A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice by Jasmine Stirling, illustrated by Vesper Stamper


A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice 
illustrated by Vesper Stamper
When I read a picture book biography, I read it with a specific audience in mind: second graders. When I started my job as an elementary school librarian, second graders had a year-end biography fair that required stacks of picture book biographies for them to choose from. While the biographies didn't necessarily have to be written at a second grade reading level, a second grader needed to be able to grasp the important contributions of the subject, or at least find aspects of the subject's childhood engaging. As an adult, I have been reading and rereading Jane Austen's novels for almost thirty years, at first for enjoyment, but over time, coming to understand the significance of her literary contributions, especially as a woman. I was curious how her life would (could) be translated for young readers, especially as they probably would not encounter her work for quite a while. With A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice, Stirling centers her biography on the first page: "Jane loved stories - long one, short ones, worn and new."

Stirling spends the first half of the book presenting readers with the creative, boisterous, loving, large family Austen grew up in. She also shows readers how, in a time when "most fathers discouraged their daughters from becoming anything more than elegant, obedient wives," Austen's father supported the educational endeavors of his daughters, giving them their own study, a quiet place away from their six brothers and live-in pupils of Mr. Austen's. Jane delighted her entire family with her writing, stories that poked fun at the popular genres of the day, and was further encouraged to write by the gift of a portable mahogany writing desk, fancy pens and expensive blank writing books from her father. 

Jane develops as a writer over the course of A Most Clever Girl, with Stirling giving readers a glimpse into Jane's careful observations of those around her and her talent for noticing how "small decisions could change someone's life in big ways. And how people often said one thing while meaning something completely different." The struggles of Austen's adult life, from having to leave her childhood home and sell off most of the family's possessions, to the loss of her father that meant more moves and an even more Spartan living for her mother, sister and herself, find her "sadder and lonelier" and unable to write. However, the gift of a home near where she had grown up gives Austen the security she needs to begin writing again. The final pages are filled with Austen's triumphs, including a refusing to write "one of those sticky-sweet love stories that she just couldn't stand" when asked by King George IV's librarian, who, along with the King, was a fan of her novels.

Back matter includes quotations from Austen's novels that were incorporated into the text of A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice, a brief biography, an author's note, Jane Austen Resources for Young Readers, a note from the illustrator and a selected biography.

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