Playing Favorites: Maud Hart Lovelace and More

We get the Sunday New York Times delivered, and the first thing I turn to is the Book Review. This week’s features “Growing Up Together,” a lovely homage to Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books by pediatrician and novelist Perri Klass. Klass describes the cult following of the series, which has “flown below the radar, never quite developing the recognition of Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, and the Little House books.” If Twitter is anything to go by, the series is better known among my romance-reading friends, perhaps because, like the others Klass mentions, it tracks Betsy and her friends from childhood to the romance of Betsy’s Wedding:

For many readers, these [later] books are paramount, with their glamorous Gibson-girl-style illustrations [by Vera Neville], and their romantic subplots, steeped in the courtship customs of long ago.

My love for teen-aged Betsy–I still remember her being sure to slouch into the fashionable S-shape–was surely a sign of the budding romance-reader.

Many of the series Klass mentions grow with the reader–as does Harry Potter, to some extent. The first book, Betsy-Tacy, is a picture book featuring a 5-year-old Betsy (and illustrated by Lois Lenski). The final books in the series, chronicling the adventures of Betsy’s early adulthood, would probably be classified as YA (or even New Adult, though of course they are sex-free) today. Only the Little House books cover quite as wide a span. I think the attachment to a character who grows with you is part of their charm, and part of why they lend themselves to many re-readings.

As a child, I had a couple of the early picture books, and tracked down many others at libraries. But I don’t own any of them now, and Klass’ article has me thinking that needs to change. [OMG, they’re available for Kindle! I can own them in five minutes! *does math. hmm.*] I do, however, have a copy of Lovelace’s Early Candlelight, a family saga/frontier adventure/romance about Fort Snelling, Minnesota. I first read this in high school, and man, I loved it. I still do, though I can see now it’s kind of sentimental and over the top at times. It still makes me tear up a bit. Apparently, I can tolerate emo books fine if I first read and loved them in my more emo teen years.

Tucked inside this book is something I treasure: a letter from Lovelace, who lived in the same retirement home as my great-grandfather. I was eight in 1975, but she seems to have thought I was older and interested in being a writer (also that I was reading Early Candlelight, which would have had no interest for me at the time). The letter describes how she wrote the book, and ends this way: “I have had a very happy life and my work contributed of course, and I think anybody’s work should do that for them. Don’t you?” I didn’t become a writer, but yes, I do. And I feel very lucky that my work mostly makes me happy.

Klass’ essay got me thinking about some of the similar books I loved as a child. Books about a girl’s coming of age in nineteenth or early twentieth-century America [obligatory Canadian ETA: North America, of course, if you include Anne], often with at least a touch of romance. In some ways, these books are nostalgic, as is my reading of them. But most also describe a world that is changing along with the protagonist, one in which the possibilities for women’s lives are expanding as the heroine grows to adulthood. I think that was part of the appeal to me.

I loved all the series Klass mentioned. I think I read through the whole Little House series once or twice a year for a while. Little House in the Big Woods was the first “chapter book” I read. I remember visiting my great-grandmother in Florida and waiting for my mother to be free to read to me. Finally, impatient, I began reading it myself, and realized I could read a big book myself. It felt as if a new world opened up. I think of that as the moment I became a reader.

I loved Little Women, its sequels not as much. Alcott’s Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom are adult rereads too, even though Rose is less vivid and more domesticated than Jo in Little Women. Other favorites I haven’t thought of in years were Kate Douglas Wiggins’ Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Dorothy Canfield Fisher‘s Understood Betsy, both sort of in the Anne of Green Gables mold of the orphan who finds a home. These are rural books, but I also loved Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family, about turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side.

Recently I tracked down a used copy of another old favorite, Olive Woolley Burt‘s Petticoats West, the story of a girl who stows away on a “Mercer girls” ship, makes a career for herself in the wild Pacific Northwest, and of course finds love. I fell in love with that book when I found it in the school library at 11 or 12. And I still enjoy it.

