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.