Books That Remind Us of Childhood, How Much We’ve Grown

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.

Published by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Mallary is a mom of two young kiddos -- Madelyn and Tucker. Mallary absolutely loves being a mom and often writes about the need to find harmony when juggling motherhood and work. Mallary is the Assistant Director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, where she manages the Center's various programs related to distance learning, freedom of expression, and digital journalism. Previously, she was Executive Director of Images & Voices of Hope and Managing Editor of The Poynter Institute’s media news site, Poynter.org. Mallary grew up outside of Boston and graduated from Providence College in Rhode Island. In 2015, she received a certificate in nonprofit management from Duke University. She now lives in beautiful Austin, Texas, with her kids, husband Troy and cat Clara. She's working on a memoir, slowly but surely. You can reach her at mjtenore@gmail.com.

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