I just realized that one reason I’m so enjoying the Kindle freebie I downloaded yesterday, Cynthia Thomason’s Silver Dreams, is that it reminds me a bit of Burt’s book. The hero is a reporter in New York, the heroine wants to be, they are sort of friendly rivals (though clearly attracted to each other, that’s not what they’re focused on) and they are about to head off on a crazy hunt for a Colorado silver mine. I never read Westerns, so the setting and characters feel fresh–and yet, familiar. Now I know why. (I see the book is back at $2.99 today; I’ll report when I’m done).

This post was pretty much nostalgic self-indulgence, but of course I’d love to hear if you’re a fan of any of these, or about other childhood books that shaped your destiny as a reader.

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29 Responses to Playing Favorites: Maud Hart Lovelace and More

  1. mezzak says:

    As an Australian I grew up reading Mary Grant Bruce’s ‘Billabong’ books about the Linton family and their life on a remote Victorian cattle station called Billabong. They were written in the early 1900s to 20s and were about adventures but do reflect the life and times very well. Norah as the key figure and central heroine spends a lot of time as the only female in a male world of her father, brother Jim and his friend Wally whom she eventually marries. Even though there are books set in Africa, Ireland and England during WW1 they are about a small social world and a mindset in which England was still ‘home’.

    Another firm favourite of mine are Elsie Jeanette Oxenham’s Abbey Girl books (written over the 20s-50s but really all set in a pre WW2 world) have a more conscious moral tone about living a good and thoughtful life. They are also about the struggles and balance and loyalty in girl’s relationships and friendships. They have a lovely intertwining set of families and friendships that include the children of the early heroines. EJO also has a way with unlikeable heroines (Joy & Biddy in particular). They also value the world of art and music with English Folk Dancing a key activity. Female family and friendships are paramount in the Abbey Girl stories.

    Sadly both series share the casual racism of the times with non-British characters present in the stories as stereotypes.

    Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne books were also a constant on school library shelves.

    My real favourites though were Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels of early Britain such as Eagle of the Ninth, Horse Lord, Dawn Wind, etc.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think a solid nationalist grounding is part of some of these books (e.g. Anne is partly about creating a Canadian identity) so it’s interesting to see which ones travel outside their home country. I think I’ve heard of the Billabong books, but never read one or seen them on library shelves.

  2. I’d never heard of the Betsy-Tacy books until Romancelandia began to discuss them. Still have yet to take a crack at them, but perhaps I’ll get around to them.

    As for books that shaped my childhood: Ann Rinaldi’s historicals, Caddie Woodlawn (a more awesome version of Laura Ingalls Wilder), Cousins by Virginia Hamilton, Caroline B. Cooney, Lois Duncan, The Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley, of course (lol), Maniac McGee, I still read the Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (and her witch series scared the crap out of me), Summer of My German Soldier, Number the Stars, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Steal Away by Jennifer Armstrong, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry…and far, far too many to name.

    Funny, now that I notice it, my reading choices are distinctly American–I’d never read any British novels or classics until I was an adult.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, Caddie Woodlawn could fit in this particular category of “historical girl books” too. Oddly, though I read that a lot, I remember pretty much nothing about it now. Is that the one where they throw apple peel over their shoulders to see the letter of the man they’ll marry? And with a corn-husking scene?

  3. Ros says:

    Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie and Little Women (and all their respective sequels) are all still on my shelves, too precious by far to pass on to anyone. In terms of series, I’d add Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising and Antonia Forest’s Marlow books. The latter are hard to get hold of but so worth it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Susan Cooper is a favorite for me, too, but I had to limit myself to one type of book or the post would go on forever! Maybe I need another one on childhood fantasy favorites. Oddly, I never really graduated to being an adult fantasy reader.

