The war at home

In this time of pandemics and quarantines, we’re all searching for different ways to grasp a bit of comfort and stability. Personally, I’ve been reading mysteries (they always find an answer by the end!), watching some very fluffy tv, and perhaps baking a bit more than I should. I never would have guessed that one of my quarantine highlights would be a virtual read-a-thon of a book about World War I. After all, aren’t we all craving fluff?

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But when I heard that Andrea McKenzie and Benjamin Lefebvre were launching a Rilla of Ingleside virtual read-a-thon on Facebook, I signed up immediately. Years ago, I raved here about their scholarly edition of Rilla, a book that most definitely rests in my top 10 list of favorite books of all time. This book shaped me as a historian in so many ways, and I couldn’t let an opportunity to revisit it with fans and scholars pass me by.

I will admit that I didn’t keep current with all the posts, and I don’t think I ever made a comment. But each dip into that world was delightful and helped feed my soul. Part of what made it so special is that they invited people from around the world to read a chapter on video. I found myself listening to the chapters while sewing masks or making cookies for no good reason. There were names I recognized back from the Kindred Spirits email list days. Names I knew from twitter and other bookish circles. There were some delightful accents to enjoy. People posed in front of their book shelves, full of Montgomery novels. They showed off their tattered 1990s editions of Rilla. Even though I sometimes found myself crying in the kitchen, it was just so healing. Those tears were for the community around these beloved books and the uncertainty we are all living in.

At this point in my life, I don’t know how many times I’ve read Rilla, But on this read, I felt the emotions in a way I never have before.  The relentless waiting for leaders to take action to stop senseless death. The daily dread of the news–but knowing you can’t ignore the news. The little bits of normalcy and humor that creep in when we least expect it–but most definitely need it! Wondering when, if ever, it will end. Being surprised at how time has sped by and crawled. I will never be able to read Rilla again without thinking about Covid-19. We are both fighting wars at home.

Diving back into L. M. Montgomery’s world was so comforting that I started a reread of all of her books in publication order as my bedtime reading. For some of these books, it’s probably been 20+ years since I’ve touched them, so the reread has been a delight.

When quarantine began in March, I wondered how far I’d get. At this point, I’m almost done with Emily Climbs, published in 1925. Eleven books down, nine to go. We’re only 4 months into this thing. Now I’m almost starting to wonder what to read when I finish.

Birthday wish lists, then and now

Texas summers are an ideal time to go through those boxes and random places you throw stuff to get it out of the way. After all, it’s far too hot to do any outside chores. Last weekend, I went through a stack of things my mother had given me years ago in an effort to clean out her own hidden piles. In it was a birthday present wish list from when I was 10. Here’s the first page.

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Notice the inclusion of Anne of Ingleside? Guess I hadn’t made it through the whole series quite yet. The timing of the rediscovery was perfect–it was the day after I had received a truly remarkable Anne birthday present. How has Anne Shirley been a part of my life and my wish lists for over 30 years?

I’ve written about Anne more than any other character on this blog. I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I first read Anne–probably 8 or 9, a few years after the Anne of Green Gables mini-series. I do remember how I was introduced to her–completely by accident! Remember those delightful Scholastic order forms you would get in elementary school? I really wanted A Little Princess because I had seen the Shirley Temple movie and wanted to read the book. There was a 2 for 1 special, and Anne of Green Gables was automatically included. I’m sure I didn’t read Anne right away–after all, I had never heard of her. But when I did, I quickly became obsessed. And clearly, it’s an obsession that has staying power.

Over the decades, I’ve built a fairly impressive Anne collection. My preference is for serendipitous discoveries in antique stores, though I have bought a few things off of eBay. I have many, many versions of the books, including a first edition, 4th printing of Anne. I have dolls and tea cups and post cards and illustrations of Green Gables. Of course, I have things for some of my other book loves, especially Little Women  and Little House on the Prairie. But I definitely have more Anne things than anything else.

