The Perennial Jane Austen: YA Retellings, Picture Book Nonfiction, & More

Four fiction and nonfiction titles bring Jane Austen to children of all ages and reading levels.

Janeites rejoice! Here’s the latest crop of Austen-inspired works for young people, from an adult book with teen appeal to a picture book biography. Ibi Zoboi’s Brooklyn-set, contemporary retelling of Pride and Prejudice is a luminous tribute to the borough, family, and first love. Katherine J. Chen’s Mary B. revisits the classic from Mary Bennet’s point of view. Whether readers are longtime fans of the author or they’re meeting her work for the first time, they'll want to check these out.

CHEN, Katherine J. Mary B: An Untold Story of Pride and Prejudice. 336p. Random. Jul. 2018. Tr $27. ISBN 9780399592218.
Chen’s daring debut is a decidedly untraditional Pride and Prejudice retelling with a feminist bent. Taking place before, during, and after Jane Austen’s most well-known work, this tale is told from the perspective of the frumpy and much-maligned middle Bennet sister. Lacking her sisters’ reported beauty and charm, Mary would rather spend her days reading and philosophizing instead of searching for the perfect match. She’s proud of her intelligence, and even when her unrequited love for Mr. Collins isn’t reciprocated, she takes solace in her independence. Though the work is full of anachronisms and the slow beginning may deter some readers, the characterizations are fascinating and complex. The sentence structure may not be completely accurate for the time, but the cadence will feel similar. The author illuminates the very limited options for most women of the time and offers a very non-Austen-like look at what often befell most young women, even if they did marry. The protagonist isn’t likable; she makes many mistakes in love and life, but she’s entirely human, which will satisfy many teens. VERDICT Not for purists or even fans of John Kessel’s recent fanciful mash-up Pride and Prometheus. But those seeking a bold interpretation of a much-loved classic will find lots to savor and debate.–­Shelley M. Diaz, School Library Journal

SANTONIManuela. Jane Austen: Her Heart Did Whisper. illus. by Manuela Santoni. 96p. chron. Graphic Universe. Oct. 2018. Tr $30.65. ISBN 9781541523661; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781541526433.

Gr 7 Up –This graphic novel reimagining of Jane Austen’s defining romance will thrill her fans, especially those who enjoyed the film Becoming Jane, which starred Anne Hathaway. The work opens in 1817, with Austen’s health failing, as she attempts to write to her sister Cassandra. In that letter, the lines between truth and fiction blur as she recalls her brief but passionate romance with Tom Lefroy, an Irish student of the law, which might have inspired her well-known Pride and Prejudice. In the first-person narration, Jane remembers her struggles with the “womanly” arts of embroidering and piano playing but revels in her love of jotting down observations of the daily goings-on of their small neighborhood. The teen’s passion for writing grows but is called into question when the worldly Lefroy challenges her. The two quickly go from verbal sparring partners to a young couple in love. But with no money between them, their hopes of a lifelong match are dashed. Santoni’s black-and-white illustrations present a dreamy fictionalized rendering of the celebrated author’s life, from her exuberant youth to her burgeoning career. Her bold black lines bring drama to the fluid, sketchy art. The images vary from multiple sequential panels to full-page, expressive close-ups, adding to the sweeping feel of the tale. The volume includes a thorough time line and a long essay from Austen scholar Mara Barbuni about the Regency-era author’s background and influence. VERDICT This graphic novel is more suitable for leisurely reading than research, but Austen fans won’t mind. A good choice where Janeites are plentiful.–Shelley M. Diaz, School Library Journal

VEGARA, Isabel Sánchez. Georgia O’Keeffe. illus. by Erica Salcedo. ISBN 9781786031228.

––––. Harriet Tubman. illus. by Pili Aguado. ISBN 9781786032270.

––––. Jane Austen. illus. by Katie Wilson. ISBN 9781786031204.

ea vol: 32p. (Little People, Big Dreams). chron. photos. Quarto. Jun. 2018. Tr. $14.99. 


PreS-Gr 1 – These colorful, straightforward biographies introduce the stories of Georgia O’Keeffe, Jane Austen, and Harriet Tubman to young audiences. The important roles these women played in history are simplified into lively, age-appropriate picture books. The content is limited to a narrative approach with simple vocabulary; each biography features key events from each woman’s childhood, pivotal experiences, and accomplishments. The dates and time lines included are very sparse with some difficult details included but not elaborated, such as slavery and beatings in Harriet Tubman’s book. The stylized illustrations will be appealing to young readers, and the stories of these important women may serve as inspiration for further reading. Some opportunities are missed; for example, the illustrations in Georgia O’Keeffe’s biography do not include examples of the artist’s work. Additionally, context is lacking in some cases; an illustration of the new 20 dollar bill in Harriet Tubman may be confusing to readers as it is not mentioned in the text of the biography. While these volumes may spark interest in their subjects, they will be better used as overviews rather than research materials. VERDICT This series serves as good precursors to more sophisticated ­biographies.–Jamie Jensen, Wayne Cox ­Elementary School, Roanoke, TX


ZOBOIIbi. Pride. 304p. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. Sept. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062564047. POP

Gr 8 Up –This Bushwick-set, contemporary retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice tackles gentrification, Blackness, and romance with honesty, humor, and heart. Afro-Latina Zuri Benitez is proud of her Dominican and Haitian heritage, close-knit family, and bustling block. However, the teen knows that the renovation of the abandoned house across the street into a mansion portends a gentrifying trend that she’s not quite ready for. It also ushers in the arrival of the wealthy Darcy brothers—Ainsley, the charming and friendly college boy who is possibly striking up a romance with Janae, Zuri’s college freshman sister; and Darius, the too-cool-for-school younger brother, who is as handsome as he is snooty. Zoboi follows her novel American Street with this send-up of Austen’s classic, an insightful commentary on socioeconomic class, changing neighborhoods, and the pressures of growing up and falling in love as a second-generation immigrant. Janeites will appreciate the nods to the original: Mr. Collins is the nephew of the Benitezs’ Oshun-worshipping godmother and apartment building owner; the Wickham character likes to sweet-talk younger girls into taking revealing selfies; and the five sisters’ dynamic is just as memorable. But those unfamiliar with Austen’s work will also be enamored with the warmth that permeates the characters, the spellbinding storytelling, and the tender but bittersweet love letter to Brooklyn. Teens will cheer for the protagonist as she finds her passion for poetry and hesitantly falls love. VERDICT This excellent coming-of-age take on a classic belongs on all YA shelves.–Shelley M. Diaz, School Library Journal

This article was published in School Library Journal's July 2018 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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