though I doubt it.'”
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Here’s where I admit, with my librarian’s head hanging low and my face scarlet, that I have never read Little Women. Oh no, I haven’t. There. I’ve admitted this before quietly in comments at 7-Imp, but I’ve never said it so loudly here ’til now. And, of course, with two girls who are fairly soon going to be at a very good age for listening to this novel, I’m going to hold off even more, I think, and experience it then. With them.
But I’m not here today to talk about only Little Women. I’m here to tell you about—and share some art from—Yona Zeldis McDonough’s Louisa: The Life of Louisa May Alcott, illustrated by Bethanne Andersen (Henry Holt, August 2009). And this would be for an early Poetry Friday entry (a bit of a spotlight on Louisa, the poet, that is) and in my attempt, begun last week, to tell you about some more new picture book biographies currently on shelves.
The book opens with the birth of Louisa, the second child to Bronson and Abigail Alcott: “She already had a big sister, Anna, and soon two more sisters, Elizabeth and May, joined her.” McDonough addresses the unconventional, “even strange,” ideas of Louisa’s father, who taught in Germantown, Pennsylvania: “He believed both boys and girls should be educated and that their opinions were important. He thought that children should be given the same respect as adults…People began to take their children out of his school, and soon it closed.”
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McDonough further explores pivotal moments in Louisa’s childhood — with poor, hard-working abolitionist parents who always encouraged her writing. She devotes an entire spread to Louisa’s education and love of reading, writing, history, geography, and being outside: “And sometimes she felt that nature was her best subject of all.” And she doesn’t skip over the fun parts of life with sisters, particularly seeing as how Louisa later used those experiences to create Little Women.
After the great failure that was Bronson’s attempt at communal farm life on the land known as Fruitlands, Louisa—back with her family in Concord again—taught school. Her writing also began to be noticed, Louisa taking the fees from her first published short story collection and tucking it into her mother’s stocking on Christmas morning. This is followed shortly by her sister Elizabeth’s death from scarlet fever.
In 1862, Louisa “made a startling decision: She would go to Washington as a nurse”:
and cheering these poor souls.'”
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After the publication of Little Women, to which naturally McDonough devotes a good deal of attention, she rounds out the story with Louisa’s final years: Louisa, though slowly being poisoned by the mercury in the medicine she received earlier during a bout of typhoid fever, travelled a great deal and visited New York City, visiting orphanages, hospitals, and asylums. When Louisa’s sister, May, died shortly after giving birth to her little girl, named after Louisa and called “Lulu,” Louisa took in Lulu and raised her:
Living comfortably and still taking care of what remained of her family, she continued writing and died from pneumonia in 1888 at the age of fifty-five.
The book closes with a spread entitled “The World According to Louisa May Alcott” (with quotes from her on childhood, nursing, poverty, fame, growing older, and more); “Louisa the Poet,” which includes poems she wrote at only eight and eleven years of age; “Interesting Facts About Louisa May Alcott, Her Writing, and Her Family”; and a recipe for New England Apple Slump. The latter is an odd choice. And random. But mmm. And, hey, I like odd. The final page lists “Important Dates in the Life of Louisa May Alcott” and a bibliography.
Andersen’s texturized gouache and pastel paintings rest, as you can see here, on an earthy palette — lots of oranges, greens, browns, and deep blues. There are many elongated lines in her rather stylized work, Publishers Weekly writing that it’s a “somewhat naïve style…While the fluid compositions evoke a carefree tone, textured gold backdrops, dark hues and serious facial expressions underscore the sadness and disappointments of Alcott’s short life, including a sister’s early death and her family’s poverty.” McDonough’s writing is accessible and thorough. The book’s a bit lengthy; this is for older elementary or middle-grade readers.
Since this is my one-day-early Poetry Friday entry, I’ll close with one of my favorite poems from Ms. Alcott. I’ll come back on Friday to update who is hosting the ‘ol round-up that day. Enjoy.
Edited to Add on Friday: The round-up today is being hosted by one of my favorite people, Elaine Magliaro, at Wild Rose Reader.
We sighing said, “Our Pan is dead;
His pipe hangs mute beside the river
Around it wistful sunbeams quiver,
But Music’s airy voice is fled.
Spring mourns as for untimely frost;
The bluebird chants a requiem;
The willow-blossom waits for him;
The Genius of the wood is lost.”
Then from the flute, untouched by hands,
There came a low, harmonious breath:
“For such as he there is no death;
His life the eternal life commands;
Above man’s aims his nature rose.
The wisdom of a just content
Made one small spot a continent
And turned to poetry life’s prose.
“Haunting the hills, the stream, the wild,
Swallow and aster, lake and pine,
To him grew human or divine,
Fit mates for this large-hearted child.
Such homage Nature ne’er forgets,
And yearly on the coverlid
‘Neath which her darling lieth hid
Will write his name in violets.
“To him no vain regrets belong
Whose soul, that finer instrument,
Gave to the world no poor lament,
But wood-notes ever sweet and strong.
O lonely friend! he still will be
A potent presence, though unseen,
Steadfast, sagacious, and serene;
Seek not for him — he is with thee.”
LOUISA: THE LIFE OF LOUISA MAY ALCOTT. Text copyright © 2009 by Yona Zeldis McDonough. Illustrations copyright © 2009 by Bethanne Andersen. Published by Henry Holt and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.