betsy, tacy and tib, my old friends

November 19, 2010

I have this old friend named Betsy Warrington Ray. Do you know her?

Any of you Betsy-Tacy fans?

Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books were my no-contest favorite books as a girl. I can still see the particular corner where the “L” books were shelved in the portable that served as my hometown library. In fact, I sat on the floor in that corner reading those books so often, that I can remember with reasonable confidence how the books ran along the shelf one-up from the bottom. I read those books over and over. And over and over.

For the Betsy-uninitiated, the books are set in Minnesota at the turn of the 20th century. The series comes in two parts–the first four books begin with Betsy at age five meeting Tacy, the girl who would become her best friend. Before long they meet up with the other corner in their triangle, Tib. The series starts up again when Betsy is older and entering high school, then follows her on a trip to Europe and into marriage.

I won’t bother with more backstory, since Meg Cabot already did it better than I would in this article about her own Betsy-love.

And look, Betsy’s turned with the new century: she and Tacy have a wikipedia page!

As a kid, I liked the first few Laura Ingalls Wilder books, but was a bit put-off by the intensity of the later books. I never made it through them all. The Betsy-Tacy books were different. They were set in a suburbia before anyone called it suburbia, and although they took place a good seventy years before my childhood, as a suburban kid I could relate to them. Betsy did the kind of things I liked to do, and the younger books inspired lots of my play: I rallied my friends to do a “flying lady” show with a hidden see-saw like Betsy did; I got them to walk around my house looking into hand-mirrors that we directed towards the ceiling, discovering a secret house-inside-a-house called The Mirror Palace. (You can’t imagine how much fun this can be. Try it with your kids.) I even requested Uncle Tom’s Cabin from the adult librarian when I was nine because Betsy was wowed by a performance of it; when the librarian questioned whether my parents would allow it, my face burned. I was afraid I’d requested something filthy and inappropriate.

My school history education was a mess of dates and wars and I learned very little from it. But the Betsy books were a historical hook for me: I knew that at the turn of the century they had phones and were just beginning to drive cars. Women wore shirtwaists tucked into long skirts and stylish grown-ups combed their hair into pompadours. They entertained themselves with the latest piano scores instead of television. Even as an adult I find myself thinking back to the Betsy-Tacy books as a historical reference. It’s an era I have a handle on.

Reading this series of plot summaries made me feel like I’d run into Betsy at Trader Joe’s, buying granola. I remember every event! Like they happened to me! I’m not just saying that as a figure of speech; I read these books so many times that it almost does feel as if I knew these people, these situations. Like I was just another member of the Crowd, writing essays and boy-crazy.

You may think I’m a bit off, but I’m not the only one. There are plenty of us Betsy-Tacy loons out there. Many of us never realized this until the internet made it possible to find each other. Just Google Betsy-Tacy and you’ll see. The second part of the series was re-issued in recent years, thanks to collaborating fans who made it happen.  Melissa Wiley and Matali Perkins, both children’s book authors themselves, are fans. Both wrote introductions to recent re-releases of books in the Deep Valley series, companion books to the Betsy-Tacy series, set in the same town. (And both wrote books that Lulu loved when she was younger.) This week they did an endearing radio show with book club girl about their love for Betsy. Listen if you’re a fan, or listen to become a fan.

I kid you not: when Lulu was born, and it turned out she was a girl, one of my ecstatic thoughts on the first day of her life was the realization that I could read the Betsy-Tacy books to her. And I did. At least the first four. She read the rest on her own, hungrily, and then had me track down those companion books: Winona’s Pony Cart, Carney’s House Party, and Emily of Deep Valley. All those books I couldn’t get back in my own childhood, in the neanderthal days of card catalogues, when there was no such thing as inter-library loan.

I’m not sure whether they’d fly with Mr. T. But I’m going to read him the chapter about the Mirror Palace. I think he might dig that. If you have a daughter, you really must introduce her to my old friend, Betsy Ray.

