Most of us remember when we first read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and how it profoundly changed and affected us. It’s just that kind of book.
I was in sixth grade and read it for Mrs. Whang’s English class. We were all a little afraid of Mrs. Whang — she was notorious for being unfailingly strict and rarely smiled. No matter the assignment, only the best would do. For Little Women, we were divided into groups of four and asked to act out our favorite scene(s).
We decided on the first chapter and I was to play Jo. We dressed up in long skirts and shawls and I remember bounding onto the “stage” in my best tomboy fashion and blurting out, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” So began a lifelong love for all of Alcott’s books and a fierce yearning for the quintessential New England Christmas — a dreamlike fantasy of snow-blanketed landscapes and cozy fires, something about as foreign as you can imagine when you live in the land of palm trees and eternal summers.
Heather Vogel Frederick’s new picture book adaptation of the Christmas episode from Little Women is a lovely way to meet the March sisters for the first time and bask in cherished holiday scenes brimming with the spirit of giving and gratitude. Frederick interweaves key elements from Alcott’s novel as she distills the essence of this holiday story (Beth’s frail health, Father away at war, Jo and Laurie’s friendship, Jo cutting and selling her hair, making do with what they have).
It begins with Jo determined that the family have presents for Christmas. She and Laurie build a snow maiden surprise “gift” for ailing Beth, and on Christmas morning the girls do receive gifts true to their personalities (a framed picture for Amy, a book for Jo, a silk dress for Meg, a shawl for Beth). For Marmee there is a special brooch the girls made by intertwining locks of their hair. As they are counting their blessings, missing their father and worrying about his welfare, he surprises them by arriving just in time for dinner. Now their greatest Christmas wish has been granted and their holiday is complete.
I love how the interplay of light and dark in Bagram Ibatoulline’s rich gouache paintings underscores the themes of resilience and steadfast hope. The light of familial closeness, happiness and abiding faith burn brightly in the comforting glow of candlelight and the oranges, reds and golds of crackling fires. This ever present warmth of the human heart, the inextinguishable flame within, is set against a rich, dark palette representing the cold and bleakness of winter, the trials of war and ill-health, and realistic 19th century interior illumination. The strong subdued colors also have an old-fashioned feel, reminding us of the timeless legacy of Little Women with its enduring relevance and appeal (the double page spread of the Alcotts’ Christmas dinner is especially gorgeous, and there are beautiful depictions of the Orchard House exterior).
A Little Women Christmas is perfect for an intimate family read-aloud, sure to lift the spirits and top off the holiday season. It’ll inspire readers to think about the value of intangible gifts, to consider things that truly matter, and of course, never to doubt the possibility of miracles. Frankly, this book had me at the title, suggesting everything I’d want for a festive, traditional, family-oriented Christmas.
Marmee’s eyes shone with quiet joy as her husband gazed around the loving circle and added, ‘I am prouder than ever of all my little women.’
The March family’s full hearts overflowed, and Beth sighed in contentment. ‘We have Father and Mother and each other,’ she said. ‘That’s the very best present of all.’
By the way, Mrs. Whang loved our little play (she even smiled!), and gave us an “A.” Somehow I was less afraid of her after that and she turned out to be the best English teacher I had in elementary school.🙂
* * *
♥ MUFFINS FOR CHRISTMAS BREAKFAST ♥
Now, while you’re curled up all cozy and comfy indoors on a snowy day, all set to read A Little Women Christmas with your favorite munchkins, you’ll of course need something Alcott-esque to nibble on with your coffee, tea, milk, or cocoa.
For just the right treat, I turned to The Louisa May Alcott Cookbook (Little, Brown, 1985), a charmingly illustrated collection of Alcott-inspired recipes originally compiled by Gretchen Anderson for a school project when she was just nine. While none are actually Alcott family recipes, Ms. Anderson did research 19th century cookbooks for the types of foods mentioned in the stories and then tested and adapted the recipes for modern day cooks.
My favorite part of the Little Women Christmas episode occurs in Part One, Chapter 2. It’s Christmas morning and the girls have awakened to find Marmee gone. They learn from Hannah, their housekeeper, that she’s answered a call for help. Marmee explains when she returns just before the girls start breakfast:
‘Merry Christmas, little daughters! I’m glad you began at once, and hope you will keep on. But I want to say one word before we sit down. Not far away from here lies a poor woman with a little newborn baby. Six children are huddled into one bed to keep from freezing, for they have no fire. There is nothing to eat over there, and the oldest boy came to tell me they were suffering hunger and cold. My girls, will you give them your breakfasts as a Christmas present?’
They were all unusually hungry, having waited nearly an hour, and for a minute no one spoke, only a minute, for Jo exclaimed impetuously, ‘I’m so glad you came before we began!’
‘May I go and help carry the things to the poor little children?’ asked Beth eagerly.
‘I shall take the cream and the muffins,’ added Amy, heroically giving up the article she most liked.
Meg was already covering the buckwheats, and piling the bread into one big plate.
‘I thought you’d do it,’ said Mrs. March, smiling as if satisfied. ‘You shall all go and help me, and when we come back we will have bread and milk for breakfast, and make it up at dinnertime.’
Muffins, yes! Just the thing to channel the March sisters while reading their story. This is an easy basic muffin recipe calling for very little sugar (only three tablespoons), in keeping with a 19th century palate. You can sweeten it up by sprinkling sugar on top of the muffins before baking, or by adding any, or a combination of, the suggested optional ingredients (berries, nuts, apples, dates).
I opted for cranberries and made 12 large muffins instead of the suggested 16 (too lazy to wash two muffin tins). The batter came together quickly and the muffins were done in about 20 minutes. These are best warm with a smathering of real butter. Mmmmm!
- 3-1/2 cups flour
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1-3/4 cups milk
- 1 egg, well beaten
- 3 tablespoons melted butter
- 1/2 cup cranberries, dates, apples, berries, or nuts (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and grease the muffin pans.
2. Sift dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar) into large bowl.
3. Add the milk, egg, melted butter, and optional ingredient.
4. Stir until smooth.
5. Pour into the greased muffin tins.
6. Bake for 25 minutes.
~Adapted from The Louisa May Alcott Cookbook by Gretchen Anderson, illustrated by Karen Milone (Little, Brown & Co., 1985).
* * *
A LITTLE WOMEN CHRISTMAS
written by Heather Vogel Frederick
illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
published by Simon & Schuster (September, 2014)
Picture Book for ages 4-8, 32 pp.
*Starred Review from Publishers Weekly
*Spreads from A Little Women Christmas text copyright © 2014 Heather Vogel Frederick, illustrations © 2014 Bagram Ibatoulline, published by Simon & Schuster BFYR. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2014 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.