“Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive—it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?”
- Anne Shirley to Matthew Cuthbert, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Imagination. The chance to dream and hope. The skills to achieve those dreams. I sat down today trying to figure out which books I read as a child influenced my book lover values. I came up with four names: Anne, Laura, Jo, and Nancy*. These girls were some of my best friends and role models growing up, and even today. I can turn to my (real life) best friend and we’ll happily recount their adventures. We learned lessons about friendship, morals, perseverance and hard work, romantic relationships, but they never felt didactic. I learned and grew along with the girls of those books.
One of the biggest characteristics of these characters were their big dreams. They weren’t afraid to imagine a different world, and they worked hard to achieve it. Unlike her sisters, Jo wanted to be a writer and, in turn, became one. Anne became a writer and was one of the only girls from Avonlea to go off to college. Nancy solved mysteries. Laura lead an adventurous life (traveling across the country, Native Americans, illness and crop failures) and became a teacher. They had realistic dreams, they had unrealistic dreams (“call me Cordelia”, anyone?), they had little dreams, they had big dreams. But they worked hard to achieve them and made their way in the world, with a few bumps and bruises, but overall coming out on the top. In college Anne learns “Next to trying and winning, the best thing is trying and failing” so maybe those scrapes that happened along the way aren’t so bad. You try, you fail, but you learn, dream some more, and try again.
These girls also dealt with issues that modern girls could relate to:
Jo wasn’t considered feminine. More than any other heroine, as a child I could relate to Jo. It’s funny, because I’m more of a Meg today, but when I was ten I was an outspoken and creative dreamer who also happened to be a bull-in-a-china-shop. Jo even wanted to be a writer, too! These qualities made Jo unusual for her time, and readers can relate to her because she is presented as a well-rounded lifelike character, full of good and bad qualities.
Anne had similar difficulty fitting in, and often suffered from body image issues, although that vocab most certainly didn’t make it into L.M. Montgomery’s books. Anne hated her red hair and freckles, and got into many a scrape (dying her hair green wasn’t really what she was going for…) trying to change her look. In the end, she realizes that maybe she should just embrace her appearance.
And Jo’s family’s financial situation and lessons that Marmee and their father (from afar) try to teach the little women about being content even if they don’t have everything was a lesson that I needed to hear growing up. The March sisters worked hard and made do with what they had; if they could do it, so could I. Laura’s family provided a similar example; they starved through long winters and had to sell a cow in order to buy needed supplies. Such a lifestyle was (is, thank god!) foreign to me, yet I still had the example of Jo and Laura. They were creative with and thankful for what they had.
Nancy (red hair and freckled and proud about it), the amateur sleuth, also proved that you could go anything you set your heart to. Solve mysteries? Battle evil guys? Restore lost heirlooms? Drive a car, change a tire, drive a boat, speak French, ride a horse, etc.? Check, check, check AND check. The best part was, which I’m sure my feminist mom was proud of, although Nancy had a steady boyfriend, Ned, he only showed up at the end, once Nancy, George and Bess had solved the mystery. Go gurrrrl power! Nancy could be in a relationship and perfectly self sufficient (and kick ass), too.
These four books/series are classics, yet haven’t lost any of their charm or ability for girls to relate. From Civil War Massachusetts, the lonely Midwestern prairie, turn of the century Prince Edward Island, or 1930s River Heights, Jo, Laura, Nancy and Anne still experienced the same things I did when I was growing up. Literary characters make great friends (they’re always around when you need them!), so if you know a girl who has reached the age of twelve and hasn’t yet read these books, get them for her now. She’ll thank you for it.
* For those of you not on first name basis with the girls, they’re Laura Ingalls (Wilder) of Little House on the Prairie, etc., Josephine March of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, Nancy Drew and her series by Carolyn Keene and Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables, etc. by L.M. Montgomery.