  4. victoriajanssen says:

    I recently re-read EIGHT COUSINS, which I hadn’t touched since childhood…in recent years I’ve read a good bit about Victorian social life, which made a difference. Intense familiarity overlain by a much more informed and intellectual context.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Adult re-reads are tricky. Does the book stand up to a new reading in a different context? Or does it fall flat? I taught Anne of Green Gables in Children’s Lit (I was surprised by how few of my Canadian students had read it before) and found it really rewarding to get a scholarly perspective. Plus I used a well-footnoted Broadview edition and FINALLY got all those literary allusions! We talked a lot about why Montgomery would have been able to rely on her original readers’ knowledge of them (a lot of memorizing poetry and Bible verses for kids).

  5. Barb in Maryland says:

    Oh my word–what a lovely stroll down memory lane. Little House books–yes, yes. Loved those. I know I read the Betsy-Tacy books, but they didn’t stick, for some reason. Ditto the Anne of Green Gables. I know I read Little Women at least once, but it was never a favorite. Which is very strange, looking back on it. Really liked the All of a Kind Family series, too.
    Oh, another Rosemary Sutcliffe fan here–I still own all her books. I was fascinated by the ring that linked each generation (and book) to the next.
    Gladys Malvern–read everything of hers I could get my hands on. But she didn’t follow one set of people through the years.

    Liz–oh yes, we could do childhood fantasy, stand alone historicals, authors we glommed as a child and so on and so on.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      There may be no reading love so intense as the child’s. When my daughter was about 18 months, she fell so hard for an out of print library book that I ordered a used copy online. She carried it everywhere for a while (it was Tabby, a lovely wordless picturebook by Aliki).

  6. Castiron says:

    Betsy, Tacy, and Tib was the first chapter book I remember reading; I’ve loved the series ever since, though I didn’t really appreciate the high school and early adulthood books until I was older.

    Another favorite was Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy family series (The Saturdays, The Four-Story Mistake, And Then There Were Five; didn’t read Spiderweb for Two until much later). I still want an Office of my own.

    Nancy Lindquist’s books about a Swedish-American family in New England, The Golden Name Day and The Little Silver House are also books I still love and reread. I eventually tracked down The Crystal Tree and enjoyed it, though not as much as the first two.

    Oddly, I managed not to read any of the Anne of Green Gables books until I was in my late 20s; I liked them well enough but didn’t fall in love with them.

  7. What I would have given, once upon a time, for a letter from Maud Hart Lovelace! I do own all the Betsy-Tacy books, having tracked down retired library copies of the later ones on eBay with an eye toward indoctrinating my kids.

    I’m always struck by how much life changed in the 30-some years between Wilder’s midwest girlhood and Lovelace’s. Laura and her family had so many immediate subsistence concerns, while Betsy had leisure time for everything from those epic Christmas-shopping expeditions to reinventing her personality along Dramatic and Mysterious lines. I love Little House, but Betsy-Tacy always felt more relatable to me. (And the way her parents supported her writing ambitions, as well as her sister’s opera-singing dream, is the swooniest part of the series IMO.)

    Did anyone else read boy-centric books? Henry Huggins? The Great Brain? Those post-apocalyptic books about the Tripods?

    • sonomalass says:

      I loved the Tripod trilogy! That belongs in the speculative fiction post that Liz is going to write — right, Liz?

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I guess I am on the hook. It is not really my thing, though. I did read fantasy, but mostly the usual suspects. So I will learn from the comments!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I loved Henry Huggins. Also Robert McCloskey’s Homer Price (had my dad’s copy). I can’t think of a boy’s series quite like any of these.

      • Ooh, Homer and the doughnut machine that wouldn’t stop! I loved everything about that story. (I can’t remember anything about any other story in Homer Price or its sequel, though I did read both – there was just something so primally compelling about the out-of-control doughnut machine.)

  8. I loved the Anne of Green Gables series, the chronicles of Narnia, and the Little House series as a girl among others. Also adored The Secret Garden. But there were so many children’s books not written in English that I read and loved as a child but which sadly, are little known in the US.

    My favorite of these was probably Erich Kastner’s Das doppelte Lottchen, which I read in translation to Hebrew. This book was the basis for the movie The Parent Trap, but it is hundreds of times better than any film version. Unfortunately, the English translation is awful, and I mean awful.

