Isn’t that romantic?

The Minnesota Post recently made a list of best Dynamic Duos–in movies, literature, history, etc.  And on it, much to the pleasure of the Betsy-Tacy Society and other BT fans is Betsy and Joe as “Literary Romantic Couples”–alongside some couples that are definitely not found in children’s literature.

And though I certainly adore the fact that Betsy and Joe are listed–after all, the last chapter of Betsy and the Great World is one of the greatest romantic cliffhangers of all time, I can’t help but think of some of the other great couples of kidlit history.  In no particular order:

Ma and Pa Ingalls.  She follows him across the midwest, each time hoping for a better life, making homes in places that must have been very, very lonely.  Until she puts her foot down.  He plays his fiddle, makes jokes, and fiercely loves his family.  As a kid, they never would have been on the list.  As an adult, I admire how they stuck together, never argued in front of the kids, and both made compromises for each other.

Anne and Gilbert.  Though they ultimately became a somewhat boring couple in the later books, the early stuff is fabulous.  From the teasing and the competition to pushing each other when both have college dreams deferred, it’s an incredibly satisfying friendship–at least for Anne.  Gilbert loves her from the beginning, and it is sometimes very frustrating how long it takes Anne to see what’s right in front of her nose.  But he’s always there–rescuing her and waiting patiently. 

Betsy and Joe.  Though mentioned above, they deserve their own paragraph.  Betsy, daughter of one of the world’s greatest families, falls in love with orphan Joe.  And there are lots of adjustments to be made, mis-understandings, the usual heartache in young love.  But the misunderstanding almost kill the reader as they wait and wait for what has to happen.  And when it does!  Again, one of the best romantic cliffhangers and resolutions Ever.

Miss Allen, the Library Lady and Charlie.  The sisters of All-of-a-Kind Family already love the Library Lady, as she is the one with the books.  And Charlie is the mysterious peddler that works with their father who brings them treats.  By accident, the girls bring them together again–discovering  a tragic love story that was rightunder their noses.  So satisfying–and a wonderful realization of childhood fantasies.  What kid wouldn’t want to help out some of their favorite adults in that way?

Mary, Dickon and Colin.  Sometimes, love triangles happen.  And though the kids in The Secret Garden don’t really get to that part of life where romance really takes off, there is definitely some jealousy going on for Colin and Dickon.  Both fall in love with Mary, for very different reasons.  But perhaps the true romance here is the garden itself and the story behind it.  Sigh.

So, what am I leaving out?  Any other fabulous romances?  And another question: how did these stories shape your own childish thoughts about romance?

When I was a kid, reading through Montgomery, I had this idea that true romance took years to develop.  Seriously, how long did it take Anne and Gilbert to finally get together?  And then there’s the story of Leslie Moore–talk about depressing.  And all the other minor characters throughout her novels and short stories–people that had to wait 10, 20 years to be with the one they loved.  Yikes! 

Or what about the unfortunate idea that the man you’re really meant for will marry your sister?  I am still not over the whole Jo/Laurie/Amy thing.  Luckily, I had no sisters.

So while there are some great models, there are some truly frightening romantic scenarios in kidlit.  Perhaps I should blame my childhood reading on my very practical attitude towards romance.  Even as I continue to believe that my Joe is out there somewhere. . .


In preparation for our upcoming exhibit at the museum, I’ve been reading a lot about trash.  Yes, you read that correctly.  The exhibit is called “Green Fields, Black Smoke,” and it’s all about the ways in which people in the 19th century thought about the environment.  We often hear from visitors “People were so much greener back then!”  And we try to say, very sweetly: “Not exactly.”  This exhibit is our way to answer that question a bit more directly–at least for the next several months.

Anyway, I was in the middle of Susan Strasser’s Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash and got to her chapter on junk men and peddlers.  Instantly, I thought of Papa’s junk shop in All-of-a-Kind Family.  As I continued to read, I was amazed to see that she quoted the scene in Famer Boy where Mama bargains with the peddler.

For those that haven’t recently reread those books, I’ll briefly recap the scene.  Alas, my copy of AoAKF is at work so just paraphrases there.

In Farmer Boy, the entire family is absolutely thrilled when Nick Brown arrives with his amazing wagon arrives with lots and lots of shiny tin.  He spend the night, telling stories, and the next day it’s time for business.  Mother brings out rags she’s been saving for a year, and they begin to haggle.  “For a long time they talked and argued.  Shining tinware and piles of rags were all over the porch.  For every pile of rags that Nick Brown added to the big pile, Mother asked more tinware that he wanted to trade her.  They were both having a good time, joking and laughing and trading.” (Farmer Boy, p. 138)

Now here’s what I never understood about that scene, something I didn’t completely understand until reading Strasser’s book.  Why on earth would Nick Brown want that many rags?  Surely, he’s not making quilts.  How is that even a fair trade?  The answer, my friends, is paper.

In the mid-19th century, most paper was made not out of wood pulp, but fiber.  You know the old paper that seems to have held up so well over the last 150 years?  Probably made out of someone’s worn out muslin, linen or cotton.  In the 1860s, when Farmer Boy is set, publishing is really starting to take off, so the demand for good, clean rags was high.  Paper factories even wrote advertising jingles about how the paper you’re writing a love letter on might once have graced the very body of the woman you are writing to.  Eventually, the demand was so high that factories had to turn to other sources for paper, including wood pulp.  But Mother and Nick Brown were at the center of the 19th century recyling circle.

