It’s not long, Mark Twain’s “Advice to Little Girls,” a bit of satire written in 1865 and newly reissued as a picture book (Enchanted Lion: 20 pp., $14.95), with a suite of charming, broad-stroke illustrations by Vladimir Radunsky. But it is sharp, a pointed set of admonitions urging girls to think for themselves, which is a message as essential today as it was a century-and-a-half ago.
“Good little girls,” Twain begins, “ought not to make mouths at their teachers for every trifling offense. This retaliation should only be resorted to under peculiarly aggravated circumstances.”
And later: “If your mother tells you to do a thing, it is wrong to reply that you won’t. It is better and more becoming to intimate that you will do as she bids you, and then afterward act quietly in the matter according to the dictates of your best judgment.”
What Twain is arguing for, of course, is a kind of subtle subversion -- not direct confrontation, but an undermining of the pieties of society, school and family. This was among his hallmarks as a writer, one that would come to full flower later, in novels such as “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” both of which involve smart children who see the hypocrisy of the adult world for what it is.
That’s not to suggest that “Advice to Little Girls” is on their level -- although I, for one, find “Tom Sawyer” overrated -- just to note that Twain’s vision, his sensibility, emerges here as it does in his more substantial work.
At times, he even seems to see into the future, predicting not his own literary achievement but rather his history of economic boom and bust.
“You ought never to take your little brother’s ‘chewing-gum’ away from him by main force,” Twain cautions; “it is better to rope him in with the promise of the first two dollars and a half you find floating down the river on a grindstone. In the artless simplicity natural to this time of life, he will regard it as a perfectly fair transaction. In all ages of the world this eminently plausible fiction has lured the obtuse infant to financial ruin and disaster.”