From Ophelia to Oprah: reading with our girls

Reading with children is possibly my greatest parenting pleasure. From Dr. Seuss to C.S. Lewis, board books to chapter books, I’ll read anything, almost anytime, when a child asks me to. One daughter, at 3, could not get enough of Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal. The entire Chronicles of Narnia took my son and me through months of bedtimes some years ago. Then there’s my 14-year-old, often the last one at our house to put down the book she’s reading and turn out her bedside lamp at night. Her tastes are broad, running from classic texts like The Diary of Anne Frank and To Kill a Mockingbird to the improbably titled Knocked Out by My Nunga-Nungas by Georgia Nicolson.

Pleased as I am that my kids are big readers, I’ve yearned for the day one of my girls would discover Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, or Madeline L’Engle. For years, I’ve tried planting copies on bookshelves and renting the film versions (and you know the A&E version of Pride and Prejudice is worth owning) to no avail.

But lo and behold, one day my ninth-grader asked if we could read a book together: Little Women. Of course, I said, surprised. On nights she doesn’t have too much homework, we curl up in our pajamas together in her room, or mine. Some nights I read while she listens, or vice versa.

Books are doors to alternate realities of refuge and adventure, inspiration and entertainment. They teach and they console and they warn. They motivate us to better behavior and engender more fully considered opinions. Most importantly, they feed our spirits and imagination. It follows that the kinds of stories we share have a profound effect on who we become – and who our children become. From Ophelia to Oprah, books, characters, authors, and fellow readers have influenced me as a human being.

But do literary heroines of past eras have anything to say to our daughters today? I think so. For example, Jo March and her sisters and mother are living in wartime – sound familiar? Their father is off in battle, and while they crave his letters and his return, they reach down into their inner reserves and reach out to others in need to counter their own self-pitying impulses. They carry on without getting carried away.

I joke that the Jane Austen canon is to girls what The Lord of the Rings is to guys. It’s fantasy, perhaps, to a modern reader but also a timeless treatment of ideals, values, friendship, and love. One becomes absorbed in a dreamy notion of genteel English country life, where the rules of engagement between the sexes are, if not equitable, at least clear. Austen’s protagonists play by these rules without compromising their own integrity. Furthermore, Austen’s novels offer social commentary veiled in gentle tales of domestic tensions and courtship.

My daughter revealed that her nascent interest in quaint scenarios such as Alcott’s or Austen’s has something to do with curiosity about how men and women got to know each other in bygone days; they dressed up to attend intergenerational parties that featured dancing, music, and even a glass of wine. They seem like they were having fun, says my daughter. Well, who wouldn’t rather temporarily escape with the Bennett sisters or the March girls in our age when high school principals are canceling dances because attendees are simulating sex on the dance floor?

Between the March sisters and Elizabeth Bennett, I always rediscover inspiration to be true to myself – and that’s a message I want to convey to my daughters. These heroines are resilient, not rude or resentful. They are self-possessed. They’re fundamentally kind and courteous, though occasionally impatient or impetuous. They value their sisters, both the biological ones and their close women friends. Furthermore, Jo March and Elizabeth Bennett love books, and their literacy is a key to their character.

A scan of the teen section at any large bookstore reveals, with a few exceptions, a canon that mimics the confusing (and to my mind often degrading) conditions of high school social life. Thankfully, there are some wonderful exceptions for preteens and teens. My daughters and I have shared Jane Resh Thomas’s Counterfeit Princess, about a teenaged Elizabeth I of England, The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall, about a modern family of four sisters, and Louise Erdrich’s The Birchbark House. A visit to offers many excellent suggestions likely to please both young readers and parents.

Kris Berggren is raising three readers in Minneapolis

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