays with her sisters.

2. How did you research this book? How long did you work on it?

Around the same time I was writing Becoming Little Women, I wrote a picture book called Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon about a girl in the early 1800s who became the first person to make a living selling fossils. Mary came from a poor family and left school by age ten. There was very little documentation of her work.

Writing about the Alcotts was the opposite experience. Not only all the Alcotts, but it seemed like half the population of Concord, kept journals! I was able to read some from the family (holding original documents at Harvard’s Houghton Library was a highlight of my life) as well as accounts by people such as Ralph Waldo Emerson who visited the farm. I read, while doing other things, for about a year, then wrote and revised for two, maybe three, more years.

3. How does an author become comfortable enough with the history to write a fiction novel based on that history?

I grew up in Massachusetts, where I still live, and as a child visited Orchard House with dear cousins (including one named Meg, who is worthy of that name) and Fruitlands. Orchard House was a thrill of recognition for a girl who’d play-acted that book before I read it. But Fruitlands just seemed strange. I did feel haunted by the hot attic with slanting ceilings where the girls slept. I felt, before knowing many facts, how hard that must have been.

Writing historical fiction is somewhat like the play-acting of children. You take what is known, and then let your imagination go from there. I did have those wonderful diaries, but a lot was left out. As a historical novelist, I took it upon myself to read between the lines.

4. What inspired you to portray William Lane as you did?

Hearing about a boy who’d been separated from his mother and crossed the ocean with a father who was by almost every account grim kind of broke my heart. I tried to find out what happened to William, but ended up facing walls. I do know of biographers who work for years, even decades, trying to track down such information, and thank goodness these intrepid researchers exist. But I took my role as historical novelist to move as far as seemed sensible into research, then let speculation take over. I knew from the journals that William annoyed the girls, but as an adult I could understand the insecurities that might have made him hard to get along with. I tried to write about someone who might boast to try to gain a place in the world, while really being frightened. I thought back to a boastful, bossy boy in my neighborhood: as an adult, I can see things I didn’t as a child about why he might have acted as he did.

5. Anna seemed more normal, rather than saintly, in your story. How did you come by that portrait of her?

What we have of Anna’s journals are elegant, and the family thought she would be the writer. Sadly, her journals from Fruitlands were destroyed by her father (he also destroyed his own from that sad time). But that tells me something about Anna’s capacity for truth and description. It seems clear that the three oldest girls worked hard to please their parents. From Louisa’s viewpoint, her older sister managed her temper  better, and her admiration of that led to a portrait as sweet. But Anna longed for stability, and while she loved her family, surely it irked her to move so often and be asked to live so differently from neighbors. She really had to marry and have children to get the domestic life she dreamed of. And as a child, I expect she took out some frustration on her younger sisters, because she would never act out with her parents.

6. How do you feel about Bronson and Charles Lane?

Their ideals are admirable, but I really couldn’t stand these men. It was hard to understand how they couldn’t see the suffering of Abba and the children, or make this of less importance than their lofty goals. Louisa probably began to question her father at this time, but she always loved and defended him; one of my hardest tasks was to try to see him through her eyes.

7. Do you have a favorite scene or moment in the book?

I wept my way through much of writing the ending. A book for children should end with hope, I think, and of course there was always hope for Louisa. She spun gold out of difficult situations. I was glad to find a way to show how the anger she struggled with could also bring her some salvation.

To find out more about Jeannine and to purchase her books, visit her website at www.jeannineatkins.com.


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Book Review: “Becoming Little Women”

An experiment in a utopian community that only lasted seven months should have easily been forgotten in history, even if it included historically important people. Yet the fascination with Fruitlands continues as evidenced by Richard Francis’ book, Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia which came out this year. There is no doubt that Fruitlands was a cathartic experience for young Louisa May Alcott.

Fruitlands for children

Considering the extraordinarily complex and bizarre nature of the thinking behind Fruitlands, I was quite surprised to find a children’s book written about that very subject. Becoming Little Women: Louisa May at Fruitlands by Jeannine Atkins is an engaging fictional account based on the writings of Alcott family members.

The essence of Fruitlands

Atkins presented the philosophy behind Fruitlands in a concise and simple manner that children could understand (and adults could benefit from). Founded by Transcendentalists Bronson Alcott and Englishmen Charles Lane, Fruitlands was meant to help those living in the community to achieve divine perfection through simple living and high-minded thinking. The diet and methods of farming were devised to avoid any action that would support the slavery of humans, and of animals. The community was to live as one family where the children would have many “fathers” and “mothers”; the bonds of human love and family were discouraged in favor of the “consociate” family, meant to achieve a higher, divine form of love.

Becoming Little Women opens with the Alcotts and Lanes moving from Concord to the Fruitlands farm in Harvard during a dreary rain storm. It is a fitting beginning for an experiment not only doomed to failure, but also perpetrating one of the most traumatic crises to strike the Alcott family.

