On my morning commute to work earlier this week, I caught the beginning of a segment on National Public Radio (NPR) about “everyone’s favorite ‘Little Women’ character,” Jo. The second oldest of the four children, Jo aspires to be a writer and is the kind of woman who some say Louisa May Alcott wanted to be. She stands out among her sisters for her headstrong and creative nature, and is a feminist for her time.
In hearing women on NPR talk about Jo, I was reminded of the power books have to take us back to childhood and to make us realize how much we’ve grown. Depending on where we’re at in our lives, we experience the characters in books differently. We often grow to view characters as friends or late-night companions. They become people who we relate to, aspire to be, or promise never to be like. Sometimes we reconnect with these characters years after we close a book, and find that the connection we once had with them has weakened, or remained the same.
One woman interviewed for the NPR segment, for example, said that her view of “Little Women” changed after reading the book as an adult. “It was only reading it again that I realized that I didn’t really like the book. I like Jo the best of them, but I really didn’t like Jo either,” she said. “That family was just too good. And I think part of the thing that bothered me growing up was it made me feel very guilty because I knew I couldn’t be that good.” The woman said that as an adult, she didn’t want to read about the idealized Jo; she wanted to see more of the real Louisa May Alcott in Jo’s character.
Sometimes, we want to see ourselves in fictional characters. I sometimes compare myself to Harriet the Spy, the main character of one of my favorite childhood books, who inspired me to want to be a journalist. I recently re-read “Harriet the Spy” and found that I still loved it just as much as I did as a child. After listening to the NPR segment, I now have the urge to re-read my all-time favorite childhood book, “A Little Princess,” to see how my experience of the book changes.
I think I’ll still love Sara Crew’s charismatic nature, and I’ll probably still smile when I read my favorite scene in which Sara draws a circle for herself on the floor of her attic with a piece of chalk. She tells herself that curled up inside this circle, she will always be safe. I’m sure that re-reading this scene would make me think of my childhood, a time when chalk-drawn circles were safety nets and imagination a companion for loneliness.
Books like “Little Women,” “Harriet the Spy,” and “A Little Princess” (all pretty girly, I realize!), can bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood, brining new meaning and understanding to the stories in books and those of our lives.