Part of my collecting bug is my fascination with how Anne has been adapted and remade over the decades, from bizarre book covers to the many, many film adaptations. Often, this feels like watching a train wreck, but I can’t turn away. Over the years, I’ve picked up a few things from the 1934 version, including the amazing study guide pictured below. And there’s that extra element of interest since the actress fell so in love with the character that she changed her name. Talk about obsession.

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But I had never been able to find anything relating to the 1919 silent film version. This is one of the countless silent films that didn’t survive. For it’s added bit of fun, the people involved ended up in a bit of a scandal. There were rumors of an affair between the actress, Mary Miles Minter, and the director, William Desmond Taylor, and then he was murdered in 1922. The case is still unsolved. And there are certainly theories that Minter was somehow involved in his death.

Years ago, I had a bid on a poster from the movie and lost it at the last moment. It is one of my great eBay regrets. At some point a few years ago, I mentioned this to my friend Jenn. I have no memory of telling her this story, but we travel together pretty regularly so we have certainly talked about all sorts of things.

For my 40th birthday, she gave me this.

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Isn’t it beautiful? She had mentioned my wish to a friend of hers that keeps an eye on this sort of thing–and he’s been looking for almost 2 years. I was absolutely amazed at the thoughtfulness–and dedication required–for this gift.

There isn’t anything else on my birthday wish list from 30 years ago that I would still want today. But Anne is still there–she’s almost always been there. Milestone birthdays are a time to reflect, and it’s comforting to realize that certain things in my life have remained so constant over the years. Now to find the right spot to hang my new treasure!

Mrs. Rachel Lynde Would Not Approve

When a favorite book is adapted for the screen, I try to keep an open mind. I really, really do. And there were reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the latest Anne of Green Gables movie. The casting of Anne was more age appropriate. It was filmed on Prince Edward Island. And the granddaughter of author L. M. Montgomery was involved.

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But I was also smart. I knew I needed to watch with friends. And perhaps some sort of alcohol. On Saturday night, I made clam chowder and a few friends came over. Within the first few minutes, Ashley had already declared “Minus one point for Matthew falling into a puddle of manure!” Someone else declared “Half a point for it being filmed on PEI.” And then I said “Should we keep score? Do we even dare?”

For a little while, things were almost even. Not quite, but almost. And then it went straight downhill. At the end of the night, our score sheet read:

Points For: 14

Points Against: 317.5

So, what were our problems? In most cases, the casting and the characterizations just weren’t right. Matthew was too chatty and portrayed as a bumbling fool. Marilla was too soft. Anne was just way too happy. That streak of sadness and longing that is so critical to her character wasn’t there. Diana took the lead on the imagining (though she looked right.) Gilbert. Oh Gilbert. They lost 150 points for that casting decision. Rachel Lynde, Mrs. Barry, and Mr. Phillips were about the only casting decisions we thought they got right.

There were details that just weren’t right—and we can’t understand why certain changes were made. Sure, only a fan would be outraged that Anne told Marilla her parents died when she was five. But a key part of the books is that Anne had no memories of her parents, because they died when she was a few months old.

The pacing was very odd. We kept pausing and wondering how they were going to wrap things up in the time they had left. And then Anne suddenly fell through some ice and Matthew hopped on a sled to rescue her and we just lost it. At this point, I stopped the movie and got out the whiskey. I believe curse words were used. And one really shouldn’t curse while watching Anne. Rachel Lynde wouldn’t approve.

The movie ended with Matthew taking Anne back to the train station because the orphanage had found a better home for her—WHICH NEVER HAPPENED AND COMPLETELY CHANGES THE STORY. Rachel tells Marilla to chase after them. All are united in a hug and the credits roll.  Ummm, what? Of course, now that I’ve learned that they’ll be making 2 more movies, I sorta understand. But I’m still not happy.

My mom asked me if people would still recognize the story if they picked up the book. And the answer is probably yes. And she asked me if it was a good movie if I didn’t know the books so well. But I think the answer to that is no. So much cheese was crammed into a 90 minute movie. Parts of it was beautiful, but there was so little character growth. And Anne was just annoying.

I believe that classics like Anne are incredibly important, and movies can do so much to bring them to a wider audience. But please, for the love of God, respect the characters.

