In that last month of pregnancy, strangers asked me the same questions on repeat: When was I due? How was I feeling? Did I know what I was having? I didn’t mind this. What I did mind was the track that conversation sometimes veered onto after I answered that last question with, “A girl!” Some people gave answers that warmed my overworked heart: “Oh, four girls! How sweet!” or “I’m one of four sisters! It is so much fun.” But sometimes the answers were less heart-warming:
“Just wait until they’re teenagers.”
“Oh well—keep trying for that boy!”
“Your poor husband!”
A much smaller, fully rested me would laugh those comments off. But at nine months pregnant, there were hormones involved; I couldn’t even pretend that the comments were funny. I knew we were excited about life with four daughters and that we weren’t “trying for a boy,” but I was too tired to explain that again and again to strangers in the bulk food aisle.
So I came up with a parry that redirected that conversation into safer, more joyful, more literary waters. Here’s how it worked:
Well-meaning stranger in the check-out line: “Do you know what you’re having?”
Me: “A girl!”
Stranger peers over my shoulder, obviously counting the daughters trailing behind me like ducklings, and raises her eyebrows. But before she can comment, I finish, ” . . . and we’re reading Little Women to celebrate!”
Her eyebrows drop and the stranger smiles. “I loved that book when I was a little girl!” And just like that, we’ve left off discussing monthly cycles and man caves, and started discussing, instead, our favorite March sisters.
Set during the Civil War, the story of the March family recounts the adventures of four sisters—sweet Meg, unconventional Jo, gentle Beth, and precocious Amy—as they help their mother hold down the fort while their father is away fighting in the Union army. The Marches are one of the literary families who seem to belong to the reader: their home began to feel like home as we read, their struggles began to feel like our struggles. This book is filled with so many memorable scenes that it was a joy to watch them weave into the shared memories of our own family.
I wasn’t sure if Little Women was too far about the heads of my 5 and 7-year-old, but they were warmly wrapped up in the story after the first few chapters. They each called out their favorite sisters and laughed aloud over the antics of Jo or Beth’s kittens. We read only the first part of the book (we’ll save the second, with its weddings—and funerals—for when they’re older), but already Little Women is a favorite in our home—not least because we now have our very own Josephine:
When we read a good book to our children, we delegate: we enlist the help of gifted authors to demonstrate for them (and for us, too) what life is like in other places, other times, other bodies. This is what it looks like, a good book says, to ask for forgiveness even when the asking is hard, to love the unloved, to find joy in the common graces of life.
A good book takes us outside our own experience, outside a particular moment where Papa reads aloud to the rest of us, who were drawing a moment before but now sit—sniffling, pens suspended—as we listen to Prince Rilian’s farewell to his father. This is grief. This is joy.
This is, in a sense, one aspect of what the Bible does for us: it shows us what it looks like to fight against God, to persevere when we don’t want to, to look forward to the life yet to come. We study the movements of the Lord’s hand through each story and find comfort in the fact that his hand moves in our stories, too. We watch other lives lived out in its pages and recognize ourselves in them; that recognition then shapes the way we respond to trouble when it comes. This is where rebellion leads; this is redemption.
And so we fill the corners of our hearts with Scripture and the corners of our home with good books. We surround our daughters with characters that they can connect with, characters who are foolish and funny, warm and wise, prone to mischief or perhaps a little too perfect. We introduce them to Anne, Jo, Heidi, Lucy,and Laura, of course. And then we move on to Bobbie, Phyllis and Irene, Emily and Rose—heroines of the lesser-known works of great authors or of the books picked up on a whim that are, perhaps, unassuming on the outside but radiant within.
Here, for your pleasure, is a list of our favorites. These stories don’t appeal exclusively to girls, by the way. Quite a few of them feature male characters that share the spotlight with the female lead or simply steal it outright, but they’re boys (and men) of good quality that I want my girls to know and love. I suspect that those of you with sons might find that your boys scoot their Legos a little closer to the couch whenever you pull these books out to read with your daughter. (I’ve marked those books with an asterisk.)
When their father is unexpectedly (and mysteriously) called away from home, three children move to the English countryside with their mother. Adventures large and small ensue, all told in the charming style of E. Nesbit. This book is one of my very favorites. (Read the full review.)
An old fairy tale of the best sort, written by an author who came to my attention because C.S. Lewis gave him a hearty endorsement. This is, I think, the best of his books for children, and features the princess Irene and her unlikely friend, Curdie. There is also a magical great-great-great-great-grandmother and a whole passel of ornery goblins. (Read the full review.)
Circumstances change abruptly, both in life and in plot lines. What Katy Did demonstrates both aspects of this, and through the story of Katy Carr, shows how the road of suffering often leads to the most glorious destinations. (Read the full review.)
Here is a marriage of history and fiction. Wendy Lawton tells the story of Mary Bunyan, the sightless daughter of John Bunyan, as she navigates life during her father’s imprisonment. This is a beautifully told story and shows the progress of Mary’s fledgling faith alongside the robust, proven faith of her father. (Read the full review.)
