Everymom’s Top Five List of Classic Books for Girls 8-12
Louisa May Alcott's Little Women has endured since its first publication (in two volumes, Little Women and Good Wives) in 1868 and 1869 precisely because of not one, but four, strong female characters. I was 12 when my mother gave me my first copy, a thick paperback, and, in spite of my misgivings (seriously, did Mamma really know what I would enjoy reading, on the cusp of my womanhood?!), I couldn't put it down. As we drove back from somewhere I can't remember, in the dusk of our station wagon's back seat, I kept reading until the streetlights were so far between that I couldn't read more than a sentence every five minutes.
Jo March is one of the most iconic female characters in the canon of American literature. She was, like most 12 year old girls, outspoken and headstrong, and instantly repentant (not because of what she had said or done but because of how she had said or done it) when her words bit. She was a girl and woman full of passionate conviction, loyalty to those she loved, and a strong belief in her identity. But, also like most 12 year old girls today, she doubted herself. Why didn't she want to find a kind husband, get married, and raise a family, like her Meg? Why did she want more than her times and social situation seemed to allow? Yet she strove to find a way to stay true to her values and to Truth as she saw it and found it. Her decision to sell her hair to get money to help her family has stayed with me for the rest of my life. As tomboyish as Jo March is, she still likes to be pretty; but she is willing to sacrifice her vanity in order to do her part, pull her weight. It is no wonder that Little Women can be counted among one of the first of the Great American Novels.
Little House in the Big Woods
Laura “Half-Pint” Ingalls was an inquisitive, active, and sometimes insolent child who loved adventure, but, most of all, loved her family. All she ever really wanted to do was help out…and that’s how she mostly got into trouble. I remember reading the entire “Little House” series beginning at age 8, in third grade. I loved Laura because she was a little girl just like me, a girl who loved her family, loved school, and loved doing “boy” things, like running around, even if she was wearing a dress. She didn’t want to be a boy, mind you; she just couldn’t accept that girls couldn’t do interesting things, like boys did. The “Little House” series was also a great introduction to the history of the American West, from someone who had lived it. It made history not only interesting but accessible.
Disney's Mary Poppins was the first movie I remember going to see. I must have been about 4, so it must have been 1970, 6 years after its original release in 1964. We went to a movie theater (only one screen back in those days) and it was a major event, with a red carpet rolled out for movie goers and Mary Poppins paper dolls set sold afterwards in the lobby. I was 10, however, when I first read Mary Poppins, the book, written by P. L. Travers and first published in 1934.
Reading the book was a much different experience, having first been exposed to the Disney version. I didn't much care for the main character; she always just seemed bossy and angry at the kids - completely unlike the way Julie Andrews played her on-screen. What I did like, however, were the adventures Banks children (4 in the books, 2 in the movie) had with their magical nanny. One adventure in particular, led me to my interest in astronomy; a star named Maia, from the Pleiades cluster in the constellation of Taurus, came down from the heavens for a visit...and a shopping trip...at Christmas time. It was so magical, I have always been quite sorry Disney didn't find a spot for that bit in the movie.
The Hundred Dresses
Bullying is not a new, 21st century phenomenon. Eleanor Estes' The Hundred Dresses was published in 1944 and it has never been out of print since. It tells the story of Wanda Petronski, a poor, immigrant kid who barely speaks English. She goes to a new school and, in trying to fit in, makes herself a target of Peggy, the popular girl in school. Wanda is teased mercilessly and no one does anything about it, not the teacher nor any of the other kids. But it's also the story of Maddie, the popular girl's best friend, who is perhaps not as poor as Wanda, but gets Peggy's hand-me-down dresses. Maddie doesn't like Peggy's hurtful game of teasing Wanda, but she doesn't speak out because she is afraid of being Peggy's next target. By the time Peggy and Maddie repent and seek redemption (Wanda's forgiveness), it's too late; Wanda's family has moved away from Boggin Heights to the big city. How is Maddie supposed to go on with life, knowing that she had caused so much hurt that someone felt forced to move away from the community she herself loves? This is one of the few stories for children that mirror real-life and ask the question: how does a person move on, forgive oneself, and, hopefully, not repeat the same mistakes?
Charlotte's Web by E. B. White is another profile in children's courage and determination when Fern Avery stands up against her father and saves the runt of the litter, a little pig whom she names Wilbur. She takes the responsibility of raising her little pig and succeeds, until she gets older and life begins to take her away from him. Wilbur is then saved a second time, this time by his friend, the super-intelligent (and literate) spider, Charlotte. It is a timeless tale of friendship. Like The Hundred Dresses, though, it has a real-life ending (even though it's essentially a story about talking, thinking, feeling animals), [spoiler alert!] with Charlotte dying at the end because she has reached the end of her natural life cycle. This is probably why it has endured since it's first printing in 1952 to its listing as one of the "Top 100 Chapter Books" of all time in a 2012 School Library Journal poll.