I first read Little Women as a middle grader, as so many American girls did and probably still do. As a girl growing up with two brothers and no sisters, I wanted to be part of that all-female household. And like many other readers, I identified strongly with bookish, opinionated, spiky Jo. She was a role model, an independent intellectual who helped to support her family with her own writing. And like an enormous number of readers (as a quick search of the internet tells me), I couldn’t stand Professor Bhaer—or, as I called him, “the old professor guy.” Like many of my fellow readers, I never forgave Alcott for marrying Jo to him instead of lovely Laurie next door, and I don’t know that I ever even forgave Amy for landing him.
Rereading Little Women as an adult with rather more care than I did as a kid, I found more reason to detest the old professor guy—his paternalistic attitude toward Jo and her writing is frankly repulsive. He prudishly disapproves of thrilling tales like the ones she writes to support herself and her family, convincing her that “They are trash,” work to be “horribly ashamed of.” And she burns her writing. Oh, Jo.
So although Alcott wrote a gloriously feminine book, a book that honored the interior lives of girls and women, a book that exalted sisterhood, it was not a feminist one.
And that’s what makes me so delighted with Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo’s Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, a graphic novel set in modern-day New York City: It gets the emotional beats of Alcott’s classic just right without betraying Jo. The girls are thoroughly modern, Meg (who’s black) and Jo (who’s white) brought together by their parents’ interracial marriage and joined by biracial Beth and Amy. Meg loves fashion and hates her family’s poverty; Beth is sweet but not insipid, a budding musician; brash Amy is both a talented artist and an avid gamer. And Jo is blazingly smart, thrilled to get a copy of Beloved for Christmas.
Lovers of the Alcott original will find the changes from her classic ingenious.The girls’ father is deployed in the Middle East and suffers an all-too-modern combat injury. The girls and their mother bond over wholesome yet contemporary comforts: sharing woes over spoonfuls of ice cream straight from the carton and bundling into Mom’s bed for a family double feature of Titanic and Love, Actually. The episode when Amy takes revenge on Jo for ignoring her by destroying a story resolves when she is almost hit by a bus instead of almost drowning while skating. And when Beth gets sick (leukemia instead of scarlet fever)—well, don’t read this in public.
I confess it made me nervous, its translation to the modern setting so emotionally faithful. What were they going to do about Jo? Would she fall for best friend Laurie (here the orphaned grandson of the Marches’ fabulously wealthy Latinx neighbor)? Would she fall for one of her teachers? Ick. But Terciero boldly departs from the Alcott template to give Jo’s storyline a perfect resolution and to give readers a feminist protagonist to cheer.
Take that, old professor guy.
Vicky Smith is the children’s editor.