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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Book Review: Fruitlands Louisa May Alcott Made Perfect by Gloria Whelan

fruitlands louisa may alcott made perfectOne of you (Julie) gifted me with a wonderful book and once I picked it up, I could not put it down. The book, geared for older children, is called Fruitlands Louisa May Alcott Made Perfect by Gloria Whelan.

A lost diary

The premise of the book is based on Louisa’s diary kept at Fruitlands. This was her first diary and sadly, only a few pages survive. They were miraculously found in the wall of the Fruitlands house years ago. Gloria Whelan maintains that Bronson destroyed much of it as he had also destroyed Anna’s kept during that time.

A tale of two diaries

Whelan through the power of storytelling restores it. But, she not only restores it, she presents two diaries, one written for public consumption as was the custom in the family, and one kept secret. In the first entry of the secret diary Louisa writes, “In the first diary there will be Louy, who will try to be just what Mother and Father would wish. In the second diary there will be Louisa, just as she is.”

Knowing that privacy was in short supply in the lives of the Alcotts, I had to work a bit to accept the premise but once I did I was swept into this book.

Real children

512 moving to fruitlands (socrates bust)Whelan is the writer I wish to be. She is a masterful storyteller, revealing so much through the details, dialog and actions of the characters. She fleshes out each child by comparing how they’d respond to a situation. From Louisa’s secret diary:  “Lizzie is good-natured and listens patiently to all the questions that Father puts to us. Anna tries hard to give the correct answers, but sometimes when the questions are difficult she pleads a headache and slips away. I say what comes into my head and know at once it is a foolish answer. I wish I could learn to keep my silence.”

Big sis Anna

Anna normally considered the “good girl,” the counterpart to Bronson, is cast in a somewhat unflattering light. She did indeed exhibit Bronson’s ways, especially his penchant for being judgmental. She did everything she could to please him at the expense of her sisters. Typical of an older sister, she never failed to lord it over Louisa and point out her faults.

Little sis Lizzie

Lizzie is Louisa’s safe haven. Whelan presents a flesh and blood little girl that we could truly love through the gentle actions, words of encouragement and total acceptance that she offered to everyone. In her public diary entry, Louisa recounts being rude to Mr. Lane (a common occurrence): Mr. Lane then talked with us upon the subject that all men are equal. I was rude and impertinent, for I asked Mr. Lane if we are all equal, why should be always be the one to tell us what to do? Even Mother was angry with my rudeness. I cried and begged Mr. Lane’s pardon.” In the private diary entry she recounts crying into her pillow and how “Lizzie crept over and put her arm around me. Anna asked, “Louy, why must you always say just what you think?”

A rich and complex child

512 louisa contemplatingThrough these diaries, Whelan paints a detailed picture of a complex child, acutely aware of her surroundings and compelled to speak her mind despite the consequence. I found myself engulfed in her soaring imagination as she organized games with the other children, pretending to be fairies, witches and characters from Shakespeare. Often Louisa would explore her darker side through the parts she chose to play making me think of the potboilers and thrillers she’d indulge in as an adult, stories ironically that would keep the family financially afloat.

A room of one’s own



Whelan described an exquisite place outdoors that Louisa claimed as the room of her own where she could write and think: “I found a weeping willow tree. It stands close to the river, and its overhanging branches form a curtain. When I pushed the branches aside, there was a leafy tent I could craw inside and be invisible to all … The breeze gently moves the trailing branches this way and that, so that first one part of the land is visible, and then another. It is as if pages in a book of pictures are being turned for me.”

Building tensions

fruitlandsThe best part of this book was the “slow burn:” the building desperation, not only of how the extended family would survive but Louisa’s own desperation with herself and all the criticism she took from the adults. I could feel the weight of the oppression on her as she was undermined again and again by her father and Charles Lane.  Whelan creates a keen sense of claustrophobia not only physically with the dwindling supplies and the fierce winter closing in, but psychologically as the community shrinks in membership and slowly breaks down into chaos.

Public and private

There were times when the choice of language and the conclusions drawn by Louisa seemed too mature for a girl of 10, despite her “old soul,” but in most cases, the diary entries rang with Louisa’s voice. What truly propelled the book was the ploy of first featuring Louisa’s entry for the masses followed by the entry from her heart. I couldn’t wait to read further and find out her take on the story.

The greatest complement I could pay this book? It ended far too soon. I’m reading it again. Thanks, Julie!

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Book Review: Louisa May’s Battle: How the Civil War Led to Little Women by Kathleen Krull; illustrated by Carlyn Beccia

louisa may's battleHow did serving as one of the first nurses of the Civil War lead to Louisa May Alcott’s runaway best seller, Little Women? Children’s author Kathleen Krull explores this journey in a delightful picture book entitled Louisa May’s Battle: How the Civil War led to Little Women, published by Walker & Company, New York.

Making extensive use of Hospital Sketches plus quotes from Louisa’s journals, Krull tells the story of Louisa’s burning desire to participate in the historic war by means of serving as a nurse. She writes,

“ ‘I long to be a man,’ Louisa May Alcott scribbled one day, ‘but as I can’t fight, I will content myself with working for those who can.’ Coming from a family that was part of the Underground Railroad to shelter runaway slaves, she burned to help the war effort.”

Krull presents a very human Louisa, fighting her fears and frustrations during the long and complex journey to Washington, D.C. by train and ferry. One gets the sense of a sheltered woman experiencing the outside world for the first time, working through those fears and embracing the excitement of being out on her own.

Krull’s lively descriptions, complemented by Caryln Beccia’s vivid and colorful illustrations, transports the reader into the thick of the action at the Union Hotel hospital where the wounded stream in after the infamous Battle of Fredericksburg. Again Louisa must confront her fears to care for the men: bathing them, comforting them during surgeries (where often either was not available), reading to them, writing letters, listening and keeping up their spirits. Hiding her own emotions behind a sharp wit, Louisa uses the Charles Dickens books she had brought to entertain her patients.

