For Young Janeites

A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice – written by Jasmine A. Stirling, illustrated by Vesper Stamped
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2021

What better way could there be to introduce children to Jane Austen, the creator of Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot, and Emma Woodhouse, than by using her own words?  The answer might be Jasmine A. Stirling and Vesper Stamper’s heartfelt and insightful homage to the author who embodies female intelligence and wit? Austen’s words provide the central structure of this picture book biography, but Stirling has woven them into explanations of the novelist’s life which are simply stated but not simplistic.  Stamper’s lovely pictures combine accurate period detail and individually expressive faces on the people in Austen’s life.  The book focuses on one specific question about Austen’s genius: how did one woman of modest means and enormous talent manage to defy social expectations and discover her voice.  

Authors of picture book biographies face a challenge: how to interest children and make the subject of the book relevant if her connection to their lives is not obvious.   A Most Clever Girl approaches Austen as someone who “…loved stories —-long ones, short ones, worn and new.”  She is the image of a child excited by reading, lugging a tall pile of girls into a room already overwhelmed with volumes.  A teacup resting on another stack of books, one open, suggests that Jane’s love of the written word is inseparable from the rest of her daily life. Pointless stories governed by artificial, and sexist, convention are not for her.  Jane’s busy family life in the Steventon rectory is the opposite of fainting couches and gothic drama. Instead, her parents and siblings worked hard, entertained and educated, and loved literature.

Stamper’s cutaway view of the Austen household captures the level of activity, with piano playing, reading by the fire, and children climbing and jumping in defiance of routine.  One woman reads from a sheaf of papers, so engaged that she is unaware an ink bottle dripping its contents onto the carpet. Throughout the book, Stirling integrates quotes from Austen into the text, with Stamper’s pictures as the perfect visual accompaniment.  Sitting barefoot with papers and a quill pen on her lap, Jane writes in the study which her understanding father has provided, going against the grain of a society which deems women’s intellectual work to be worthless.  In addition to a room of her own, Jane’s father presents her with the latest technology in writing, “fancy pens and expensive blank books,” as well as “a portable mahogany writing desk.” Adults sharing this book with a child should not miss the chance to comment on this detail!  Jane realizes that she must write about what she knows, and that “Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on.”

As in most stories which end in success, the heroine suffers a setback. Her family’s financial difficulties led to their move to the spa city of Bath, where, as she adjusted to her changed life, her writing almost ended.  The death of her father added grief to Jane’s strained circumstances; Stirling vividly describes the poverty and violence of “unsurpassably stinky streets, filled with rough men, “ which threatened to silence her forever.  Eventually, she found the strength to write again, this time with the added perspective of adversity.  Seated again at her desk, watching and recording the world outside her window, she resumes writing, this time inviting readers to see “…the world through the eyes of complicated women.”  A Most Clever Girl cleverly resolves the dilemma of presenting Austen to young readers. Make her a gifted girl with a persistent temperament and a supportive parent, describe the obstacles in her path as nearly impossible to overcome, and celebrate the power of the written word.  Add beautiful and lively images of a colorful and the result is an accessible entrance to the world of Austen and her novels. Extensive backmatter includes additional sources, notes from the author and illustrator, and a list of quotes included in the book.

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