Young Louisa tugged open the heavy door of the huge brick oven. She peered into the darkness, then jumped back in horror. Someone was crouching inside and staring back at her. Quickly her mother came to Louisa’s side and explained that it was a runaway slave that she had hidden in the oven until he could escape to freedom. Louisa understood and knew that she should tell no one about the black man whom she’d discovered. She was accustomed to having people seek help from her parents. Louisa never forgot her parents’ example of concern for others.

Louisa May Alcott was born November 29, 1832, in Germantown, Pennsylvania, but spent most of her life in Boston and Concord, Massachusetts. Her curiosity and enthusiasm, even as a toddler, often exhausted her parents. But as soon as she learned to write, Louisa settled down enough to begin keeping a journal. Her older sister, Anna, also kept a journal, and although not all the entries were as exciting as the incident with the slave, both girls wrote quite regularly about their lives.

Louisa’s mother sometimes added a few lines in her children’s journals. One day she wrote in Louisa’s, “I have observed all day your patience with baby, your obedience to me, and your kindness to all.”

Perhaps keeping a journal stirred Louisa’s writing talent, for when she was only thirteen, she wrote her first play. She and her sister, along with some neighborhood children, presented the play in the Alcott’s barn as a surprise for their parents. Louisa and her sisters continued to write and produce plays for the entertainment of their family and friends.

Through her father, noted educator Bronson Alcott, Louisa formed rich friendships with some of America’s finest authors. One of her father’s dear friends, Ralph Waldo Emerson, became a cherished friend of Louisa too. She also knew Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau.

While she was still very young, Louisa began working as a seamstress and as a housemaid. Whatever money she earned Louisa gave to help support her family. At about the age of sixteen Louisa began teaching school also. The same barn where her first play had been presented now became her classroom. Her students delighted in the fairy tales Louisa made up to entertain them. Louisa’s first book, Flower Fables, was a collection of these tales.

When the Civil War erupted, Louisa felt a need to do her part. In 1862, she moved to Washington, D.C., and served as a nurse in the Union Army. She worked hard and got very little sleep because of her concern for the wounded soldiers. She became a trusted friend of many of the young patients. However, after only a few weeks at the hospital, Louisa became very ill with typhoid fever. Her father arrived in time to take her back home, where fresh air, rest, and her mother’s care helped her to recover. Later Louisa compiled the letters that she had written to her family from Washington about the suffering soldiers into a book called Hospital Sketches. Six years later Louisa became the editor of a girls’ magazine, Merry’s Museum. That same year a publisher asked her to write a book especially for young girls. Reluctantly Louisa agreed to try. To her surprise the book, Little Women, became a huge success. Louisa now had enough money to give her parents a permanent home and other comforts that she had always longed to provide them with.

Louisa never married, but when her younger sister May died, she raised May’s baby, who had been named Louisa after her. Lulu, as the child was called, brightened Louisa’s life and became like a daughter to her.

Generations have appreciated Louisa May Alcott for her writing. But to her family and friends, her warmth, love, and compassion far surpassed her literary achievements.

Illustrated by Shauna Mooney