At the end of the movie, Ashley declared “I have to make sure my niece never sees this movie.” And then we popped in the Megan Follows version. Flawed though it is, our beloved characters are still recognizable. And I didn’t start cursing at Kevin Sullivan until the third Anne movie. . .

Kindred Spirits

The last six months or so have been crazier than usual, of which this poor neglected blog is certainly a testament.  To briefly recap: in June, I was named Interim Executive Director at the museum where I’ve worked as educator for the past nine years.  I spent four weeks this fall at a professional development seminar in Indiana.  And the weeks surrounding that departure were crammed with work things, a friends wedding (I was maid of honor), my parents’ 65th birthday party, and of course, the holidays.  Now that it’s January, I feel like I’m starting to get a sense of what the new normal is.  At the very least, I’ve found time to read and watch tv again!

Several of my friends had equally crazy (though for different reasons) falls.  They also happen to share my love for Anne Shirley.  In talking with one friend back in October about that lovely blank spot between Christmas and New Year’s, we decided that an Anne party would be the perfect way to celebrate making it to the end of 2013.  Tea, raspberry cordial (with optional hooch), tea-time food and the movie.  Because I am somewhat nuts, I decided that I would also haul out my entire Anne collection for party decorations.

Now, I knew I had a lot.  After all, I’ve been collecting since I was nine or ten years old.  If you’d been keeping an eye out for things for 25 years, you would have a lot too.  But seeing it scattered throughout the house was kinda amazing.  I believe guests were both amazed and frightened.  In my defense, the only things that are ever out all the time are a few pictures in the guest bedroom.  Though I will confess that I left out a few of the Anne dolls and added my Little Women porcelain figures and my Laura Ingalls Wilder (the author, not the little girl!) doll for this month.

yes, that is four different versions of Anne of the Island.  Turns out I have the most copies of that one.

yes, those are four different versions of Anne of the Island. Turns out I have the most copies of that one.

One friend brought scones and another egg salad sandwiches.  I made cucumber sandwiches, pimento cheese (yes, I know that’s not in Anne, but I live in the South where if you have tiny tea sandwiches, pimento is required!), raspberry cordial, and plum puffs.

Raspberry cordial!

Raspberry cordial!

Plum puffs!  Complete with stills from two of the movies.

Plum puffs! Complete with stills from two of the movies.

Here’s the thing about Anne: we all adore Anne, but we can also make fun of her.  After all, what child, even in the 19th century, ever talked like that?  We started being snarky from the very beginning, which made watching so much more fun.  We laughed in places where as a kid, I would never have laughed.  I would have just nodded my head because I understood perfectly.  We talked back to the movie often.  The champagne might have had something to do with that.

About halfway through the movie, we started imagining backstories for some of the secondary characters.  If Aunt Josephine is so rich, why isn’t Mr. Barry?  Was there some sort of family argument?  And how did she become so wealthy?  Was she a madam?  It went downhill from there.  By the end of it, Mr. Barry was a serial killer, Mrs. Stacey had some sort of secret double life, and I can’t remember what all else.  It was hysterical.  If we were really clever and not so busy, we could write one heck of an alternate history of Avonlea.

It’s not often that I get to celebrate my love of kidlit history with others in person and not just online.  That moment of discovery can be so delightful.  After all, there has to be a moment of discovery because it’s not like I talk about such things all the time.  (Contrary to the belief of one friend who teases me often about this interest and refused to come to the party because she “might be converted.”)  I discovered one kindred spirit when she noticed a very discreet watercolor of Green Gables at a housewarming.  Another was discovered during a workplace conversation about Little Women (a theme for one of our events.  Gee, I wonder whose idea that was. . .).  Bringing everyone together was such fun.

The bookshelf that holds all of my older versions.  They no longer fit on one shelf!

The bookshelf that holds all of my older versions. They no longer fit on one shelf!

Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think.

