Good Books from Louisa May Alcott

In our Little Men book club discussion a number of questions have come up about other Alcott books worth reading. While this article will be far from comprehensive, I hope that it will give lovers of Little Women and Little Men a few more gems to fall in love with.

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In our article about Little Men, we explain that Alcott wrote the first two Jo March books under protest. Little Women (1868) and its sequel Good Wives (1869) , usually published together simply as Little Women, follow the March sisters through their coming of age and into their marriages. Little Men (1871) and its sequel Jo’s Boys (1886) are the second half of the March sisters’ story. Little Men is, in my humble opinion, the best of the books. Little Men explores one of Alcott’s most favorite themes – education reform. Jo’s Boys, while entertaining and interesting, feels uninspired and formulaic to me. I just didn’t feel as if Louisa invested the same heart into Jo’s Boys that she did into Little Men. (My favorite audible recordings of Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys are all by Barbara Caruso.)

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In a format that was strikingly similar to the Jo March books, Alcott wrote another pair of books that should not be missed about Rose Campbell and her seven male cousins. Eight Cousins is easily compared to Little Men and is almost equally charming. Also about education reform and social reform, Eight Cousins is delightful for readers young and old. My children were in fits of giggles throughout the story, and moped around for two days after it ended because they missed the Campbell cousins. The sequel, Rose in Bloom, is a lovely follow-up but not really for young readers. Instead of being a childish adventure, it is good and wholesome stuff for teen girls who want to read edifying romance stories (think Jane Austen for young ladies). (My favorite audible recordings of Eight Cousins and Rose In Bloom are both by Barbara Caruso.)

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In her heart of hearts Alcott loved her youngest readers best. Henry James called her “the novelist of children… the Thackeray, the Trollope, of the nursery and the school room.”[w] Alcott loved writing about children in their natural state and was always wrestling with her editors. She wanted to tell the stories she most enjoyed, but her editors wanted her to satisfy her childish audience that was growing up and who wanted to see how Alcott’s characters would grow up with them.

In 1869, Alcott published six chapters of An Old Fashioned Girl for Merry’s Museum Magazine. In these chapters, we meet 14 year old Polly. Polly is a country girl with unrefined manners and customs who visits her elegant city friend Fanny Shaw. In 1871, Alcott re-published those six chapters along with a sequel set six years in the future. In the introduction to the novel, Alcott apologizes for the serial feeling of the first six chapters of this complete story. In truth, I am not a huge fan of the first six chapters (and frankly, I don’t think that Alcott was either). The sequel, however, more than makes up for it. The young adult portion of the novel is fascinating and almost feels like Alcott is taking a second pass on her character Amy March from Little Women, and in so doing is giving Amy more moral fortitude and depth of character. Odd as this little book is, it has a special place in my heart and is one that I like to return to when I want something wholesome, romantic, feminine, and nostalgic. I think that certain aspects of An Old Fashioned Girl may remind readers of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm or Daddy Long Legs. (The only audiobook recording for An Old Fashioned Girl I have found is from Librivox. I personally do not care for it at all.)

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In 1878, Alcott penned a charming and timeless children’s story that is universally appealing to boys and girls. Under the Lilacs is a classic down-on-his-luck orphan story that reminds me of something like Pollyanna. Far from sophisticated in its story or writing, Alcott uses this sweet and sunny little story to inspire a love of nature in her readers. While reading it, I found myself googling classic nature guides. A great little book for a child who is sick in bed, a confident young reader who needs simple but worthy text to practice on, or a great living book to be paired with a Thornton Burgess unit study (something like The Burgess Bird Book unit study my family is doing). 

Jack and Jill, published in 1880, is the last of Alcott’s full length children’s stories and it is one of my favorites. Jack and Jill has the classic Alcott moralizing tone, but it also has some very creative boyishness that reminds me of Homer Price or The Mad Scientists Club. When Jack and Jill are seriously injured in a sledding accident, the friends are forced to bed for months. In an effort to keep their spirits up, Jack’s brother and some of the other village children organize all kinds of entertainment for the two sad little patients including a clothesline-style elevator that is used to send messages back and forth between the two sick rooms. When the kids are out of danger, their mothers cross social boundaries to work together to homeschool the pair of invalids. Certainly not a masterpiece of writing it is, according to Alcott’s dedication, a gift to her youngest readers from her heart to theirs.

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While I will probably always argue that Little Men and Eight Cousins are Alcott at her finest, I make space for all of these on my family shelves because they are celebrations of childhood and traditional values that are disappearing. These are all good food for young souls.

FYI: Many readers desire to collect Alcott and, if possible, have matching spines. Sadly, it is basically impossible to get all of the best Alcott books in a consistent printing. The “green books” are often as close as we can get and they are a mixed bag. This series has lovely illustration from Ruth Ives but Little Women is abridged and Rose In Bloom is not included.

The Illustrated Junior Library is a good option for the Jo March books. Little Women (and Good Wives) is in one complete and hefty volume and both of the sequels were also printed. Sadly, those are the only Alcotts in that series.

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