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Top 100 Children’s Novels #47: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

#47 Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)
43 points

So ahead of her time, it makes you think her father was doing something right. – Susan Van Metre

I still think Jo should have married Laurie. – The Sauls Family

And at last the oldest children’s book to appear on this list makes its appearance (sorry, The Tales of Peter Parley About America fans).

The plot from Anita Silvey’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book reads, “The four March girls – determined Jo, beautiful Meg, saintly Beth, and artistic Amy – experience first the problems of the Civil War years and then the period after the war.  All struggled with character defects (Meg vanity; Jo tempter ; Beth shyness; and Amy selfishness); all deal with the problems created by their family’s poverty.  Without question one of the saddest moments universally acknowledged in children’s fiction comes when Beth dies.  And that, of course, underscores the great strength of Alcott’s work; she brings these characters to life.  But Jo carries the story.  She refuses to accept what society tells her to be.  She is generous and loving, cutting off her own hair to provide money for the family, but she is never a victim.  She finds her own path and becomes what she wants to be, a writer.”

And its origin story?  The Reference Guide to American Literature describes the creation of the book(s) in this way: “Alcott’s purpose in writing Little Women was not to create a nostalgic portrait of an idyllic childhood, though the book is often read as such. She wrote it to make money.” Horn Book’s article “Introduction to the Centennial Edition of Little Women” by Cornelia Meigs goes into a bit more detail on the matter. “In September, 1867, [Alcott] mentions in her diary that Mr. Thomas Niles of Roberts Brothers had asked her for a book for girls. It seems to have been somewhat of a shot in the dark even for him; for her it was even more unpromising than that. She agreed to try, but linked the task so little that she did not go on with it. Other and easier-seeming undertakings were allowed to come in the way and in May, 1867, she sent her father to Mr. Niles to ask him if he would not be interested in a fairy book. Thomas Niles answered firmly that he wanted a book for girls.” And so, dear reader, she did.

The second part of Little Women was originally published in 1869 as Good Wives. Usually that book is paired with the first into one great big Little Women, though. Part one was drawn quite a bit from Alcott’s own life (even to the point where Amy was simply the rearranged letters of Louisa’s actual sister). Elizabeth, Lousia’s sister, died at twenty-three. Louisa was very disappointed when the family broke up. The Alcott girls donated their Christmas breakfast to a needy family once. Louisa won a hundred dollars in a writing contest. The girls often performed their own plays.  It’s all there! I was particularly pleased to find a letter in the May 1903 edition of St. Nicholas from Annie Alcott Pratt, otherwise known to the world as “Meg”. She clarifies a couple points. ” ‘Meg’ was never the pretty vain little maiden, who coquetted and made herself so charming. But ‘Jo’ always admired poor, plain ‘Meg,’ and when she came to put her into the story, she beautified her to suit the occasion, saying, ‘Dear me, girls, we must have one beauty in the book!’ So ‘Meg,’ with her big mouth and homely nose, shines forth quite a darling, and no doubt all the ‘ little women’ who read of her admire her just as loving old ‘Jo’ does, and think her quite splendid. But, for all that, she is nothing but homely, busy, and, I hope, useful ‘Annie’ who writes this letter to you.” It goes on from there. Fascinating reading.

In her critical essay on Little Women in Novels for Students, author Jennifer Bussey explains a lot of the book’s appeal at the time. “Because most characters in children’s books at the time were too perfect, readers were less interested in what eventually became of them. In Little Women, however, readers saw themselves in the pages of the story and longed to know how things turned out for the March girls. Thus, being character driven is part one’s strength.” It’s true. The sermonizing in this book has nothing on the average everyday 19th-century novel of the time. Alcott allowed her characters to be a little more than merely “good” or “bad”.  A novel notion, no?

It’s the honesty of the writing that folks (adult folks anyway) tend to love. In Intent Upon Reading: A Critical Appraisal of Modern Fiction for Children author Margery Fisher writes, “How many family stories there are in which the plot centers round poverty: how few in which you can really smell that poverty. Little Women has a permanent place on the bookshelves of the young because of its sterling honesty.”

There is great lamenting and gnashing of teeth when people discuss the fact that Jo and next door neighbor boy Laurie don’t hook up. I rather like Bussey’s explanation of why that is, though. “While it is tempting to imagine that Alcott wrote for Jo a fate she had hoped for herself, the author’s correspondence proves otherwise. She knew that readers desperately wanted to see Jo marry, but Alcott was unwilling to make the obvious choice of Laurie as a husband. Alcott understands Jo so completely that she cannot allow her to marry Laurie, even though it disappoints most readers. Jo loves Laurie as a brother, not as a husband, and she knows that he does not fully appreciate how important her writing is to her. As his wife, she would be expected to socialize in high society and behave like a lady. Knowing herself well enough to know that the marriage would not be fulfilling, Jo refuses his proposal.” She later goes on to speculate that Professor Bhaer was inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson, but that’s neither here nor there.

Download the book here.

  • Here are some lesson plans.

A review in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine at the time said of it, “It is natural, and free from that false sentiment which pervades too much of juvenile literature. Autobiographies, if genuine, are generally interesting, and it is shrewdly suspected that Joe’s experience as an author photographs some of Miss Alcott’s own literary mistakes and misadventures.”