On Slates

Around here, school is about to start.  This is quite evident with the flashing school zone lights, and the conversations among the younger set.  I spent Sunday night hanging out with two of my favorite girls, Grace and Sophie.  However, the usual “back to school” conversation took an unexpected turn.  Grace, now 11, started talking about boys.  It was a very long conversation.  Questions were posed such as “Would you rather be kissed by the dumbest boy you know?  Or a dumb boy you don’t know?”  “If a boy kissed you, would you faint from embarrassment?”  I also learned that Sophie had a pre-school boyfriend, who she kissed every day.  And Grace has her first official crush.  Luckily, she’s in that stage where she can still talk to him and not blush, but she’s also desperately hoping he doesn’t figure it out.

In the middle of all of this, I hopped up from the table and turned on my nook.  Since finishing up the Betsy-Tacy books, we’ve been reading Anne.  I have never before been so nervous introducing a book to kids before.  Anne is so near and dear to my heart.  What if they didn’t like her?  Before we read the first chapter, I told them that if they didn’t like it, I understood–that there were lots of other books I wanted to share.  As I started reading, I got more nervous.  It is a much harder read-aloud than Betsy–the rhythm and pacing are so different.  I also worried about the whole “are you going to send me back” part because these girls are also adopted.  I shouldn’t have worried.  Grace, Sophie and I are indeed kindred spirits and they really like Anne.

Anyway, back to my story.  I knew we were getting close to the wonderful scene in which Anne thwacked Gilbert with a slate.  But would we get to it tonight, after talking endlessly about the problems of liking boys?  Miracle of miracles, it was the next chapter!  What are the odds?  Life lessons through literature, handed to me on a silver platter!

So, we read about Gilbert teasing Anne.  And Anne setting Diana drunk.  And I was struck anew at how funny Montgomery is–and how true those scenes still are.  They totally got why Anne was so mad at Gilbert–and we talked about the deep desire to sometimes whack a boy with a book (not a slate.  I had to explain what a slate was.)  I watched as Sophie and Grace’s face lit up at the thought of hosting a friend without the parents around.  I’ve read this book so many times now that the lovely details often just wash over me.  As I stumble over some of Montgomery’s “poetical” words, laugh at the jokes, and watch the girls’ reaction as they hear this classic for the first time, it feels like a fresh, new book.

As they were going to bed, Sophie asked me: “Am I like Anne?”

My reply: “I think there’s a little Anne in all of us.  You’ve got a great imagination, you get into trouble sometimes, but you have a big heart.  Just like Anne.”

The best medicine

Yesterday, I was walking down the back staircase at work, not paying too much attention to things.  After all, I’ve walked down that staircase thousands of times.  But this time, I missed a step and managed to do a wonderful job of spraining my ankle.

I’ve done this once before, about five years ago, in an equally boring way–I stepped off a porch wrong.  It’s the same ankle, and I headed home early to prop it up.  With my desk configuration, it’s really hard to both elevate the ankle and keep working.  Once I got home, I realized this was a perfect minor injury for a reader.  Sometimes when you have a cold, you don’t always feel like reading.  But with a sprained ankle, I just need to sit.  Which is ideal for reading!

I also started thinking about some of my favorite literary heroines and their ankle woes.  First to mind was Anne, though technically she broke her ankle.  Of course, her story is much better than mine–Josie Pye dared her to walk the ridge pole of a roof.  As Anne said,

I must do it.  My honor is at stake.  I shall walk that ridge pole, Diana, or perish in the attempt.

And though Anne got bored while she was laid up, it does appear she had a good time.  Mention is made of the many books and flowers and visitors she had.  And Anne, ever the optimist tells Marilla later:

“Everybody has been so good and kind, Marilla,” sighed Anne happily, on the day when she could first limp across the floor.  “It isn’t very pleasant to be laid up; but there is a bright side to it, Marilla.  You find out how many friends you have.”

Throughout the rest of the series, she refers to her weak ankle, talking in the later books about how it aches before it rains.  Totally understand, and I’ve only sprained mine.