But what about Papa’s junk shop?  All-of-a-Kind Family takes place almost 50 years later, in a very different environment.  Papa runs the hub for peddlers–his storage area is divided into different categories, including paper and metal.  The incident that came to my mind was when a rich man sold books to a peddler–and the girls were able to own their very first books.  The peddlers hang out with Papa and dote on the girls.  They, too, are part of recycling, 19th century style.  However, for these peddlers, it was generally a cash transaction, not bartering like in Farmer Boy.

So what happened?  Why aren’t peddlers still coming to our doors?  Some of the explanation comes from the factories wanting to deal with raw materials and not spend the time and money to reuse things.  Technology just got better.  I’m sure you’ve heard some of the recent reports about with today’s economy, it no longer pays to recycle.  The demand has gotten smaller, but the supply has held steady or increased.

Cities also figured out how to deal with trash.  Trash collection began ocurring regularly around the turn of the century, depending on your location.  If you had to personally deal with disposing of everything, wouldn’t you throw less away?  But if you didn’t have to worry, it’s much easier to toss.

And finally, various charities, such as The Salvation Army, began who collected your cast-off goods–and made you feel good about passing something on.  Thus, the peddlers became extinct. 

Can you think of any other peddlers in children’s literature?

Children’s Books:

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

All-0f-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor

History Books:

Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash by Susan Strasser.

The Manifesto, so to speak

When I was a kid, I spent most of my time in the nineteenth century.  It all started with the Little House books.  My grandmother read them to me, and they became my very first chapter books that I could read all by myself.  From there, it was just a hop, skip and jump to Little Women, All-of-a-Kind Family, A Little Princess, and The Railway Children.  But I fell hard, really hard, for Anne Shirley.  This was in the late 1980s, when all of the books were being reissued.  Every time I went to the bookstore, I got to buy a new L. M. Montgomery book. 

Yet, there were so many things in those books that I just didn’t understand.  What was consumption and cholera?  Why were puffed-sleeves such a big deal?  What did the dresses look like?  And what did the food taste like?  Why was Sara Crewe in India?  When the Anne Treasury was published in the early 1990s, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  Here, almost all of my burning questions were answered!

By the time I got to college, I was convinced that I was going to be an English major and one day write like Lucy Maud did.  Then, I got an internship at the Dallas Historical Society, going through their archives and writing educational curriculum.  It took me almost another year to admit that I was really a historian, which surprised me at the time.  Perhaps it shouldn’t have–I had already spent most of my childhood in the past.

As I began to dive into the study of history, I began to make all sorts of random connections between the history I was studying and the books I had loved as a child.  The most startling was during my History of Death in America class.  (yes, I took a death class.  It was awesome!).  We were reading Living in the Shadow of Death, about the 19th century experience of being a patient with consumption, or as we know it today, tuberculosis.  And I started thinking about Ruby Gillis.  A lot. For one of my mini-papers for the class, I wrote about Ruby’s experience, written when there were many more treatment options available, and how it took the classic literary portrayal of the disease and twisted it ever so slightly.  Eventually, this initial connection turned into a conference paper on the changes in how LMM portrayed consumption.  More importantly, it resulted in my first trip to Prince Edward Island.  Eventually, my paper was published in The Intimate Life of L. M. Montgomery, which was a whole other kind of thrill.

As I was working on the revisions to that paper, I realized that my paper didn’t exactly fit into normal categories–it wasn’t literary analysis, and it wasn’t a history paper.  It was a bit of both.

In my current job as a museum educator, I’m pulling children’s literature  in whenever and wherever I can.  When I redesigned our summer camp program, the most popular new camp was “Pages from the Past.”  Each day, we featured crafts and activities from a different classic children’s book, all set within the time period of the museum.  Little Women, Little House, Betsy-Tacy, All-of-a-Kind Family and Anne.  It was so much fun!  Using books that kids or adults are familiar with is a wonderful way to make connections with history. 

So this very long introduction leads up to where I was just over a month ago–sitting in a conference room at the Betsy-Tacy convention in Mankato, Minnesota.  I was listening to a presentation on the Syrian community in Mankato, something Maud wrote extensively about in her books.  One of the speaker’s sources, a history book, used Maud Hart Lovelace’s fictional stories as a source.  But then again, Lovelace isn’t purely fictional.

The following thought flew through my head: everything I really need to know about history, I learned through children’s literature. 

I realize this isn’t entirely true and there are all sorts of of caveats and exceptions and those things that historians love to do to make sure no one thinks we’re making a gross generalization. 

But there’s one key thing that all of the books that I loved so much have in common: they are either semi-autobiographical or they were written as contemporary and, over time, have become historical fiction.  Either way, they’re an important source in learning about history.  A source that most historians have ignored.  To me, they should be considered in much the way memoirs or oral history are considered–perhaps not true in every detail, but more true than not.  Even better, they give a voice to a group that are frequently left out in historical studies: chidren.

In talking to friends, most of whom would never consider them historians, they admit that they’ve learned all kinds of history from reading children’s literature.  Key incidents in a book become reference points for history.  But what are we learning?  And what’s the rest of the story?

That’s where this blog comes in: it’s a chance to explore the history in the books we love.  Perhaps dig a bit deeper into those stories we grew up with.

I’ve got a running list of topics and books to explore.  I do not plan on exploring contemporary historical fiction, though there are certainly some fine things being written today about the past.  Instead, I want to take a closer look at those books that are semi-autobiographical or have survived long enough to become historical fiction. 

So dear readers, what are some books you’d like to talk about?  Tidbits of history from them that have somehow lodged in your brain?  Let me know–I’m looking forward to the conversation!