The Nation was a little more snide, saying “Miss Alcott’s new juvenile [novel, Little Women,] is an agreeable little story, which is not only very well adapted to the readers for whom it is especially intended, but may also be read with pleasure by older people. The girls depicted all belong to healthy types, and are drawn with a certain cleverness, although there is in the book a lack of what painters call atmosphere—things and people being painted too much in ‘local colors,’ and remaining, under all circumstances, somewhat too persistently themselves.”

Re: The covers – Sing, my pretties!  Sing!

I like to call this next one “guess which one is Jo”.

Seriously, Signet.  I understand why you’d want to use a piece of art in the public domain . . . but FIVE sisters?  What, was this like the Beatles and one got kicked out?  Was she the Gummo of the March girls?

And let us not forget the multiple filmed versions of this book for countless generations. In 1933 Katherine Hepburn was Jo.

Elizabeth Taylor played Amy in the 1949 version.

Then came 1978. The big star was Meredith Baxter Birney as Meg, Susan Dey as Jo, and . . . William Shatner as Professor Bhaer? Hoo boy.

The inevitable 1987 Japanese animated series:

And finally, I confess that as a kid who grew up watching Beetlejuice, the Winona Ryder was always my favorite.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. The Winona Ryder one is my favorite too. Mostly because it also has Christian Bale.

  2. I’ve read this book over 50 times (seriously, I finally stopped counting) although I haven’t read it in years. When I was younger I thought the saddest part was Beth dying. When I grew up, I changed my mind. The saddest part is when Beth realizes she’s not going to make it to adulthood.

  3. Angela Frederick says:

    I believe Louisa May Alcott did not want to marry Jo off to anyone but created Prof. Bhaer out of pressure from fans.

  4. Betsy, wonderful post with covers suggesting enough for somebody to write a thesis, or at least provide an evening’s worth of conversation. I got excited about William Shatner as Prof Bhaer, which could have opened a whole new audience, with maybe my husband first in line, but when I clicked on the the video you provided for the 1978 film, it says the prof is played by Wiliam Schallert. The Winona Ryder version remains my favorite, too, though I was taken by the fingerless gloves Jo wears in that 1978 version.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Shoot! I may have mixed up my videos, Jeannine. I will figure out where I went wrong.

  5. I generally prefer strict adherence to text in film versions of my darlings, but Gabriel Byrne for Professor Baer was JUST fine, thank you very much. And let the record show that Kristin Dunst was the only good Amy in history (partly because they didn’t require the same actress to play a twelve year old and a twenty year old, an attempt which always ends up being … disturbing.)

  6. I saw the Schatner Little Women — it was the Kirkmeister himself, and far more horrible than you could imagine.

  7. Such beautiful covers, this is really cool! I’ll put a teaser in my Louisa blog and send my readers this way. Jeannine, thanks for the refer!

  8. Betsy, I apologize. You were right. They just had William Schallert in the credits, but Shatner is in this 1978 made-for-tv version, too.

  9. I have such fond memories of reading Little Women the first time. It was the year I was in 6th grade. My Mom had a horrible policy that those in 7th grade or up (my older brother and sister) could stay up as late as they wanted, but those in 6th grade or younger (including the BABY, for heavens’ sake!) had to go to bed at 7 pm.

    So — I had a walk-in closet. After bedtime, I’d go in my closet, curl up on my sleeping bag and read for awhile. I specifically remember that one night reading Little Women, I went on until NINE PM!!!! When you consider that at this time there were 7 children in the family, it’s not so surprising that I was never caught.

    That was also about the time I started thinking the best books were those that made you cry. How I wept over Beth!

  10. Betsy, there was also a Broadway musical several years back starring Sutton Foster as Jo. Some songs were good–Foster’s two big numbers were all right (her opening song with her sisters and a song after she rejects Laurie’s proposal), but it was pretty much a flop.

  11. I grew up watching the Katherine Hepburn version – love it! – and although I enjoyed the Winona Ryder version, it could never replace that black and white version.

    Also, count me in the fans who were happy that Jo didn’t marry Laurie – I loved the sequels just as much as the original, and they wouldn’t have been nearly as fun if Jo were a society wife.

  12. I am thrilled to pieces to see that my long-held theory as to why Jo and Laurie were right to not marry was held (according to Bussey) by Alcott herself. I’ve always said that Laurie didn’t understand or give enough credence to Jo’s writing, and that he would have squelched that essential part of her without ever realizing it.

    Be that as it may, I never have and never will forgive Amy for marrying him. Just because WE know he and Jo weren’t meant to be, SHE didn’t know that, and she went ahead and took him from Jo just like she took EVERYTHING ELSE. Ahem.

  13. I had this version of the book first:

    although I wish I’d had this one

    and then I asked my mom what the word “abridged” meant and was upset that I did not get “the whole story”!!! So then I got the Louis Jambour-illustrated version (fourth book down). I still have that, along with a copy Borders ( ::sob!:: ) put out of the original edition where Jo says “ain’t.”

  14. This is wonderful!!! Do you have dates for these editions of the novel?

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Alas, no. That would be fun, wouldn’t it? Would have made organizing them easier too. Ah well.