Just the other day, I ordered some vintage Betsy-Tacy books on eBay. Old library editions can be had fairly cheaply. The spines are often slightly cracked, and they still bear library stickers. But that’s just how I want them, ’cause that’s just how they looked to me when I sat on the floor in the corner of the library, reading, back when I loved them best.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

susan November 20, 2010 at 8:51 am

I am so relieved to have girls I can read these to! I feel as if I almost missed out on an essential life experience. And just in time for Christmas. I have a feeling it will be a present for both Greta and me. This made me laugh out loud: Reading this series of plot summaries made me feel like I’d run into Betsy at Trader Joe’s, buying granola.

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patricia November 21, 2010 at 10:45 pm

I think Greta would love the first four! Betsy is spunky, just like Greta is. She’s always dreaming up crazy ideas, which sometimes get her into trouble.

I just wish the newer editions had the old Lois Lenski art on the covers. The newer covers just aren’t the same–but the wonderful old illustrations are still inside.

Funny thing: I hadn’t meant to publish this post yet; I was still working on it, and hadn’t added the photo. But somehow when I inserted the radio link, it published the whole post. I was surprised to see your comment on Saturday morning, to a post I hadn’t thought I’d posted!

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Just Peaches November 20, 2010 at 5:04 pm

LOVE, LOVE, LOVE! The girls and I started reading the Besty Tacy series at the cottage over the summer. We’re smitten! Heaven’s to Besty is poised at the end of my youngest bed ready to be read tonight.

My best friend in high school read Betsy’s Wedding over and over and over. I remember when we were young she wanted me to copy the map from inside the cover of the book so that she could hang it on her wall. Strangely enough, it took me almost thirty years to get around to reading the books myself.

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patricia November 21, 2010 at 10:48 pm

When I was a kid, I never met anyone else who read the Betsy books. I’d just discovered them on my own, and when I mentioned them to people, no one knew what I was talking about. It’s been so fun to hear about other fans online!

I’m envious that you still have girls to read them to!

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Stacey November 20, 2010 at 11:08 pm

Loved those books. They were a strait lead into all the “Shoe” books, like Ballet Shoes, and Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Quartet. Now I’m getting excited about all the books we have yet to read together. Well I’m not sure my son would go for Betsy Tacy but The Melendy’s are for everyone.

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patricia November 21, 2010 at 10:52 pm

My daughter and I both loved the “Shoe” books, and all three of my kids loved the Melendys. My youngest has listened to those books on tape again and again.

They’ve always reminded me a little of the Betsy-Tacy books. They have the same warmth and gentle mischief to them.

Thanks for stopping by, Stacey!

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Louisa November 22, 2010 at 12:21 am

My library has NO LOVELACE books!!!! ACK!!!!

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patricia November 22, 2010 at 9:30 am

Not even the newer paperbacks? Sounds like you need to have a talk with your librarian!

Thanks for coming by, Louisa!

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Wendy November 23, 2010 at 3:41 pm

I discoverd these wonderful stories while homeschooling my daughter. We read them all and loved every bit. I wish I had known about them when I was a little girl.

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patricia November 28, 2010 at 10:27 pm

Lucky you for discovering them!

Thanks so much for saying hello, Wendy!

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Kristin November 28, 2010 at 8:54 am

Well goodness. They sound wonderful. I have fond memories of library visits too, but fortunately the librarian never made my cheeks burn with embarrassment. (You were obviously an inquisitive kid to have looked into reading Uncle Tom’s cabin at your age.) Speaking of which, is Cecil still the “right age” to appreciate the books. What do you think?

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patricia November 28, 2010 at 10:37 pm

I only requested Uncle Tom’s Cabin because Betsy had seen a performance of it and the story has a big role in one of the books. One of the many things I learned from Betsy.