Krull conveys the attachment that Louisa has to her “boys” along with the pride she takes in her work and her sense of being a part of history in the making.

louisa may's battle nursing

Illustration by Carlyn Beccia copyright 2013, published by Walker & Co., NY

She describes the letters Louisa sent home, letters full of “snap and bite.” These correspondences would later lead to her first real success as a writer, Hospital Sketches.

Louisa pays a high price for her service with a serious illness that left her with lifelong ailments. Krull writes,

“Yet she had no regrets: ‘All that is best and bravest in the hearts of men and women, comes out in scenes like these; and though a hospital is a rough school,’ she had learned so much about human nature – and herself.

Krull sets the logical course for Hospital Sketches and Little Women, citing Louisa’s desire to make money for the family through her writing. In the course of compiling Hospital Sketches, Louisa realizes that she has found her style, that of writing from her own experience, combining her humor with her large heart.

Krull then chronicles Louisa’s writing of Little Women; here Beccia’s illustrations really shine, complete with a composite of scenes surrounding a portrait of the author with pen in hand.

Illustration by Carylyn Beccia copyright 2013 , published by Walker & Co., NY

Illustration by Carylyn Beccia copyright 2013 , published by Walker & Co., NY

Wrapping up her experience with the Civil War and its after-effects Krull writes,

“Being a war veteran was the key to all that she accomplished: ‘My greatest pride is . . . that I had a very small share in the war which put an end to a great wrong.’

It was service to her country that made Louisa May Alcott the author of books that would live forever.”

Louisa May’s Battle shares an accurate and fleshed-out version of Louisa while highlighting an important universal theme: that stepping outside the comfort zone and working for the greater good can lead to accomplishments never before imagined.

This book is beautifully designed, well-presented, and will engage young readers in a wonderful story about a woman who dared to be brave despite the hardship.

Louisa May’s Battle may be found at your favorite bookstore, on Amazon, and on

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Santa was good to me! Louisa gifts for Christmas

Christmas came and brought a couple of nice additions for my bookshelf collection.

Louisa the Life of Louisa May AlcottDelightful children’s biography

The first was Louisa The Life of Louisa May Alcott by Yona Zeldis McDonough. This is a juvenile biography with lively and colorful illustrations by Bethanne Anderson. The book presented a good overview of Louisa’s life; I was pleased to see that the author even dealt a bit with Louisa’s inner spiritual life by quoting her comments regarding her encounter with God in nature.

Naturally Bronson was glossed over which is appropriate for a children’s book.

The author presented the financial hardships of the family,
setting up the motivation for Louisa’s frantic work pace throughout her life.

There were a couple of facts that I found questionable, especially in the cause of her death (the author cited the chill Louisa got from forgetting to put on her cape and succumbing to pneumonia when several experts believe she died of a stroke).

The appearance of the book is very pleasing; it was, in fact, the illustrations that made me desire it and I’m glad my husband gave it to me for Christmas.

Louisa the Life of Louisa May Alcott2

More on those Norman Rockwell illustrations

book cover norman rockwell illustrator by arthur guptillThe other addition was a find I made while shopping for my brother at the local antique shop. Norman Rockwell Illustrator by Arthur Guptill caught my eye and as hoped for, featured his pictures from the Louisa May Alcott series, “Most Beloved American Writer” by Katharine Anthony featured in the Woman’s Home Companion in 1938 (which I just ordered from eBay, I’ll report on it when it arrives).

In the meantime I can share some pictures from the book along with some comments by Rockwell which I found most interesting.

Regarding the Louisa May Alcott series, Rockwell says,

Louisa May Alcott in the garret by Norman Rockwell“As preparation for these Louisa May Alcott illustrations, which I was commissioned to do for the Woman’s Home Companion, I went to the Alcott home at Concord, Massachusetts, accompanied by Henry Quinan, then art director of that publication … We spent several days at Concord, making sketches and absorbing the atmosphere of the house – the whole house is as it was – even the attic, which still remains just as Louisa May Alcott left it. A few days spent on the spot like that is worth hundreds of photographs, because you get the real feel of the thing, We say Louisa’s old swing, her lamp, We knew how she went out of her room – how she went around the place … I had to read “Little Women” in order to illustrate it, so, as I was going on a hunting trip, I took it with me. Every evening I would sit reading “Little Women” while my three companions – great husky, broad-shouldered guys – were talking about killing moose. They must have wondered what was wrong with me. Then I came home and got busy with my pictures for “Little Women.” N.R. (page 76, Norman Rockwell Illustrator by Arthur Guptill).

Rockwell made very interesting comments regarding the famous illustration in oil of Louisa meeting with her publisher:

Louisa May Alcott with her publisher by Norman RockwellOne of the real handicaps to American illustration is the fact that every girl, in every illustration in every magazine, must be made beautiful – no matter what the story. Most magazine editors seem to believe, and perhaps rightly, that the American women readers will just not stand for anything but glamorous females … In the illustration opposite, which depicts Louisa May Alcott as a young woman interviewing her first publisher (supposedly a racy, rather vulgar type of person), I at first tried to paint her as she appeared in her own photographs. Though she had character, they showed her as anything but beautiful. But the editor made me “pretty her up” a lot; I felt that this weakened the picture … The costumes were made for me in Concord. N.R. (Ibid, page 80).

Here’s a slide show of the complete set of pictures from Norman Rockwell Illustrator:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Santa was good to me; hope he was good to you too! I wrote some reflections on a wonderful Christmas day on my other blog if you wish to read it.

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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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