It makes me so happy that you love books already. You know Paper Dolls so well that you ‘read’ (recited) it one of the little girls in your class the other day. You’ve already met some of my childhood favourites – Meg and Mog, Alfie, My Naughty Little Sister, Lucy and Tom – and I cannot wait for you to meet the others as you grow.
This is a very partial list. It is also incomplete – I could write it several times over. I don’t expect you to fall in love with them all, but I hope some of them will speak to you. As a reader. As a girl. As a woman. That they will take you somewhere else (oh, the places you will go…), inspire you, make you think, hope, dream, wish. Because books do that.
With all of my love, your mama xx
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield
When I read Streatfield’s semi-biographical A Vicarage Family, clarity dawned: her gift for portraying girls who are outside looking in was born of her own experience. Her heroines are often outsiders – not sure where they belong or who they want to be. But she peels away the layers of uncertainty and lets them shine. Ballet Shoes is both incredibly of its time (I am all for a period drama, so no issues with this) – and incredibly modern. Pauline, Petrova and Pauline Fossil (orphans all) take a vow: “We three Fossils vow to try and put our names in history books because it’s our very own and nobody can say it’s because of our grandfathers.” There is much to love here: be brave. Follow your heart. Find your passion and shine.
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Orphan Anne Shirley is loving, brilliant and bright. And famously auburn (never red) haired and feisty (when she meets Gilbert Blythe, the boy who is obviously the love of her life – although it takes her to book three to realise it – she cracks a slate over his head). She has the most amazing imagination and love of words (remind you of anyone, my little one?) which carry her through the trickiest of times. Read this and see that it’s good to be smart, bright and different. When you’re an agonised teenager and think you simply must fit in with the crowd – think of Anne. Please also note her romance with Gilbert (for, if you love her like I do, you will devour all the subsequent books): yes, there is a spark (see also ‘Gilbert Blythe – one of your mama’s first loves’), but it grows from a deep-rooted friendship and respect.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Oh, I can hear you scoff that this is hopelessly outdated (Meg trying to be a good wife to admittedly rather boring John Brook springs to mind), but forget that. Look to Jo March – still one of the finest, most spirited heroines ever written. Look to the four sisters and their real, complex, loving relationship. Ultimately, Little Women is about the power of female friendships and the bonds that tie you to the women in your life. I cannot overstate how important they will be to you, these women; both the ones you choose (your friends) and those you don’t (me, your grandmothers, your teachers). The women in my life have made me laugh ’til I’ve cried, explored the world with me, carried me through some of the darkest hours. You will need your own band of women.
Unfortunately, my little one, there will come a time when you experience what I think Anne (see above) called dark nights of the soul. They require comfort books. These are my choices and they are quite simply, joy in book form. (Well, these and an Agatha Christie marathon. There will forever be a place in my heart for Hercule Poirot.) On nights like these, books are both solace and friend.
The Most of Nora Ephron
For she is wise, So very, very wise. And incredibly funny. She was also warm and generous – it leaps off the page. Have I mentioned that her prose does too? It leaps up, shakes you by the shoulders, nods that you have got this – now go forth and conquer. When she says that you are beautiful right now this minute, believe her: “Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was twenty-six. If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re thirty-four.”
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” There is no finer study of grief than this. Yet – although the material is so awful you will look at it sideways with utter horror (the awful illness which tragically befalls Quintana, only daughter of Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, followed by his sudden death) – this book is exhilarating. It teaches you the nature of grief, the genius of language – and is a silent exhortation on how to live.
The Jane Austen canon
To say I love Austen’s work is to understate the case. For Jane knows the human spirit – and the human heart. She sees the significance in the smallest human interactions. And she is so witty. Properly ‘wish you could take her out for a glass of wine and intimate chat’ funny.
Pick up Pride & Prejudice and marvel at the modernity of Elizabeth Bennett – who refuses to accept both the rigid social status quo and her duty to marry. Who forces Fitzwilliam Darcy to view and marry her as an equal. She is a considerably less agonised Jane Eyre (I still thrill to her passionate exhortation: “Do you think because I am obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you, – and full as much heart!”) Mind you, Jane Eyre has a lot more to put up with.
What I like about Austen’s heroines is that they know their own mind – and live by it. Even meek Fanny Price in Mansfield Park holds out against the persuasive charm of the dashing rogue Henry Crawford, despite her banishment from Eden.
Please do delight in Emma. Who has every attribute bar self-knowledge. Then witness Anne Elliot in Persuasion – Austen’s most mature heroine, who is quite the opposite. Who has her creator’s understanding of the follies of humans – and who believes in love when all hope of it has gone (“All the privilege I claim for my own sex..is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.”) Herein lies the other reason I love Austen: the good is rewarded; the bad (mostly) punished. Life is rarely this fair. So we must seek poetic justice in books. Brecht was so very right when he insisted, “there must be happy endings – must, must, must!”