In the 150 years since Louisa May Alcott introduced readers to the March family with the publication of “Little Women,” Jo March and her sisters have become some of the most iconic and beloved American fictional characters of all time. While “Little Women” has been reinterpreted on stage, screen and on the page countless times, a new graphic novel is going one step further by transporting the Marches to the modern-day Brooklyn, New York.
With their novel “Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy,” author Rey Terciero and illustrator Bre McCoy are putting a new twist on the story by transforming the Marches into a multiracial family. In their retelling, Mrs. March is a white single mother of 4-year-old Jo when she meets and marries Mr. March, an African-American widower who is raising his daughter, Meg. The couple later have two daughters together, Beth and Amy.
For Terciero, getting to work on the beloved novel was a chance to introduce the story to younger readers who may not relate to the characters in most American classics.
“‘Little Women’ has been told and retold dozens and dozens of times and there are books about Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, but once again they are all white and they are all the same,” Terciero said. “I wanted an audience that says, ‘I see myself in this book because I am in a blended family’ or because they are black or because they are gay. That was really critical to me.”
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That last point is also why Terciero addressed something that has been hotly debated by Alcott fans for generations: Jo March’s sexuality. In the new book, readers see Jo recoil at the romantic overtures of her friendly neighbor Laurie Marquez and begins figuring out her own sexual orientation and how she should tell her family that she is gay.
“The chapters I enjoyed writing the most was definitely when Jo came out,” Terciero said. “I just felt that I had been building up to that from the beginning of the book. I wanted it to have a happy ending because I didn’t have a happy ending when I came out to my family; it was a tough reaction from them.”
Working on a story centering a mixed-race family was particularly meaningful for the book’s illustrator McCoy, who is credited as Bre Indigo in the book. McCoy, who is biracial, noted that developing the looks of each of the March sisters allowed her to explore the diversity of families in her art.
“You don’t often get to see a lot of diversity in the way black girls look” in art, McCoy said. “I find that every time I play a game with a black girl, she’s always got an Afro and she’s fierce. And I’m like ‘Cool! Awesome! I love it! But there are other girls.’”
That’s why McCoy says she took particular care in thinking about how she wanted the characters of Meg, Beth and Amy to look in particular. “I based Amy off of myself — wild hair, crazy sense of style,” she noted, adding that she used her sister as the inspiration for Beth who had what McCoy describes as “Shirley Temple curls.”
But it was with Meg March that McCoy got to try a variety of different things when it came to her wardrobe and general look. “She’s a fashionista,” she said. “I had fun creating different hairstyles like the ones she’d probably do for herself.”
Even though Terciero and McCoy were updating a story that was first published in 1868, both stressed that the primary themes of “Little Women” still resonated with both of them today. This new story begins with Mr. March serving in the armed forces in the Middle East. Mrs. March and the girls are living on a tight budget in their Brooklyn home while he’s away. Terciero drew on his own experiences growing up on public assistance in Texas while depicting the March family’s financial struggles.
“With ‘Little Women,’ they weren’t the richest girls on the block, in fact they were pretty poor,” Terciero said. “They were really struggling to make ends meet, which I identified with.”
Ultimately, the creators of “Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy” hope that both longtime “Little Women” fans and those new to the March sisters’ story come away from the book with something new. They note that while there has been some backlash online because of the gay storyline, the vast majority of readers they’ve heard from have been pleased with the book.
“If everyone else gets their version of ‘Little Women’ and their representation of 'Little Women,' then I am not going to feel ashamed for bringing representation of girls of color and mixed families or the LGBT community,” McCoy said. “Because for the people who need it, it’s going to be so important to them. For the people who don’t need it, they don’t have to read it.”