Thursday, August 06, 2009

Betsy Tacy Books, 1 - 4

Betsy-Tacy (1940), Betsy-Tacy and Tib (1941), Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill (1942) and Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown (1943) by Maud Hart Lovelace. Library copies.

The Plot: Betsy Ray wants a friend; Tacy Kelly moves in across the street. At first it seems like they won't become friends. But, it turns out, Tacy is simply shy and a friendship forms during Betsy's fifth birthday that will last a lifetime and inspire the well loved Betsy-Tacy books. At the end of the first book, Tib Muller moves to town, and the three girls achieve a perfect triangle of friendship. These four books follow the friendship of the three girls up to age twelve.

The Good: I had never read these stories before! I know!

Betsy, Tacy and Tib age and grow. Lovelace perfectly captures the mindset of the children at each age, and doesn't allow a grown ups view to pollute it. In the first book, Tacy's baby sister dies. Betsy comforts her friend, awkwardly yet touchingly, as a five year old would. Later, Betsy gets a new baby sister, Margaret. Betsy sobs that she is no longer the baby; it is Betsy who is more troubled, and heartbroken, over the loss of her status as the baby of the family than either girl is over the death of Tacy's baby sister. (Admittedly, this is all through Betsy's POV. But point remains. Betsy's grief over her loss of status is greater than her grief over the death of a baby). Tacy explains, matter of factly, how that is something that just happens; one moment you're the baby, then you aren't, life goes on.

And what is great is that yes, to a child, no longer being "the baby" is horrible. It's an entire shift in a child's world and in their identity. In a way -- to that child it is much more horrible than the death of a friend's actual baby sister, who you didn't really know anyway. Is that cold? Selfish? Self involved? Yes; but that is childhood. And Lovelace doesn't let her own adult views (and losses; her first child died as an infant) cloud the baby's death with sentimentality.

Some of the girls adventures are from a different time; but just as many are timeless, involving picnics, crushes on celebrities (instead of a Jonas brother it's the young King of Spain), going to plays, making a playhouse out of piano box. Today, though, the playhouse would be less sturdy as the delivery box would no doubt be cardboard!

While book four makes a big deal of Betsy's going to the library by herself, even before then the children have a great deal of freedom. It's a world of going out on the street to play, without grownups and play-dates. It's a world not so much of the past, as a world of the past of a certain class. Much as I loved these books, part of me is already wondering if Lovelace's childhood was as perfect as she presents in these books (the characters and events are based on Lovelace and her childhood friends). Yet, there are hints of other things, less than perfect, that are not as "in your face" as they would be in today's books. Betsy's family has less money than Tib's; boys bully an immigrant child and no adult punishes them or interferes; Tacy's baby sister dies; Betsy has an uncle who ran off because of an unpleasant stepfather. I'm not trying to find the bad; I'm just saying, much as I adore these books and cannot wait to keep reading, let's not glamorize the past or view old-fashioned books such as this as "clean."

Do I adore these books? Yes. Would I give them to kids today? Yes.

What about things that are dated? These books were written in the 1940s, about growing up at the turn of the century. There are things one has to realize were modern at the time; for example, the three little girls are each a different religion (Baptist, Catholic, Episcopalian). That was a big deal at the time. In one book, the girls are friendly with an immigrant child from Syria (modern day Lebanon). While the girl's culture and language is clearly seen as "other" and "different", she and her family are also clearly depicted as "American." At the same time, one book mentions a play of Uncle Tom's Cabin and one of the girls casually says, "I could black my face [to play Topsy]." The reality of the time is that white actors would play those roles.

My library copy was a four-in-one volume (The Betsy-Tacy Treasury, 1995) illustrated by Lois Lenski. God, I loved Lois Lenski's books and illustrations as a kid.

The Betsy-Tacy books are, like All of a Kind Family and Little House, part memoir and part fiction. Like those others, the characters grow and age. I wonder, will we be seeing any similar series soon? Is there another like these that I've missed?

On to read the rest of the books!

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy


Paige Y. said...

My Goodness do I love these books! When I'm down, having a bad week, I have certain "happy books" I turn to and the Betsy-Tacy books are high on my list. I love the way Lovelace doesn't hesitate to bring in real problems, but she still manages to maintain a joyful tone to the novels.

Deva Fagan said...

Oh, I adore these books! I discovered them as an adult but they immediately became all-time favorites. I even made a pilgramage to Mankato (the inspiration for Deep Valley). And I think that if I had to live with any fictional family, it would be the Rays. I love Betsy's strengths and flaws, and how she is both "girly" but also strong and determined.

I can't wait to hear what you think of the later books! HEAVEN TO BETSY and BETSY AND THE GREAT WORLD are my favorites of the series.

The Floating Lush said...

I really love those books; they make me happy. Glad to hear you're finally reading them!

Wendy said...

I'm intrigued by the parallel you draw between baby Bee's death and Margaret's birth--I can't remember seeing anyone put it quite that way before, though I wouldn't say Betsy's grief over losing her youngest status is greater than Tacy's over losing her sister; Betsy's grief is immediate and short-lived, while we only see Tacy several days after Bee's death, and she's still grieving acutely.

