Jane Austen Biographies for Kids

Book Review by Brenda S. Cox

“I should like to see Miss Burdett very well, but that I am rather frightened by hearing that she wishes to be introduced to me. If I am a wild beast I cannot help it. It is not my own fault.”–Jane Austen, in a letter to Cassandra, May 24, 1813; Jane was not excited about being famous!

I’ve just finished three delightful biographies of Jane Austen for children. They all came from the public library. A few weeks ago I reviewed a lovely new one, A Most Clever Girl, for ages 4-12, which focuses on how Austen’s experiences helped her develop as a writer.

My granddaughters, ages 8 and 13, enjoyed all these books. I’ll start with a version for youngest children and finish with a book for older children.

Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen is a gorgeous picture book by Deborah Hopkinson for young children.
Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen:
The Story of Six Novels, Three Notebooks, a Writing Box, and One Clever Girl 
 by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Qin Leng

This simple picture book, for ages 4-8, begins, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is one of our greatest writers.” We see Jane as a little girl, hiding and watching her familiy’s visitors. We see her in a busy house full of people, and playing shuttlecock while her brothers play cup and ball. We see her climbing up her father’s bookshelves to gather books to read. (There is no mention of religion.)

And eventually, we find Jane “inventing a new kind of story about real people, and sisters (like Cassandra and herself), who longed to follow their dreams.”

The end of Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen gives quotes and summaries of each novel, a timeline, and recommended websites and books.

Illustrations are colorful, clear, and lively. A fun introduction to Austen for young children..

Brave Jane Austen: Reader, Writer, Author, Rebel, by Lisa Pliscou, focuses on Austen breaking conventions for women of her time.
Brave Jane Austen:
Reader, Writer, Author, Rebel 
by Lisa Pliscou, illustrated by Jen Corace

Another lovely picture book, for kindergarten through grade 5 (ages 5-11), begins, “A long time ago, in a tiny village in England, there was a little girl named Jane. There was no reason to think she would grow up to be anything but ordinary.”

And yet she did!

Pliscou describes Austen’s church background. Jane’s father was the rector: “each Sunday he stood tall in the old gray church, telling everyone about God and His mysterious ways. He used long, complicated words that to Jane were almost like another language, strange and beautiful.”

Jane learns that “boys and girls led very different lives.” She goes away to school, and later almost falls in love. She reads, sews, and takes care of others. But in between, she keeps writing. We see how Jane keeps her independence and crafts her stories. “Who would have thought” she would find such success?

The end of the book summarizes Austen’s “Life and Times,” gives quotes from her letters and novels, quotes from others about Jane, and places to visit and learn more.

Personally, I love J. K. Rowling’s quote: “Jane Austen is the pinnacle to which all other authors aspire.”

This book has more text on each page than Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen, for somewhat older readers. The illustrations are more like cut-outs, with blocks of vibrant color.

Brave Jane Austen will help you and the children in your life fall in love with Jane, and be inspired by her life.

Who Was Jane Austen? by Sarah Fabiny is a chapter book for young readers.
Who Was Jane Austen? 
By Sarah Fabiny

This children’s chapter book is part of a series for ages 8-12 or grades 3-7. My granddaughter recently picked out Who Was J. K. Rowling?  from this same series, and she and I both found it fascinating. It showed us the influences on Rowling’s life that are reflected in the Harry Potter books. Who Was Jane Austen? is also well-done.

The book begins by telling us that Jane Austen was one of People magazine’s most interesting people of 1995, although she died in 1817. The first chapter introduces her father, “Reverend George Austen” who “looked after the parish in Steventon.” It continues with Austen’s childhood, family, and education. Her early writing, Cassandra’s engagement, even Austen writing names in the parish marriage register, follow. The moves to Bath and Chawton culminate in “Success at Last,” as Jane becomes a published author.

A few parts of the book are not strictly accurate, I suppose in order to make the story more entertaining. Jane’s supposed romance with Tom Lefroy is exaggerated; the author claims they spent time alone together, which is unlikely. And she states that Austen’s father sent an early version of Pride and Prejudice (called First Impressions, at that time) to a publisher, who rejected it. Actually he only sent a letter asking if they wanted to see the manuscript, and they said no. These are details, though, and in general the book tells Jane’s story well. It is entertaining and keeps the reader’s interest throughout.

Who Was Jane Austen?  offers nine short chapters, in easy-to-read, well-spaced print. It tells the story of Jane’s life and works. Almost every page is illustrated with a black-and-white sketch. Sidebars give more information about topics like “Georgian England,” “The Role of Women” and “The French Revolution.” A list of screen adaptations, timelines of Austen’s life and the world, Austen’s Works, and a Bibliography round out the book.

Young readers will enjoy this exploration of Austen and her times.

Each biographer, whether writing for children or adults, interprets their subject in a different way. If I wrote a children’s book on Austen, I would probably emphasize the more spiritual aspects of her life, and perhaps how her character developed and was expressed in her novels. If you were writing a children’s book on Austen, what would your slant be?

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