    Other books I enjoyed as a child, though maybe not all of these would hold up to scrutiny today: the fairy tales from A Thousand Nights and a Night (literal translation of alf laylah wa-laylah, aka The Arabian Nights), Pippi Longstocking, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlof (need to hunt down an English translation of that), The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (that one’s in English), Five Children and It (ditto), some Jules Verne, and more.

    I read a lot of books in translation and there are some I wish I could recall the titles or authors of. There’s one romantic one I loved but no longer recall in detail. I think that due to spending my early childhood in a small country whose language isn’t widely known, I read a lot more translated works than English speaking children do, and got exposure to some good books that deserve to be better known.

  9. sonomalass says:

    Let me know if you decide to do a favorite childhood fantasy fiction post — that was (and still is) my genre.

    My grandmother grew up on a homestead in New Mexico; she thought of reading as a huge privilege, because they had very few books and she read them over and over. She really liked girlhood stories. She had the first two Betsy-Tacy books, Little Women, and the first few Little House books, and I read them over and over when visiting her. (She also had a huge collection of Reader’s Digest Condensed books, from which I read quite an eclectic sampling as a child.) She also held on to my mother’s early Nancy Drew books. I went on to read all of those series from the library at home.

    When my oldest daughter discovered the American Girls, I was thrilled — but we were both horribly disappointed in the books themselves.

    I wish I didn’t know that the Lovelace books were available for Kindle. Not this month, anyway. Hmm, wish list time. I hope the Kindle editions have the illustrations, though — Lois Lenski is a huge favorite of mine, although I agree the style of the Vera Neville illustrations is better for the high school and beyond books. The contrast between the two really resonated with me as a young reader, illustrating the shift from girl to young woman.

    Ah, Louisa May Alcott. I did love those books, Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom in particular. Mac the bookworm was my very first nerd hero crush! There are shades of that influence in my love for Miranda Neville’s Burgundy Club romances, as well as some other romances (some Loretta Chase books and one particular Julie Anne Long title) that have yummy intellectual heroes.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oooooh, Mac.

      I looked at a Kindle sample of the first Betsy-Tacy omnibus for that reason, and it had illustrations. Can’t be sure they are all the illustrations, of course, but I thought so. It looked pretty good on the iPad. I might compare ex-library hardback prices online.

      • sonomalass says:

        I was all set to buy these if the grandchild had been a girl, but for all my gender-neutral preferences in child-rearing, I just don’t see a little boy getting into those books.

  10. Liz Mc2 says:

    I might find myself rereading a pile of childhood favorites for the next month….

  11. mezzak says:

    I was thinking as I read the comments of how my reading was shaped by Sunday School book prizes and the fact that we had the remnants of a 1920s/30s circulating library in our hall book case. I was a child in the 1960s and books were still expensive and something more likely to come from the library than be owned. This developed my omnivorous re-reading – I read what was there and read it again because it was an available book. I remember reading The Mud Lark at the same time as reading Murders in the Rue Morgue when I was 8 or 9 yrs. I also remember the hassle of librarians with firm views on what was age and gender appropriate when I had read everything that they would let me.

    • Barb in Maryland says:

      I was incredibly fortunate to encounter school and public librarians who basically turned me loose and let me borrow what I wanted. As a voracious reader, that was a blessing. I can still remember their names 50 years later.

      My father’s father had once been an English teacher (and later country school superintendent) and had a fabulous home library that went from the complete works of James Fenimore Cooper in matching leather binding to an almost complete paperback run of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason books. I loved visiting his house–lots to read!

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I come from families of readers, too, and read a lot of my parents’ and even grandparents’ books growing up. And then for a while I lived in a small town, with a library in an old house and I tiny budget. They didn’t throw much away. I discovered a lot of children’s classics this way.

        I think being free to read whatever is important. I discovered some things I wasn’t “ready” for, sure, but I survived. I don’t censor my kids’ reading but talk to them about what they read.

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