I'm sort of puzzled about why you wonder whether MHL's childhood was as "perfect" as this when (as you mention) there are lots of real problems--there's also Tacy almost dying, and poor Mrs. Poppy, and the conflicts between the children, and the kids getting in trouble fairly often.

Wendy said...

Oh, I meant to say--sometimes we have trouble when we recommend these books to parents, specifically because they don't think their kids can handle Bee's death and they don't think it belongs in a children's book. I disagree, of course, for several reasons, but I think that goes to show that at least for some parents, BT is TOO gritty--I think books written for this age level today are more likely to be less upfront about tragedy, not more.

Melissa Rabey said...

I'm also discovering Betsy-Tacy for the first time, and they're quite adorable!

Book Club Girl said...

Like Paige, the Betsy-Tacy books are also my comfort reading when ever I'm feeling blue. And they get better and better as you go through the series. I'm envious that you have the high school books still ahead of you to read --plus the Great World and Betsy's Wedding!

For those who don't know, the last six in the series are being reissued in three 2-book volumes on 9/29, with original cover art by Vera Neville (who illustrated the older books in the series), you can see the new covers here:

Jan said...

Ohhh! If you had found these wonderful books a few months ago you could have joined us in Deep Valley (Mankato, MN) last month for an awesome convention. The over 200 attendees are still basking in the joy of talking and walking Betsy for a long weekend with others who "get it". Make sure you read Emily of Deep Valley, too. Maud's best Deep Valley book imho.

Jessica said...

I almost envy you finding these for the first time.

The author is very careful to treat Naifi and the Syrians as different but still Americans. Big contrast with the Little House books, which treat Indians as inhuman.

Betsy's life is treated in a rosy yet realistic way, which is probably why so many young readers love the books so much.

eirwenes said...

I've had wonderful feedback from all the little girls I've given these books to! My favorite story: I gave them to a friends' daughter when she was 7, and didn't see her again until she was 13. She and her dad were in town and we met for supper. She was having trouble placing me before we met, but when we did, her eyes grew huge, and she said, "Oh! You're the one who gave me the Betsy-Tacy books!" Wonderful, eh? And she's a very sophisticated child. She's not "too old" or "too jaded" for the books, and she lives in LA, the daughter of journalists and intellectuals!

Unknown said...

I'm so glad you found these books, Liz -- it's never too late!

One of the things I love about the books is that, especially for these first four, the books "grow" along with the likely audience. BT and BTT are written with episodic chapters and fairly simple sentence structure, fitting for a younger audience. As BTT approach 10 and then 12, in Big Hill and Downtown, the books change to more of a full-novel approach, where each chapter isn't really stand-alone. The vocab and storytelling become a little more complex, too, as is appropriate.

I do hope that you will continue with the high school books and beyond. They're wonderful! They still have the expected touch of "datedness," which is to be expected, but the books are delightful. Maud Hart Lovelace continues to paint a portrait of a loving, supportive family and a group of terrific friends, but *without* painting a picture that is so rosy it becomes eye-rolling. Betsy Was a Junior, for instance, contains enough miserableness (directed by Betsy towards self, primarily) that it can be a little tough to get through until you realize how much Betsy learns by the end.


Sheila said...

Betsy, Tacy and Tib were my best friend when I was a child in the 1940's. The Ray Family was my second family. I've read the books to my children and grandchildren, and my great-granddaughter received Betsy-Tacy as a fifth birthday present. You have to continue on into the high school books and beyond. They're wonderful!

Liz B said...

I am loving these books! I am on Betsy & Joe, and adore Betsy's gradual growth, how MHL lets her have flaws, and it's just a slow, realistic path to maturity through the ups and downs of teenagerhood, in a loving & supportive family & environment. The parents are great, and I'm amazed at times how "modern" they are; how often Mrs Ray takes Betsy's side against the teachers, for example, and the support for their daughter's education.

Wendy, I like how Betsy sees the world at age appropriate at all times; for example, it's not till Cab has to drop out of school and go to work that it hits her how fortunate she is and how others arent, even tho she's known about Joe working his way thru school for years.

I just got a bio of Maud Hart Lovelace out of the library and am having so much fun looking at the photographs.

And I am so jealous that I read these after the convention so didn't go; but, on the other hand, reading about the convention is what got me to finally start reading these books.

Carm said...

That's it! I'm rereading them. I'm trying to recruit some young kiddos to join me in the fun... we'll see if I can convince them!

Unknown said...

I love these books more than any others ever anytime, and I read books for a living.
Kathleen Baxter

Beth said...

I've loved these since I was a little girl, and now I am a children's librarian and you BET I recommend these.

And my daughter is Elizabeth, named for her birth mother, Lizz, and me,Beth, her adoptive mother....and called Betsy so she has her own name. My Betsy loves nothing better than all the 'Betsy' books Mommy has....these, and the Caroline Haywood "B is for Betsy", and Dorothy Canfield Fisher's "Understood Betsy." Foreshadowing, I guess....I'd kept them all my life, and waited twenty years for this child.

Can't wait to add new copies to our collection at work....and at home. :)

Dawn said...

I'd love some help! I'm hosting a book club for my 4th grade daughter and her friends in 2 days on the first book, Besty-Tacy. I have some ideas, but would LOVE to hear any of yours about how to go about it. Discussion questions, treats served (bologna, tea unfrosted cake chunks anyone?). Thank you.