Cecil is a perfect age for the books! She could read the first four herself, but they also make great read-alouds because there’s so much history to talk about. I just bought a vintage copy of the third book, and re-read the first two chapters. Already there’s talk of the first horseless carriage coming to town, as well as the first library…

Plus, they’re just so entertaining. The characters are wonderful–and perfectly imperfect–because they’re based on real people.

See if your library has Betsy-Tacy. That’s the first book. I’ll bet C. would like it!

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Book Club Girl November 30, 2010 at 10:15 am

I love this post! And I feel exactly as you do, I know these stories as well as I know my own friends and life, and growing up I too felt like I was the only one! (well, along with my sister). I’m curious if you’re on, or know about Maud L? It’s a list serv for fans like us. If you want info, let me know, we’d love to have you. We’re embarking on our annual ornament exchange – each person is assigned someone else in the group and we send an ornament in character to another character in the book. Thank you so much for this wonderful post.

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patricia November 30, 2010 at 11:18 pm

Well, hello Book Club Girl! I’m so honored to receive your comment! And thank you for the Facebook link too. I love your show–I listened to the Joyce Maynard interview a few days ago, and now can’t wait to read Labor Day.

If the listserv is for Maud fans, then I suppose I should be on it! It really is a joy to discover fellow fans after a lifetime of feeling like no one read the books but me.

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Jan Sasser November 30, 2010 at 10:53 am

Patricia! You are a true sister-in-Maud! You would love the Maud-List. Please join us!

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patricia November 30, 2010 at 11:26 pm

A sister-in-Maud! I love it! I asked book club girl to send me the info. Thanks for saying hello!

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CMPete December 1, 2010 at 6:22 am

Can’t wait to welcome you to the cyber-circle of listren! Hope you love it as much as I do!

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CLM November 30, 2010 at 10:16 pm

I too checked out Uncle Tom’s Cabin after reading Betsy-Tacy Go Downtown. My school librarian was more of a kindred spirit than yours (although frowned on my overdue book tendencies) and did not interfere, but when I seemed disappointed with it, she steered me towards a Childhood Biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe instead which I enjoyed much more!

I was lucky because while I thought I was the only one, my two younger sisters and my mother read BT along with me and all became fans (although definitely not as intense as I).

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patricia November 30, 2010 at 11:36 pm

Alas, I was rather Tacy-like as a kid, and I didn’t have the guts to admit to the librarian why I wanted to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Lucky you to be able to share the books with your sisters and your mother! I don’t know if I even talked to my own mom about the books–and she’s from St. Paul!

Thanks for stopping by!

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Carrie Pomeroy December 7, 2010 at 8:59 pm

These were not part of my childhood for some reason, but my kids and I discovered them because we live in Minnesota, only about an hour-and-a-half from Mankato, the real-life setting of the books, and Maud Hart Lovelace is pretty well-known around here (there’s even a children’s book award named in her honor). We read the first three books and loved them, but haven’t moved on from there yet. You can actually tour “Betsy’s” house down in Mankato and see a bench that’s been placed where the girls’ real-life meeting bench was–we’re hoping to make the pilgrimage at some point.

My eight-year-old son actually really enjoyed the humor and imagination of these books, and my five-year-old daughter responded to the strong friendships. We loved the chapter when the girls mixed together all sorts of strange ingredients in a bizarre, inedible concoction–can’t remember which book that was now, though.

It’s wonderful to hear that the Betsy-Tacy books’ appeal isn’t strictly regional!

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patricia December 7, 2010 at 10:55 pm

Lucky you if you get to visit Betsy’s house in Mankato! I’ve read about Melissa Wiley’s adventures doing just that, and am beyond envious. http://patentsgirl.blogspot.com/2010/10/betsy-tacy-kind-of-day.html
Someday I’ll get there…

You’ve inspired me to try out one of these books with Mr. T. I often read books with female lead characters to H, because his sister was always listening too, but I don’t do it as much with T. That’s not right! I think T would enjoy Betsy’s dreaming and scheming. She always managed to get in just a little bit of trouble, which he’d appreciate, I’m sure.

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