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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The first biography: Louisa May Alcott The Children’s Friend by Ednah Dow Cheney

The first book to be released on the life of Louisa May Alcott was Ednah Dow Cheney’s Louisa May Alcott, The Children’s Friend. A sweet and romanticized account of Louisa’s life, this book was geared for the countless fans of Little Women and children of all ages.  Cheney, a longtime friend of the family (who had been sweet on Bronson) was entrusted with Louisa’s letters and journals which she edited and released in her adult version of Louisa’s life known as  Louisa May Alcott, Her Life, Letters and Journals.

Louisa May Alcott, The Children’s Friend was released in 1888, the same year that Louisa died. I was lucky enough to acquire an original copy (see previous post) from The Barrow in Concord and so can share sample pages from the book with you:

louisa may alcott the children's friend frontpiece

inside cover

louisa may alcott the children's friend title page

orchard house

sleepy hollow

to a robin

Louisa’s first poem

a song from the suds

To Lulu from Bronson

To Lulu from Bronson

Memoriam for Abigail May Alcott

Memoriam for Abigail May Alcott

You can see the book in its entirety here.

Click to Tweet & ShareSee the original 1888 edition of the first bio on LMA: Louisa May Alcott The Children’s Friend by Ednah Dow Cheney

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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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Book Review: Louisa May Alcott Her Girlhood Diary

Since a children’s biography (The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard) introduced me to Louisa, I have a special fondness for children’s books on the subject. During a recent trip to the Worcester Public Library, I discovered Louisa May Alcott Her Girlhood Diary, edited by Cary Ryan with illustrations by Mark Graham. It was the perfect introduction to Louisa’s voice, greatly whetting my appetite for more.

Setup of the book

The book’s chapters are arranged by theme and therefore the information is not in chronological order. Since the story jumps around quite a bit, it could be confusing for a newcomer to Louisa’s life. However, a 13 year-old reviewer on Amazon commented that the book made her want to read more, so I would say the author did her job.

There is, sadly, little that remains of Louisa’s earliest journal entries so I appreciated the author’s commentary surrounding them. I also appreciated clarifications of intent, and the spelling and grammar corrections.

Louisa’s own voice

In these scant entries I hear a voice that is spirited, fierce, poignant, sometimes confused and deeply burdened with guilt. Louisa’s moods are legendary and even in these short passages you see the swings:

Sunday, September 21st, Fruitlands
“Father and Mr. Lane have gone to N[ew] Hampshire to preach. It was very lovely . . . Anna and I got supper. In the eve I read [Oliver Goldsmith’s] “[The] Vicar of Wakefield.” I was cross to-day and I cired when I went to bed. I made good resolutions, and felt better in my heart. If I only kept all I make, I should be the best girl in the wold. But I don’t, and so am very bad.” (pages 3 and 4)

Tomboy Louy

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

The spirited and fierce Louisa wrote, “I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run. No boy could be my friend till I had beaten him in a race, and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences, and be a tomboy.”
(page 1).

Writing as a release

I got the impression that writing in her journal was therapeutic for Louisa; I know the benefits of that therapy having employed the method a great deal during my adolescence. But at least my journal was private. Imagine having your father commenting in the margins, and frowning upon your self-expression, condemning it as “selfish”!

Her poem about ruling her inner self and trying to find peace demonstrates this use of writing as a means to keep her chaotic inner life in order:

My Little Kingdom (pages 8 and 9)

A little kingdom I possess
where thoughts and feelings dwell,
And very hard I find the task
of governing it well;
For passion tempts and troubles me,
A wayward will misleads,
And selfishness its shadow casts
On all my words and deeds.

How can I learn to rule myself,
to be the child I should,
Honest and brave, nor ever tire
Of trying to be good?
How can I keep a sunny soul
To shine along life’s way?
How can I tune my little heart
To sweetly sing all day?

Dear Father, help me with the love
that casteth out my fear;
Teach me to lean on thee, and feel
That thou art very near,
That no temptation is unseen
No childish grief too small,
Since thou, with patience infinite,
Doth soothe and comfort all.

