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Six Suggestions to Gently Introduce Tweenage Girls to Classic Novels

Mark Twain defined a classic novel as ‘something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.’ Often, what we think of as classics are those beautiful, matching sets of hardbound books which we receive as gifts and treasure carefully but never open. The first thing to remember is that these are books that people, through the ages, enjoyed enough to say to their children, ‘read this, I loved it.’

A classic is a book that might require an investment of time and effort. Sometimes they are slow starters, with what might seem an unreasonable chunk of pages being devoted to character development and back story. This is usually one of the reasons why they are ultimately so satisfying. Once you get to know and care about the characters, they can become as dear to you as real people.

It’s not unusual for readers to throw in the towel before the plot gets going at all and there is no greater challenge than forcing yourself to take up again a book you have put down out of boredom. Trust me, I know the feeling. I’m struck with a pang of guilt every time my gaze passes over the barely broken spine of Dr. Zhivago which I began, and abandoned, in 1992.

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Fortunately, no-one expects you to begin with War and Peace. Reading the classics is something you can work up to, a little like training for a marathon. There have been some wonderful books released recently, specifically for younger readers, as introductions to the classics. These are a great place to discover why Jane Austen fans are obsessive about Mr. Darcy or exactly what is was about Little Women that made Joey Tribbiani cry. Then there are some more recent classics, shorter and written in less archaic language than Austen or Alcott.

The second thing to remember is that my list of classics need not necessarily be yours. The third is that you are not obliged to like every classic novel you read. Be brave. Explore. Make your own list of books that you would happily pass on to someone you love with the words, ‘read this, I loved it.’

The Mother-Daughter Book Club

The Mother-Daughter Book Club is a series of seven books about four girls growing up in Concord, the town where Louisa May Alcott lived. A little like the March sisters in Little Women, the four girls are as unalike as they could be. Emma, daughter of a librarian, is a bookish aspiring writer. Megan would rather go shopping or study fashion magazines than read a book. Cassidy is the sporty one and Jess is mostly just missing her Mum who moved to New York to follow her dream of becoming a Broadway star.

The girls are cajoled by their mothers into reading Little Women and, even worse, meeting up at book club to discuss the book. Book Club turns out to be a place where the girls discover what they have in common and support each other through the trials and dramas of middle school.

This book stands alone as a well written story about friendship and loyalty but it is far more enjoyable as a companion book to Little Women. To absolutely avoid even minimal spoilers, it would be best to read Little Women first but, if you read this first it won’t ruin the classic.

Each book in the series relates to a different classic novel. In Much Ado About Anne, for example, the girls read Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery and in Wish You Were Eyre they read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. The Mother-Daughter series is a clever gateway to the classics.

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I Was Jane Austen's Best Friend

This charming book will inspire interest in Jane Austen without giving away any of the plotlines from Austen’s novels. The book is presented as the fictional diary of Jane Austen’s real cousin, Jenny Cooper, who is known to have stayed with the Austen family in Steventon. While she was there, Jenny really did fall in love with a handsome Captain called Thomas Williams and really did have a whirlwind romance. The melding of fact and fiction makes this an intriguing insight into life ‘behind the scenes’ of Jane Austen’s classics.

‘That’s the nice thing about Jane. Once she gives her friendship she won’t let anyone say a word against a friend...’

Cora Harrison, who was a teacher for many years before she wrote her first novel, doesn’t attempt to mimic Austen’s writing style but manages to capture the essence of her wit and characterisation. I Was Jane Austen’s Best Friend is easily read but the impeccable research behind it makes it a solid platform from which to dive into Austen.

Lydia: The Wild Girl of Pride & Prejudice

Subtitled The Wild Girl of Pride and Prejudice, this is an Austen spin-off aimed at Young Adult readers. Natasha Farrant presents the diary of Lydia, the youngest of the Bennet sisters who, in Jane Austen’s novel, was only fifteen when she was seduced by Mr. Wickham, rescued by Mr. Darcy and rapidly married off into some semblance of respectability. That was some pretty scandalous goings-on, even by the standards of today’s YA literature.

‘If Bingley won’t have Jane, I told myself, what hope is there for me? I am not half so beautiful, nor kind, nor good. Not even a curate will want me...’

I was never a great fan of Lydia’s, with her incessant giggling and flirtation, but this book won me over. Lydia’s diary reveals a smart girl, with a steely core of determination, desperate to escape the confines of a country life. There is certainly no requirement to read Pride and Prejudice first as Lydia veers off on a totally new course with Lydia’s departure from Longbourn for Brighton. While Lydia may give away the basics of Austen’s plot, I don’t think she spoils it for new readers. Compared to Pride and Prejudice, this is an easy and compulsive read which could well light the spark of Jane Austen fandom in a young reader.

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Flambards

Christina Parsons, an orphan of considerable fortune, has been moved from the care of one maiden aunt to another since her parents died at sea when she was six. Now, in 1908, at the age of twelve, her Uncle Russell lays claim to her. Uncle Russell has spent all his money on hounds and horses. His hope, it would seem, is to marry Christina to her cousin Mark and thus save the Russell home, Flambards, from financial ruin.

‘She looked very self-possessed, perhaps even more so than she felt, for in her twelve years she had come to the conclusion that it was rash to show one’s feelings too quickly; life had already dealt her some cruel surprises, and the present surprise had yet to reveal its nature, cruel or otherwise.’

Flambards is the first book on my personal list of ‘read this, I loved it’ classics. It was written in 1967, so the language isn’t difficult, but set decades earlier so it is filled with the sort of old world charm you might look for in a classic. K.M. Peyton intended to write a romantic trilogy which would follow her heroine into adulthood. She wasn’t at all pleased when her publisher marketed Flambards as a children’s book. In fact, Flambards would now fall neatly in to the Young Adult category. Flambards is a coming-of-age story, a tribute to a passing era and a very fine romance.

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Wild Lily

I was flabbergasted recently to discover that the author of the wonderful Flambards has, at the age of 87, published a new book. Wild Lily is set in England of the 1920s and tells the story of Lily Gabriel, a feisty, seemingly fearless young girl who has been, for as long as she can remember, madly in love with Antony, the spoilt and aimless son of her father’s employer. Peyton returns to the themes of growing up in a changing world which are as relevant now as ever. For me, Wild Lily lacks the tension of Flambards but the language is perhaps a little less intimidating and there is no mention of hunting foxes.

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I Capture The Castle

Written during the Second World War by homesick British author, Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle is gloriously nostalgic of happier times. Smith’s recollections of England in the 1930s are probably unrealistic but her rose-tinted glasses make for joyful reading.

Cassandra Mortmain’s journal begins with the 17 year old writing from the kitchen sink:

‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap...I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring—I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen-house.’

Cassandra’s father is a writer who can’t write, leaving the Mortmain family impoverished. Her elder sister is a classic English rose pining for romance. The story takes off when a pair of wealthy, eligible, young Americans turn up to sweep the girls off their feet.

Dodie Smith is probably best known as the author of 101 Dalmations but I Capture the Castle has been quietly regaining popularity, particularly since J.K. Rowling named it as one of the most influential books of her youth. This is a genuinely funny, heart-warming and effortless read that you will return to again and again; it’s a classic.

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Irish blogger and book reviewer. Official contributor to Bookwitty.com and author of Bookwitty's monthly 'Cooking the Books' feature. Erstwhile microbiologist with an MSc in Food Science, she ... Show More