Louisa at 10

Atkins paints a picture of a ten year-old Louisa, full of life, vigor, imagination and stamina. She sits in an apple tree spinning stories and poems while eating apples. She races through woods and fields with her sisters and William, the son of Charles Lane. She dreams up and performs dramatic plays with her sister Anna as a way of releasing the tension of the experience of Fruitlands which was growing darker by the day. Atkins shows a conflicted Louisa, struggling with her temper and tongue, trying to force the square of a vigorous temperament to fit into the circle of her father’s concept of serenity and perfection.

Tragic character portrayal

Becoming Little Women‘s study of characters truly propelled the story. I appreciated her portrayal of the tragic William, abandoned by his mother to be raised by the remote, grim and self-absorbed Charles Lane. There is little written about this young boy so Atkins takes literary freedom to infuse life into him. The result is a believable and sad portrait of a child whose father has little or no regard for him, and who eventually abandons him to a Shaker community for a time. William fades into history and we never know what became of him, but Atkins makes you feel for him and wonder if he ever knew happiness or love. Louisa, in typical big-heartedness, embraced and befriended him, offering him the sisterly affection he had never known.

Anna as a flesh-and-blood young girl

Atkins also fleshed out Louisa’s older sister Anna. Often portrayed in real life as saintly and the mirror image of her father, Atkins digs into Louisa’s portrayal of her as Meg in Little Women, rounding her out as sometimes vain, envious of others, and competitive with Louisa for the approval of her parents. Anna emerges as a believable girl of twelve with a vibrancy often missing from other accounts.

Marmee’s trial

Abba Alcott or “Marmee” is painted as the endless workhorse, carrying the true burden of Fruitlands while the men wiled away endless hours in high-minded talk. Many accounts of Fruitlands paint Abba as the reason why the experiment failed because of her fierce devotion to her immediate family. Atkins paints a realistic portrait of Abba, heroic in her efforts, yet stressed,  bitter and often desperate as she tried to reach Bronson and bring him back down to earth to face reality. Women being so restricted in their actions as they were in this era, Abba is shown constantly pushing the edge of the envelope to save her family, even considering separating from her husband to save her children.

Grown-up issues for children

I felt vested in these people as they struggled through this experiment in utopian living. Fruitlands was more like Purgatory than Eden, and through these vibrant characters, I felt their joys and conflicts, tensions and traumas.

Atkins deals with the very grown-up issues of family conflict that can lead to separation, the struggle to live up to parental expectations, and the consequences of living with people who have little regard for the needs of others. Most of what happened in the story felt authentic and age appropriate although there was one event which felt a bit too “current” and too adult for a children’s novel.

Learning from children’s books

I enjoy reading children’s novels because of their ease of reading (the big type helps too!) and I often learn a great deal from them. It was, after all, a children’s novel that introduced me to my passion for Louisa in the first place (The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard). 🙂

Therefore I highly recommend Jeannine Atkin’s Becoming Little Women: Louisa May at Fruitlands as an enjoyable read and a way to feel the experience of Fruitlands and mid 19th century living.

In my next post, I will share an interview with Jeannine, finding out more about how she fleshed out these characters and came to write a children’s book about a difficult subject.


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A (fictional) Alcott Family Christmas

fictional account of Louisa May Alcott and her family at Christmas

An Alcott Family Christmas – cover

Christmas in my office is a lot of fun (I work for an independent Real Estate firm, Rutledge Properties, doing their marketing). We are right in downtown Wellesley, Massachusetts with a lovely storefront, all decorated with a Christmas village of gingerbread houses made by children of the brokers, plus a real antique train set that still runs! My boss is very creative in arts and crafts and always uses the basement of the office (where I work) to create wonderful things for her grandchildren. It’s just my luck she happens to love Little Women because I just happened to notice in the office today that she had bought a cute children’s book in bulk (apparently to give to her granddaughters for Christmas) called An Alcott Family Christmas by Alexandra Wallner.

The inside flap summarizes the book in this way:

Louisa May and her family are excited about celebrating Christmas. The Alcotts are poor, so Louisa and her sisters don’t have enough money to buy presents for Marmee and Pa. But Louisa, who wants to be a famous writer when she grows up, has written a play that the girls will perform for their parents. There’s even a special treat for the Christmas dinner: a big plump goose. (Considering that Bronson was a vegetarian, that was amazing! :-))

As the Alcotts are sitting at the table, ready to plunge into the first big meal they’ve had in weeks, a neighbor knocks at the door. His wife and baby are sick, and they need the Alcotts’ help. In the true spirit of Christmas, they family shares what little they have in this fictional episode of the life of the beloved writer Louisa May Alcott.

You might say the author mixed in parts of chapter 1 of Little Woman with facts about the Alcott family (although I couldn’t quite figure out why Bronson was referred to as “Pa” – I would have preferred “Father”). It appears to have taken place at Hillside (the author features a picture of the house). When they give away their dinner to the neighbor, I thought of Louisa giving away the last cake to the child at the Temple School, depriving herself of the treat. I could just taste that luscious goose when it was placed on the dinner table!

It’s a cute book though and I’m really happy to have found it today at the office. 🙂 Here’s a slide show of some pictures:

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