Littler Women: A Modern Retelling – by Laura Schaefer
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2017
I’m continuing my series of Little Women retellings, re-imaginings, and fan fictions, with a book which initially raised doubts in my mind, but which completely won me over. Laura Schaefer’s modest premise is an updated version of Louisa May Alcott’s novel, with younger main characters. Like the original book, Littler Women tales place in a town outside of Boston, and the March sisters’ father is serving in the military. It is not the era of the Civil War, but an unspecified contemporary setting. Kirkus Reviews was largely positive, but posed the question of the book’s purpose: why should readers need this book when they can read the Alcott classic? For some reason Kirkus did not raise the same question about Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: A Graphic Novel by Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo but, in any event, Schaefer’s book is aimed at younger readers than Little Women. One hopes they will go on to read the original, but that book is sadly more read about than read. Its length, vocabulary, and antique cultural references make it seem obsolete to many less motivated readers, especially if they are not actively encouraged by parents and educators.
In Schaefer’s book, the sisters range in age from nine to thirteen. Their personalities are quite similar to Alcott’s heroines, and the situations which they confront are also rooted in the original novel. Schaefer has not merely imitated, however, but rather transposed the girls from an earlier time, allowing their qualities and their life circumstances to develop naturally in the twenty-first century. Readers will find it easy to empathize with them, and will wonder about a potential romance between Laurie and Jo just as Alcott’s original readers did. Each girl is uniquely gifted, and sometimes their priorities clash. Their mother is a center of strength, just like Marmee, but far less acquiescent to the gender roles that ruled in the nineteenth century. Yet she is still the same role model, teaching the girls how to manage their anger, avoid pointless envy of those with more material goods, and cultivate patience.
A truly inventive part of the book is Schaefer’s inclusion of recipes, craft projects, and selections from the letters and March family publications. Each chapter begins with a quote from a beloved author, and the book ends with “Jo’s Book List” and an author’s note. The details in these extra features are quite impressive, indicating that the author expects readers to slow their pace and pay close attention, whether to a recipe for “Potato Salad Even Jo Could Love,” or “Mr. Lawrence’s Scarf Pattern.” There’s a sense of dignity and compassion underlying this story of the March girls, made accessible for younger readers without talking down to them. I hope that Laura Schaefer will consider writing more about Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.