Do the names Betsy, Tacy and Tib stop you in your tracks? Does a wave of nostalgia wash over you, both for the first time you read the Maud Hart Lovelace books and for their long ago time and place? Born too late, you think? Then you are a fan, as am I.
For years I thought I was the only one, yet the books have never been out of print since "Betsy -Tacy" was published in 1940. The first five books in the series are distinctly children's books— easier readers with sweet illustrations by Lois Lenski. The setting is early 1900s Minnesota, in a town the author called Deep Valley. Although the books are charming, I was relieved I didn't have to wear black wool stockings until the first day of summer like the little girls in the stories.
|The first Betsy book|
I didn't know when I first read them that Maud Hart Lovelace (don't you just love that name?) was writing about her own childhood and high school days. The characters were based on real people. The antics and shenanigans that fill the stories pretty much all happened. Deep Valley is Mankato, Minnesota, a small city between Minneapolis and Sioux Falls.
|"The real" Tib, Betsy and Tacy|
|Maud Hart Lovelace in the '40s|
What distinguishes the books from other teen fiction of that time (Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, etc.) was Betsy's development as a person, how she handled her hopes and fears, triumphs and disappointments. Anyone who was a teenage girl will tell you having your carefully curled hair come undone and losing an important school essay contest can have the same tragic effect.
In a way I blame Betsy for my disappointing high school years. They could never have lived up to the fun she had with "the gang", gathered around the piano on Sunday nights while Betsy's dad served up his famous onion sandwiches. Her group of friends may have been living in a simpler time but growing up has always had its soaring highs and miserable lows.
And the clothes! I loved the sailor-style "waists", the fashion for "Merry Widow" hats, the carefully chosen party dresses, the hair bows and pompadours.
Illustrations in the teenage Betsy books were by Vera Neville. Black and white, except for the covers, the drawings are full of detail, and I would pour over them. I even got my own "writing trunk". Yes, once upon a time I wanted to be a writer— just like Betsy.
It's not too late. You can discover the books with both a sense of wonder and a bit of nostalgia.