Growing up, I liked to read books about ordinary girls doing things like fighting with or forgiving their sisters, but set in the past. Cooking in pots over fires or slogging through snow to reach wells or cold horses seemed thrilling. I started with an orange-covered series called “Childhoods of Famous Americans,” which were then shelved with biographies, though their use of dialogue and other fictional elements have convinced some librarians to put them elsewhere. I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books about Little Houses in woods or on prairies, another series that has made a similar shift to the fiction sections. I’m happy to browse for what I want, which remains books based on real girls and women who are full of dreams.
I found such a girl in one of the first fat books I cracked open. Many years ago, Little Women’s Jo March — huddled in a chilly garret penning plays and stories — gave me my first inkling that a girl could grow up to be a writer. My curiosity about other women writers stuck and carried me through college. I was unsatisfied with most reading lists, but scanned the stacks for books by women who’d been forgotten. I wrote some papers about them, and while I kept a scholarly tone, felt as if I were playing dress-up, again immersed in history.
The challenges and triumphs of women who came before me kept me good company as I wrote some stories that were published and two novels that weren’t. After I became a mom and read to my daughter, I found myself happily back with once-cherished books and the mother of the co-president of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Fan Club. The girls made posters (“Laura rocks! Ma rules!”) and wore old dresses to bake cornbread. Reminded of how life-changing children’s books can be, I put away my novels about angsty adults to write books for the young. I published picture books about paleontologist Mary Anning and religious reformer Anne Hutchinson, and collections about women explorers and pioneers in air and space.
No one should write history who doesn’t love doing research, and some of that is rereading books you once adored. I came back to Little Women, but what got inside me most this time was the half-hidden story of the youngest sister. In the novel, Amy March gives up art when she realizes she might not become great. In real life, May Alcott stuck with her paints.
I believed this real person who tried to balance art and love deserved more attention. Children and teens are a wonderful audience, but I wanted the girl I first met in Little Women to step out as fully adult, finding her way through or around traps and temptations and reveling in romance, too. For Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott, I circled back to writing for adults who may find May’s struggles familiar, though they took place more than 150 years ago. Could May find a true love, in a period, after the Civil War, when eligible men seemed scarce? Could she keep making art in a time when women painters were rarely taken seriously? I loved exploring those questions, and finding a way to let another woman step out from the shadows of the past.
To learn more about Jeannine Atkins’s books about girls and women in history, please visit her website at www.Jeannineatkins.com.
Do you have any questions or comments for Jeannine? She’ll be around checking out the comments.