A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Cover art for A Little Princess by Frances Hodgeson BurnettI am not making this story up.

Earlier this week I was driving a van load of kids to swim practice when the book A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett came up in conversation, and the following words came out of my son’s mouth:

A Little Princess is a really great book.  You should read it.  It’s not at all like you think.  It’s not really a princess book at all.  I think everyone would like this book.”

My son, just turned 10, coolest of the cool, first to tell you he reads teen books and only teen books (most recent reads: The Hunger Games Trilogy and I Am Number Four), not interested in movies unless they are rated PG 13, the more violent the better (are you getting the idea here?), says this ALOUD, to a whole van full of swim teammates.

Do I need to go on?  Isn’t it enough recommendation for a book that is 100 years old, about a London girls’ boarding school, that a too-cool 10-year old boy LOVED it?

Folks, it is that good.

A Little Princess tells the story of Sara Crewe, the daughter of a wealthy British officer living in India.  Sara’s mother died in childbirth, and when Sara turns seven, Captain Crewe sends her off for a proper education in England, enrolling her at Miss Minchin’s School For Girls, where she stays in the best rooms, wears expensive clothes, and is denied no luxury.  Then one day word comes that Sara’s father has lost his fortune in a failed diamond mine, and died of fever and heartbreak.  Sara is destitute, left in the care of the jealous and resentful Miss Minchin, who banishes Sara from her parlor rooms to a bare, cold attic and requires her to do drudge work for room and board.  Sara’s spirit doesn’t break, however, and her kind nature soon earns her allies in unexpected places.

This seemingly dusty old book is compelling, well-paced, and not in the least dull.  The character of Sara transcends time, place, and even gender.  The message, that attitude goes a long way towards overcoming suffering, is surprisingly palatable, and certainly worth repeating to the next generation.

I would have been even more surprised at how fresh this book seems had I not had the same experience with A Secret Garden, also by Burnett, a couple of years ago.  I expected to have to abridge that one as I read aloud, fearing my kids would lose interest in a old British story.  Boy was I wrong.  Both kids were completely wrapped up in the mystery of the screams in the night-time, the abandoned garden behind the wall, the character of Dicken, who tames animals with a whistle, and finally, by the healing power of a garden.

Both A Secret Garden and A Little Princess  make great read alouds for kids as young as 6, and as old as they will tolerate being read to.

Maybe I will dust off my old copy of Little Lord Fauntleroy to see if Burnett really has unlocked the secret of writing books that stay fresh for a century.


2 Comments

  1. Jenny – I LOVE this book and The Secret Garden too. Thanks for writing about it as I was considering reading it to my 6 year old but had held off, until now. I think we will give it a try as I suspect she will love it. Thanks.

    I do have a question for you… why is it that all the stories for children have gotten rid of the parents? They are all dead, non-existent etc. Is this really a requirement of children’s literature that the kids have to stand alone in the world? Seems a little wonky to me.

    • So funny you should ask this question, since I am just finishing a commentary where I talk about orphans–stay tuned. I believe there are so many orphan stories because they tap a universal need–especially in children–to figure out where we belong. An orphan story throws this need into vivid relief. Most of us has indulged the fantasy of wondering what would happen IF we were suddenly left alone: who would take care of us? Would anyone love us? Where would we end up? Children, especially, are fascinated by this line of questioning. An orphan makes an instantly sympathetic character because regardless of differences in time, culture, or gender, we can all relate to feeling isolated. Choosing an orphan for a main character cuts through the tremendous complexity of creating a loveable hero. We can all root for an orphan.

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