Secondary Characters, Center Stage

Is there a name for a genre of books where a secondary character in a beloved classic takes the starring role in their own story? If there is, sign me up to read them—when they’re as well-written and engaging as the four below.

I recently finished Marmee: A Novel of Little Women, by Sarah Miller (2022). The author did her research before writing this book, and based it on what she learned of Louisa May Alcott’s parents as well as on Little Women itself. The result is a beautifully written tale from Marmee’s point of view, covering the same time period as the original novel but in a diary format. I love Little Women, and I love the movies made from it, but I’ve sometimes been frustrated with the abundance of critical and cinematic attention paid to Jo as opposed to her (in my opinion) equally interesting sisters.

Now, I like Jo, and I empathize with her as a character, but I also love Meg, Beth, and yes, even Amy. I’ve always felt that these four sisters symbolized different aspects of coming-of-age womanhood—aspects I recognized in myself even as a young girl reading Little Women for the first time. In Marmee, we experience the same story from a mother’s point of view, which thankfully means that in this retelling, no one daughter gets top billing in the story; there is no favoritism from either Marmee herself or from author Sarah Miller. I really appreciated that.

Miller also shows us another side of Marmee (based heavily on Alcott’s own mother) that reflects her abolitionist ideals, her pursuit of justice, and her strong desire to help others less fortunate than herself. I appreciated also that Marmee wasn’t presented as the perfect mother or woman, but one with realistic character flaws and secrets that affect her relationships and explain different aspects of the original story.

After I finished Marmee, I realized that I had read several books lately in this “genre,” most of which I’d enjoyed very much. Three other “secondary character takes the starring role” books are:

Caroline: Little House, Revisited, also by Sarah Miller. I read this when it came out back in 2017, and I just loved it. The Little House books and Laura Ingalls Wilder are huge interests of  mine, as is the whole topic of women’s domestic history (which is what I call that area of history dealing with everyday, average women rather than “famous” women in any given time period). Caroline Ingalls has always fascinated me because I admire her strength, her integrity, her adaptability, and the innumerable skills and talents she exhibited as a 19th-century pioneer wife and mother. This book isn’t for children; it deals with the nitty-gritty of what life was like then for women on the prairie, while following the story roughly of the same time period of Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie book. One caveat: Miller realistically depicts every aspect of Caroline’s life, including her loving marriage to a good man. If that aspect of the Ingalls’ relationship is not something you are interested in reading about, then this book probably isn’t for you.

Mr. Rochester, by Sarah Shoemaker (2017). I’ve read Jane Eyre several times, and I’ve always loved the character of Edward Rochester. But I know that some who love Jane have a hard time also loving Edward. This book is Sarah Shoemaker’s imagining of his backstory, from his childhood through the end of the original book. Whether you “like” the character of Rochester or not, this book offers a plausible and well-written explanation of how he got to be who he is. (As an aside, not long after I read Mr. Rochester, I also read Wide Sargasso Sea, which is Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel of Antoinette/Bertha’s backstory. This book is often spoken of as a postcolonial and feminist masterpiece of modern fiction, but—or perhaps because of this?—I just didn’t like it. I found it pretentious and rambling, with unlikable characters that didn’t hold my interest.)

Jacob T. Marley, by R. William Bennett (2011). I didn’t expect to like this book. Quite frankly, I expected it to be a mediocre capitalization on the tremendous popularity of A Christmas Carol. I’m so pleased to say that I was wrong. After reading this book back in 2020, I wrote: “I loved this! I teared up in several places. What a great companion to A Christmas Carol. Plus, the paperback copy I read is beautiful, inside and out.” Many reviewers note that Bennett captures the spirit and language of the original tale, and I have to agree. In my own library, I shelved this book right next to A Christmas Carol, where I think it rightfully belongs.

I doubt that “Secondary Characters, Center Stage” is a literary genre (if there is a genre for this category, I don’t know what it is). If you had asked me several years ago about writers creating books based on other people’s famous secondary characters, I’d have been skeptical, to say the least. And I’d have missed out on four really enjoyable books based on books that I’ve loved in the past and have learned to appreciate all over again, from a secondary character’s point of view.

Photo by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash


Coming-of-Age Novels—One Old, One New

What is it about adolescence—that time between childhood and adulthood—that is so endlessly fascinating to us? Why is it that the music of those years stays with us as “the best” music of all time? Why do we remember, with sharp poignancy, the dreams, passions, and preoccupations of our teen years, decades after we experienced them?

There’s something compelling about this stage of life … a time of self-discovery, rebellion (major or minor), and the end of childhood innocence. The best coming-of-age novels encapsulate these themes and more, with characters that tug at our hearts and remind us of our own journey to adulthood. And (in my experience, at least), it matters not whether that transition was overall a positive or negative experience for us—or for the characters we read about.

Recently I read two coming-of-age novels back to back (unintentionally), and was reminded of how much I love this genre.

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Three Books for Two Weeks of Sickness

I had high hopes that my first “what I’m reading” post would be something really special … an impressive title that showed my discerning taste in reading material (I’m joking—I’m a fairly nondiscriminatory reader and always have been). But instead, my entire household got hit with our first case of COVID and my reading for the past two weeks was whatever I could manage while dealing with frequent fatigue and occasional brain fog.

