Posted by: jeannineatkins | October 7, 2008

Enthusiasm and Little Women

“So I plod away although I don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.”
— from Louisa May Alcott’s journal when writing Little Women, an almost immediate bestseller which has never gone out of print.

by Emilie Heidel

A teacher is a kind of a cheerleader, and when I give writing assignments, I hope my students feel there’s more ahead of them than plodding. So imagine my thrill when one emailed me while working on the assignment of writing and/or drawing a map of events in Little Women to ask if she and another could combine their plot points into one big poster. Another proposed working with two others to make a board game. Is there anything better than teaching Little Women at a woman’s college? I don’t think so.

Then I went to the classroom, which smelled of fresh chocolate. A group had baked chocolate chip cookies. One student showed me the book her mom had sent. Inside the front cover of Little Women were the names of her grandmother, her mom, and herself, all signed when they were thirteen. I noticed the “i” in her middle name was dotted with a heart.

It was fun to discuss a book that many were rereading. There was a lot of energy around Jo’s male identity: her remarks re hating being a girl, preferring guy’s clothing, cutting off her hair to raise money. One quoted Alcott’s father saying, as she left to become a nurse during the Civil War, as saying, “I’m sending my only son.” Some concluded Jo is gay or trans. We do bring up historical context. Women’s clothing of the time was truly constraining: we see Amy catching her breath as she walks with tight corsets under her clothes, and Meg buys 25 years of silk for a gown. That’s a lot of cloth to be carrying around. LMA was for dress reform and women’s suffrage, among many other causes in days of many restrictions. We can look at her life and history, but still every reader gets to bring who she is now to a book, and hopefully that enlarges the reading for us all. And hopefully the book-banners, who seem to see crossing gender lines as a key reason for taking books off shelves, won’t add Little Women to the list.

Arielle and Najwah’s poster

I was thrilled with what I took home in my oversized bag. Andrew considers the four sisters of Little Women as inspiration for the girls of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, so he “embroidered” a nineteenth century gown, instead of jeans, with mottos appropriate to the March sisters, with many “translated” to the IM language a middle school reader might use.

Other gems include Althea, Hillary, and Jack’s board game which starts at the March House, but with possible stops at a semi-frozen river, the seaside, and France, before you might win the good life – partly by picking The Lawrence Boy card (Laurie saves the day!). You get to go ahead 2 spaces with a Christmas letter from Father, or by trading in a small bottle of perfume for a larger, nicer gift for Marmee (Amy), or by having twins (Meg). They give Jo 2 steps for publishing a book and 10 for selling her hair so Marmee can visit Father: clearly these are more generous people than me! You have to step back for being caught with pickled limes (Amy), deciding to wear small shoes because they’re pretty or failing to make good jelly and being a spendthrift (Meg). Burning manuscripts, falling through the ice, making excuses not to help Beth, or contracting scarlet fever all set you back.

Julia Fuller-Kling also used watercolors and fabric to embellish her fairy tale paper, and these match her warm demeanor.

I liked how Lauren Ray included themes underlying the actions.

Krystal Tusaneza, an economics major, told me how happy she was to spend an evening drawing. And I like the way she suggests the four sisters unite as one woman.


  1. These are fabulous!! I want to take your class!

  2. Oh yeah, I want to take your class too! You’re talking about another one of my favorites. 🙂

  3. Wow, wow, wow! What projects. I love the idea of the four sisters as one; I’ve thought about that a bit with Harry, Hermoine, and Ron. (Although I can just hear Ron retching as I write that!)
    I wouldn’t say gay. I’d say near despairing of ever finding a place (and a man) where/with whom she can be what she wants. I think she got that with Professor Bhaer. (Although I know lots of people think she should have gone with Laurie.) Jo is one of the characters I can read as happily in the later books, when she’s an adult, as I can when she’s younger.

  4. Oh, how I would love to be taking your class!

  5. Such great projects!! What a great teacher you are, to inspire such wonderful creativity . . .

  6. Wow. That sounds so amazing. I kinda wish I were in your class right now!

  7. I, too, think you can’t assume Jo was gay–after all, she didn’t even have many women friends, other than her sisters. She wanted to travel and write and have adventures, so she was considered boyish, and she considered herself boyish, because society thought those were very male things to want. If the choice was between being a girl and having to dust and pay calls, or being a boy and getting to play sports and run wild and have a career, well, who wouldn’t want to be a tomboy? Today’s girls can pursue such goals without those goals being tied to a masculine image.

  8. Thanks, Kim. Hope you have great students, too.

  9. Little Women is an old favorite, and I’m happy to say it’s stood not only the test of time since 1868, but my own personal time, too. It’s great all these decades later.

  10. That’s funny about Ron!
    Yes, it’s a good thing to see that we do have more freedoms now. I, too, never was stuck on the Jo-Laurie match, and read the novel at least as happily. What a feat for someone who at least claimed some detachment from her novel.

  11. It would be fun to have you there! Maybe, just maybe, you’d be the one who’d vote to read Wind in the Willows.

  12. I hope I inspire them as much as they inspire me. Thanks, Jama.

  13. Want me to send you homework assignments?

  14. Yes, that’s a good point, she says she doesn’t care much for girls. It’s interesting with all the freedoms, though, that Jo still calls strongly to many girls — though perhaps not as many as years ago.

  15. Wow–fantastic. And to change up my quote from today: “You can’t find magic in a classroom unless you bring magic to the classroom.” You clearly do!

  16. Laura, you’re too sweet. But thanks!

  17. These projects make me miss being in your class! I always loved how we had the option to express our ideas creatively rather than formally, and it looks like your current students are living it up! How is teaching at Mount Holyoke different from teaching at UMass?
    I’m so glad I realized that I can leave comments on your blog! I used to keep a livejournal page, but I have gone through so many different password phases that I had lost all hope in ever logging back in again. Needless to say, I remembered, and I’ll finally get to comment on what I read here!

  18. Hi, Ashley! Mt. Holyoke isn’t too different from UMass, children’s lit being such a female-dominated world! And yes, some have spoken of the pleasure of doing something creative, a pleasure some had thought was over, so that’s gratifying.
    I’m glad you found your password. I’ve had the same problem for, ahem, two years, with my website: password gone. I’ve got to figure out what to do and clean up and update. I’ll look forward to your comments. I’m meeting a student at 4 at Umass on Tues (with its Monday schedule), so if you happen to have a bit of time before 4 or at 4 30 or 5 let me know and we could catch up some in person. You sound SO busy. If not, some other time. Thanks for writing!

  19. I am very busy, and unfortunately I don’t think Tuesday would work. Would you like me to email you my schedule so we can find a good time to meet up? Maybe I can introduce you to Bob, and then the whole honors committee will be together!
    Hope you have a fantastic weekend! (I think there is a little community fair going on in Ashfield– you might want to check it out 🙂 )

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