There is a good deal of “bashing of crowns” and “striking one another with blows” in this book, it’s true. But this unlikely candidate merits a spot on this list for three reasons: 1) Maid Marian is no nameless damsel in distress here but a woman bold, courageous, and virtuous. 2) The men in this book know how to treat the ladies. 3) My daughters loved it. (Read the full review.)
You already know about Anne. Emily of New Moon is the slightly darker tale—a deep violet to Anne’s brassy red, twilight to Anne’s fresh morning—of Emily Starr, poetess, orphan, and bewitching lead lady. My affection for this book is deep, my friends. So deep. (Read the full review.)
Have you heard of this book? I hadn’t either until a friend recommended it at a wedding reception dinner. But Treasures of the Snow is a beauty worth seeking out: in it, you’ll find the gospel faithfully represented in a fictional setting, as a feud rises up between two families that needs the wisdom of a grandmother and the power of the gospel to resolve. (Read the full review.)
The author of Bridge to Terebithia tells an old-fashioned tale of an arrogant prince who cannot assume the kingship until he finds a wife who is “his equal.” (He thinks himself so wonderful that this must be all but impossible.) The King’s Equal is available as either a very short chapter book or a rather long picture book. In either format, it’s a joy to read. (Read the full review.)
Okay, so you probably have heard of this one. It isn’t as famous than its celebrated cousin, The Secret Garden, but if I’m perfectly honest, I liked it better. Sara Crewe—wealthy and petted, but gentle and kind—suffers a fall of fortunes and determines to be a true princess throughout her trial. Unlikely friendships, unexpected blessings, and a satisfying conclusion spring from this decision. (Read the full review.)
Sheltered and newly orphaned Rose meets her uncle and eight boy cousins for the first time, finds them bewilderingly active but ultimately endearing and goes on to forge the best sort of friendship with them. This book is funny, charming, and beautiful all at once, and sparkles with the same delight in story and language that fuels Alcott’s Little Women. (Read the full review.)
One of the quirks about having only daughters is that, unless you happen to have a pack of boy cousins handy, your girls might find the behavior of boys a bit shocking.
You see, our girls have a lot of friends that are boys. In fact, most of their friends are boys. But when Lydia started school, we learned that a boy (singular) is different than boys (plural), and that our daughter—who was just fine playing Legos with a boy (singular), or reading quietly on the couch with a boy (singular)—came home weepy and overwhelmed after spending a day in the company of boys (plural).
(Let the record state that her school is a small cooperative school, in the Classical tradition, with about a dozen students aged five to ten. So when I say “many boys,” I mean five. Five boys, with their yelling and chasing and leaping off of playground equipment, was enough to make her hide out in the classroom during recess, clutching a copy of Little House on the Prairie.)
You can imagine my interest, then, when a friend mentioned the premise of Eight Cousins: delicate Rose Campbell finds herself surrounded by strapping young lads (cousins, all) when sent to live with her great-aunts Peace and Plenty (actual names).
When I read through the book myself, I was confirmed in my suspicion that this book was a keeper. So many endearing relatives! Such a great illustration of camaraderie between boys and girls! Plus, one of Rose’s many aunts (the best aunt of all, really) indulges in a lengthy tirade about what constitutes trashy reading, thus forever winning my allegiance.
I haven’t read this book to Lydia yet, but only because we’re firmly entrenched in the American Girl books right now (see? It’s not all hard-core literature around here. We’re reading Kaya’s Hero, if you want to know). But Eight Cousins is next in the queue, and we’re both looking forward to reading it.
By the way, Lydia has changed her tune about boys since September. After that first month of tears and trepidation, she jumped into the fray and never looked back. Now, when I peek out the window while tidying the lunch room (it’s a co-op, remember), I see her brown braids bouncing along in the thick of a game involving a prison, some jump ropes, a wild horse or two and boys (plural).
I recently started working as a copy editor for Deeply Rooted magazine! This is exciting for two different reasons. Firstly, Deeply Rooted is the kind of publication I can wholeheartedly endorse and I am thrilled at the prospect of reading through (and bonding with) their articles. For more about who they are, what they do and why they love to do it, click here (and order a copy!).
Secondly, I get to edit. I didn’t know how much I enjoyed editing until I found myself saying (on multiple occasions, and with audible italics), “Oh, you write? Well, if you ever want somebody to read things through for you, please send them my way. I love helping with stuff like that.”
Having an outlet for my enthusiasm is great, though the jury is still out as to whether this will make me more or less bearable as I person. I figure it’ll be like my first weeks working as a dental assistant, when I had trouble navigating conversations because all I could see when I looked at people were teeth, teeth, teeth. Eventually, that went away, and so one hopes that, eventually, I’ll stop seeing ellipses, ellipses, ellipses every time I read a blog post. (The fact that Mitch has taken to reading particularly adjective-laden passages aloud from The Da Vinci Code—just to spite me—is not helping.)
Lest I grow too snobbish, though, I ask you: have you seen the number of parentheses in this post? And the italics! Somebody fetch me a red pen, stat!
Hi, I'm Théa! I review classic literature, poetry, nonfiction, fantasy, picture books—children's books luminous with grace and beauty. These are books our family loved and that I think you'll love too. Thanks for stopping by!
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