Now, I don’t get sick very often, but apparently when I do, my reading brain seeks out not-too-heavy books with happy endings. Which led me directly to a genre that I otherwise don’t read much: romance.

During my illness, and while I was helping family members with their own illness (which I gave to them), I read three books. All of them, while very different from each other, fit into the romance category. I would also unreservedly recommend them to anyone who’s looking for a well-written but light read for whatever reason.

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This Reading Life

My life with books goes so far back that I actually can’t remember a time when I didn’t know how to read.

My entire childhood was spent with my “nose in a book,” as my grandfather often said. Books were my comfort, my friends, my treasures, my security, my escape, and my joy. Children who have insecure and disrupted family lives often find solace in something they can control, and my solace was found in books.

I always was, and still am in some ways, a fairly nondiscriminatory reader. By which I mean, I read everything I could get my hands on, from high-quality literature to poorly-written brain candy, from encyclopedias to cereal boxes. Whatever was available at the time, I read it. For a long time I was limited to what I could find on the bookshelves at my grandparents’ house, which meant I had access from a young age to a 10-volume Bible story set (which introduced me to God and eventually changed my life) as well as to The Exorcist (which sadly, I read, and far too young at that). I had no supervision regarding my reading material, for better or for worse.

Between the ages of 7 and 14, I attended ten different schools. My transitory life didn’t foster close friendships with peers, so books remained my most reliable and best friends. I read constantly. I have vivid memories of walking home from school around age nine, engrossed in a Peanuts comic book and trying not to run into trees or get hit by a car.

A year or so later, my mother and I fled to Florida after a domestic violence situation in her marriage. And miracle of miracles—the tiny library in our rural town was a mere two blocks from our home. I walked there several times a week and, along with my mom, read every Agatha Christie they had before branching out to other fiction and nonfiction books. It was in Florida that I discovered The Bobbsey Twins, books that I knew were “too young” for me, as well as hopelessly outdated and overly idealistic, but they were exactly what my heart and mind needed at that time. I read every one that the library had, and wished, mostly subconsciously, for a loving, protective, intact family of my own.

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Parenting · Reading

Love You Forever … Or Hate It Forever?

Still polarizing after all these years.

I thought the controversy was over. I thought that surely by now, moms were no longer arguing over this book. I thought emotions had cooled, invectives were no longer flung about, and we were at peace with (or at perhaps had just forgotten about) this little children’s book.

But no. The debate rages on.

Love You Forever was written by Robert Munsch and first published in 1986. If you’ve ever seen it, you’re not likely to forget the image of the toddler on the cover, sitting next to an open toilet in the middle of a toddler-made mess, gleefully contemplating what to toss next into the commode. If you’ve read it to children, they’ve likely pointed out the toilet to you each time you’ve read it, while (depending on the child) giggling in embarrassment or snickering in naughty delight.

In short, it’s the story of a mom who sings her baby to sleep with a certain lullaby every night (“I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living my baby you’ll be”), and as that baby grows, she continues to love and sing to her son, even as he becomes a man with his own home and family. At the end of the book, when the mother is old and sick, the son sings the song back to her and then goes home and sings it to his own baby girl.

So from that brief synopsis, you can maybe see why Love You Forever is on its way to 35,000 Amazon ratings, 94% being five-star reviews. In 2001, fifteen years after it was first published, it was in its 63rd printing, and who knows how many times it’s been printed by now, 20 years later.

So people really like it. That is, except for the people who hate it. And I mean, HATE it.

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5 Things I Learned From a Year of Pandemic Reading

If you’re an avid reader, no doubt you’ve broken some personal reading records between March 2020 and March 2021. A year of a global pandemic will do that to a person. Maybe you also  binged on Disney+, learned to bake bread, did jigsaw puzzles, took countless walks, put in a home garden, cleaned and organized, or remodeled your house. But seriously, not if any of those things cut into your reading time, right?

It was a year of amazing reading opportunity. A golden permission slip, a guilt-free year of Nothing To Do and Nowhere To Go. So we stayed home. We rejoiced when libraries reopened, then closed again, then offered curbside service. And we read books that sustained us, comforted us, and kept us sane.

When we’re faced with an ever-shifting political and economic landscape, stay-at-home orders, and little to do outside our own small circle of home, it’s no surprise that readers turn to books for sustenance, comfort, and sanity. As we passed the one-year COVID anniversary this month, I thought back about my year with books and how it was different from others. I learned a few things this year:

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Homeschooling · Reading

The “How to Raise a Reader” Myth

I’m an avid reader. I own a couple of thousand books, I read almost every day (for fun), and I’ve been like this my whole life. When I was a little girl, I spent breakfast time reading every box and bag in the kitchen, I read during recess at school, and I was often admonished to “take my nose out of a book” to look at the scenery on car trips.

I married a man who reads almost as much as I do and owns even more books. When we had children, they were all raised in a house full of books, used literature-based learning for school, saw their parents reading often, and were read aloud to until they were teens every single school day. We read really good books, too—fun and interesting books that everybody liked. So naturally, they all grew up to be readers, right?


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