February 01, 2018


Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen. By Deborah Hopkinson. Illustrations by Qin Leng. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” By Bethany Hegedus. Illustrated by Erin McGuire. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     Despite the very different times in which they lived and the very different lengths of their lives, Jane Austen (1775-1817) and Harper Lee (1926-2016) had some significant similarities. Both were writers above and beyond anything else – determined, from an early age, to put down on paper the events and people they observed around them. Both were realistic writers, not fantasists – something far more unusual in Austen’s case than in Lee’s, since in Austen’s time books about everyday life were not commonly written or read. And both were quiet about their personal lives, with neither marrying and neither known to have had serious long-term relationships (after Austen’s death, her sister, Cassandra, actually destroyed all letters that might have shed light on personal matters). Of course, in other ways Austen and Lee were quite different: simply on a literary level, Austen wrote six novels (and a seventh, early one was also found and eventually published); Lee wrote two (the second of which was essentially an early version of the one for which she is famous). And yet the adjectives “ordinary” and “extraordinary,” applied by Deborah Hopkinson to Austen, would apply equally well to Harper Lee as seen in Bethany Hegedus’ biography.

     Both these books are for ages 4-8, an early age for kids to be reading Austen – although within the age range in which some schools present Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The “story arc” used by Hopkinson and Hegedus is similar: both start by showing their subjects as children, looking for a connection with the targeted readership, and explore a bit of Austen’s and Lee’s lives before giving suitably abbreviated and simplified information on their novels. The ink-and-watercolor pastel illustrations by Qin Leng fit the time period of Hopkinson’s book well, and it is fun to follow the way some of them interact with the narrative – for instance, there is a cutaway view of Austen’s childhood house, showing her “six boisterous brothers” as well as parental areas and a book-stuffed library that, as Hopkinson explains several pages later, “boasted five hundred books (almost all of them by men)” and was Austen’s “classroom,” where she “devoured everything” but “loved novels best of all.” Austen’s entry into writing while still very young, her father’s gift to her of a “fine mahogany writing box,” and her decision “to hold up a mirror to the ordinary world” instead of writing far-fetched romances, are all presented here. So are her father’s ongoing support, her eventual publication of novels with title pages that “simply read ‘by a lady,’” and a quick connection with a simple page turn from Austen’s to the modern world – where an entire subway car is shown filled with riders who are all apparently reading Austen’s books. A timeline of Austen’s life follows the narrative, and at the very back of the book there are brief and very helpful summaries of all six of her novels published in her lifetime (although nothing on the posthumously published Lady Susan). The quotations from Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion are nicely chosen, offering a good sample of Austen’s style and helping young readers decide if they would like to try going through any of the novels in their entirety.

     Hegedus’ book takes place closer to our own time, and Harper Lee’s life connects more directly to that of modern young readers than does Jane Austen’s. But here too, the illustrations – Erin McGuire offers clean, Photoshopped digital ones – help bring out elements of the story of Lee’s early life. These include her admiration for her lawyer father (whom Lee watched in court “instead of going to the movies”), her early acquaintance and friendship with Truman Capote, the stories the two wrote together, and Lee’s college and post-college life after Capote moved to New York City. The turning point for Lee was being given a Christmas present in 1956: a year off from her job to write. Hegedus then moves into To Kill a Mockingbird, explaining how that year of writing was the genesis of the novel and how Lee’s own childhood permeates the work’s pages. The huge success of the book, and the unhappiness Lee felt at being hounded by reporters and others after it became a best-seller, are used to explain her becoming a recluse. Hegedus puts a positive spin on this, not wanting to complicate matters for a young audience: “She carved out a life of her own design.” And Hegedus omits other complexities of Lee’s life, such as her eventual estrangement from Capote and their later reconciliation, and the names of the people who funded Lee’s year of writing (Michael and Joy Brown are mentioned only in the Author’s Note after the main narrative). Lee’s other published work, Go Set a Watchman, also appears only in the Author’s Note. All this makes sense in a book for this age group. If there is a noticeable lack in Hegedus’ work, it is the absence of any quotations from To Kill a Mockingbird itself, or even a summary or partial summary of the novel – all Hegedus says is that it is “a story as satisfying as a serving of grits and gravy.” Of course, the novel is very widely available, and Hegedus does provide a selected bibliography and some suggested videos for young readers interested in more information about it and about Lee. But parents who know To Kill a Mockingbird may need to nudge young readers of Hegedus’ book a bit to get them interested in the famous novel as well as in the woman who wrote it.

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