This week I introduced my girls (ages thirteen and twelve) to the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice (and yes, Colin Firth). Such a walk down memory lane for me! If possible, Mrs. Bennett is more embarrassingly funny, Elizabeth more admirable, and Mr. Darcy more dreamy than I thought in my teens and early adulthood. (Okay, maybe Mr. Darcy isn’t more dreamy, but I can sure relate more to Mrs. Bennett!) I was reminded again through watching this mini-series just what a genius at relationship Jane Austen was. I was also really glad to have gotten my hands on this new little gem of a picture book biography, Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen: The Story of Six Novels, Three Notebooks, a Writing Box, and One Clever Girl by Deborah Hopkinson, as a way to give my girls another lens through which to experience Austen for the first time.
Of course, Hopkinson’s biography would begin in no other way than this:
It is a truth universally acknowledged
that Jane Austen is one of our greatest writers.
But it might surprise you to know that
Jane lived a simple life.
She wasn’t rich
or even very famous in her time.
We learn that Jane “was sometimes awkward and a little shy.” We learn that she was a member of a large and busy family of six brothers, one sister, “plus packs of boys who came to live and study at their father’s boarding school.” We learn that “[f]amilies back then made their own fun,” and the Austens excelled at that: dancing and word games; cards and charades; always reading; and even an annual theatrical production in their old barn. Although Jane had little formal schooling, she had her father’s large library at her disposal and read from it voraciously. She had an incisive mind from childhood and began to explore expressing her thoughts and observations in writing at age twelve. Her father witnessed this and supported it by keeping her in notebooks and even gifting her with a mahogany writing box. She began to explore the world of novel writing (but on her own terms) as a teen, and even after initial rejection from publishers, she did not give up. She died having published six novels. Although they were only attributed to “a lady,” word got out and she become famous in her lifetime.
This book is two-thirds biography Jane Austen and one-third anthem to the life of a quiet, observant girl, a girl who lived a very circumscribed life but kept her eyes, ears, and heart open and did what no man of her time was doing: write about the everyday lives of her generation. Qin Leng’s illustrations are the perfect accompaniment: slightly whimsical, colorful, soft, and quite evocative of Austen’s bright intellect. My favorite illustration is the one of a small, young Jane standing alone in her father’s large library. The book ends with a timeline of Austen’s life and a section entitled “Jane’s Bookshelf” which gives publication dates, famous quotes, and very brief summaries of each of her novels. The final page offers places on the internet for more information about Jane Austen and a brief bibliography. This book is a lovely tribute to a beloved author. Highly Recommended. (Balzer + Bray, 2018)
Many thanks to Provato Marketing for sending this book my way for my unbiased review. Check out other stops on the blog tour here.