I do not ask for any crown
But that which all may win
Nor seek to conquer any world
Except the one within.
Be thou my guide until I find,
Led by a tender hand,
Thy happy kingdom in myself
And dare to take command.

Always at war

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

Her father Bronson’s attempts to mold Louisa into his ideal fueled the war within herself. (page 12) Instead of appreciating her strong will, creative and physical energies, and her passion, she instead condemned herself as “proud”, “”wilful” and “selfish”. It is a testament to her resourcefulness that she found a way to express herself (and edify the world) by means of caring for her “pathetic family,” even if it did create a prison of obligation from which she could never escape.

Bronson in a nutshell

Ryan did a great job in summing up Bronson’s education contributions. I marvel at anyone who can sum up succinctly what this man had to offer! She begins with a quote from Little Women on page 11:

“If [Demi] is old enough to ask the questions he is old enough to receive true answers. I am not putting the thoughts into his head, but helping him unfold those already there. These children are wiser than we are, and I have no doubt the boy understands every word I have said to him.”
Mr. March of his grandson, Little Women

She then writes:

“Bronson Alcott believed that a child’s ‘divine nature’ could be “awakened” by dialogues between teacher and pupil – question-and-answer conversations that “unfolded” what was already within the child. As Louisa wrote, ‘My father taught in the wise way which unfolds what lies in the child’s nature, as a flower blooms, rather than crammed it, like a Strassburg goose, with more than it could digest.’ “

Ideal versus reality

Cary Ryan does a wonderful job of summing up the ideal vs. the reality of Bronson’s teaching methods, demonstrating again how Bronson’s ego so got in the way. She likens his Q &A’s to “bullying sessions” where he imposes his own divine nature on his daughters and students, believing his divine nature is superior to theirs. Another sign of a narcissistic personality disorder? He could have accomplished so much more had he been free of this demon!

A sad truth

Charles Lane

One of the most poignant entries by Louisa was this dialog between her and the notorious Charles Lane, Bronson’s partner at Fruitlands:

(I made Mr. Lane’s questions bold to distinguish them from Louisa’s answers)

How can you get what you need?
By trying.

How do you try?
By resolution and perseverance.

How gain love?
By gentleness.

What is gentleness?
Kindness, patience, and care for other people’s feelings.

Who has it?
Father and Anna.

Who means to have it?
Louisa, if she can.

And Louisa adds years later, “She never got it.” (page 14)

Love and self-love

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

What immediately struck me was Louisa’s entry years after the initial one – did she ever feel that she “gained” love as she, by her own admission, never achieved “gentleness?” How pathetic that she was taught such a narrow definition of love, both on being loved and how to be loving. Surely the untiring care she showed her family in such practical ways was giving love too, even if it wasn’t “gentle.” Susan Cheever in her biography Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography had suggested that Louisa never felt truly loved and I had discounted it because Abba in particular made such an effort to help and support her. But perhaps Cheever is right after all – Louisa herself may have never felt truly loved. How sad.

What did young Louisa read?

This book was a great beginning resource for finding out what Louisa read in her childhood. As I am on a quest this year to read some of what she read, I found that to be very helpful. Some examples are:

  • The Judicious Father (no author mentioned)
  • Rosamond by Maria Edgeworth
  • The Home by Frederika Bremer
  • Kenilworth and Heart of Mid-Lothian by Sir Walter Scott
  • Philothea by Lydia Marie Child

Big as all outdoors

As a final thought, Cary Ryan ended the book with Louisa’s personal encounter with God out in the woods and meadow (I’ve listed it as my favorite quote on this blog – you can see it in the right hand column) (page 35). Having gotten a deeper sense of how big a personality she really was, it makes perfect sense that she found God in the outdoors, the only space big enough to allow her to express her true self. And we can only find God when we are truly ourselves.

Have you read Louisa’s journals and/or letters? What are your impressions?

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