Writing about kids, for kids in Little Women

The premise of this blog is to read “the greatest works of literature.Looking at that very long reading assignment, compiled and winnowed by twenty-odd “best of” lists from the last hundred years, there’s something glaringly missing: children’s literature. The idea of children’s lit didn’t exist until the 19th century, so it is no fair chiding the authors of the past for neglecting the culture of the present. However, even after the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen really got things going after a slow start a few decades earlier, the number of children’s works that were elevated to the level of high literature remained small. Maybe this is because there is a cultural bias in the smarty-pants community against children’s lit. Consider that the three most popular literary events of recent memory (Potter, Twilight, and Da Vinci) are all written at or below the 5th grade reading level. Perhaps this grade is a intellectual zenith for some people, which may explain why it is a fair match up to compete with them in trivia TV shows. It also may explain why the critics are loathe to elevate these books as cultural touchstones. 

Little Women is, then, a rara avis on the Master List. It is a bildungsroman, like Dickens and Goethe were pumping out during this same period. But the difference is that those men were writing for a general audience, adult and any kid who happened to keep pace. Louisa May Alcott was writing for children. The difference is in the relationship the author establishes with the reader. Alcott writes “down” to the young reader. Take this moment from the first chapter:

As young readers like to know `how people look’, we will
take this moment to give them a little sketch of the four
sisters…

But she also writes on their level. The uneventful  early chapters, the idyllic chatter and play among the girls, feels like a warm blanket. The world is soft and simple, and that is comforting. I cannot think of another book except for Tom Sawyer where there are children protagonists who start the story happy and, bless my soul, five chapters in they are still happy! This defies all rules of narrative. Something has to happen to these people. Something bad. And it has to happen soon and often. Look at Dickens or Robert Louis Stevenson, Stendhal, Goethe, or Emily Bronte. Find me one other book on the list about children who are happy and safe. Why is this so unique for Little Women? And why does it work?  

Okay, so spoiler alert, I know something bad does happen and that seminal moment of crisis has caused more little girl tears than all the misfortunes Charles Dickens ever imagined, precisely because it is so strikingly unlike the rest of the book.  But there is no villain, there is no struggle or betrayal. There is just simple, quiet life. Perhaps Alcott stumbled upon a whole new realm of literature with Little Women. Call it “nap blanket literature.” Books where not much happens, there is no bad guy, and everyone is happy at the end. Nap blanket lit was expanded by the wildly popular Little House books, and the American Girl series is the veritable Honda Civic of nap blanket lit. But Little Women is the genesis.

When you think about it, it really is ingenious. Create characters who children enjoy spending time with. Then, get out of the way and let them be with each other. And don’t ruin it with any danged plot! 

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