Betsy Ray also had weak ankles.  In Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown she takes a tumble off a sled and sprains her ankle.  The boys bring her home, and she gets set up on a couch with a pillow under her foot.  I love this line “Betsy felt heroic.”  She also mentions the delight of two new books to amuse her while she’s injured.  And of course, out of this incident comes her famous, tragic tale of Flossie.  Years later, Betsy conveniently uses her weak ankle to avoid some awkward boy trouble.  It’s now swollen, and it takes her three times to remember to say “ouch” as her father examines it, but she still pulls the following ploy:

“I’d just as soon stay in bed.  I don’t feel very good.  Not too bad,” she added hastily, remembering Tacy’s party the following night.

Friends parade through her bedroom.  There is some flirting with boys.  Tempting treats are offered, and books are brought.  After all, she’s “sick” but not contagious!  And she milks it for all she’s worth.

So, yes, sprained ankles are most annoying, especially when your office is upstairs and your museum is on 13 acres.  But as far as minor illnesses or injuries go, it could be much worse.  Excuse me while I pick up my book and keep reading.  The ankle requires it!

Trying to remember the first time. . .

I wish I was one of those people that could remember exactly how old I was when I read key books of my childhood.  I’ve been slowly reading Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book by Anita Silvey, and there are lots and lots of essays that include something like “I was 8 when I. . .” or “I discovered this book. . .” and they remember all the details.  My brain is just fuzzy around those kind of details. 

Consequently, I don’t remember when I first read A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  I do know it was post-Little House and pre-Anne.  I remember really liking the Shirley Temple movie and then seeing a two-pack of books in the Scholastic catalog–Princess and Anne.  I didn’t know who that Anne person was, but I had to read Princess.

However, unlike a lot of the other books I loved as a kid, I haven’t picked this one up in a very, very long time.  At least 15 years, probably more.  But I remembered really liking it–enough to see the more recent movie version and pick up interesting older editions of the book.  It was past time for a reread.

Because it can be more fun to read beautiful old editions rather than 1980s paperbacks, I pulled this version off my shelf.  And then I was completely blown away.  I had forgotten how good it was–how much was packed into this book.  How dark and scary it was.  How Sara, while incredibly good, is still far from perfect.

For those not familiar with the book (and seriously if you’re not–get to the library immediately!), it’s the story of a motherless little girl sent to a boarding school.  It’s not a horrible school, just not perfect.  However, she’s protected because her father is rich.  But he dies penniless and she becomes an overworked servant.  Burnett’s writing frequently carried me away.  I stayed up far too late one night, because once the Magic happens, I just couldn’t put the book down. 

This is a book that I really need to see if my neices have a copy of it.  They are obsessed with all things Disney Princess, which annoys me to no end.  But Sara’s thoughts about being a princess are very different from the schlock Disney puts out.  Check this passage out:

Sometimes, when she was in the midst of some harsh, domineering speech, Miss Minchin would find the still, unchildish eyes fixed upon her with something like a proud smile in them.  At such times she did not know Sara was saying to herself:

“You don’t know that you are saying these things to a princess, and that if I chose I could wave my hand and order you to execution.  I only spare you because I am a princess, and you are a poor, stupid, unkind, vulgar old thing, and don’t know any better.”

This used to interest and amuse her more than anything else; and queer and fanciful as it was, she found comfort in it and it was a good thing for her.  While the thought held possession of her, she could not be made rude and malicious by the rudeness and malice of those about her.

“A princess must be polite,” she said to herself.

Now, isn’t that a much better way for a Princess to behave, rather than waiting around for a Prince to rescue you?

As I read, I also couldn’t help but think of Anne Shirley.  Can you imagine if Anne and Sara had gotten together, what stories they could create?  Both girls used their imaginations to escape a harsh, unloved life.  But Anne’s time of escape is just a memory in her book.  For the reader, they’re right in the midst of Sara’s need to escape.  Terrifying things happen to Sara–she had known love and safety and privilege, and it’s all yanked out from under her.  Not only is she left by her father at boarding school and apparently doesn’t seem him again (even though 4 years pass before his death), but then the money vanishes and her entire world goes topsy-turvy. 

One of my favorite passages is when she meets the beggar girl, a girl in much worse shape than she is because at least Sara has a bed and a roof over her head. 

It was a little figure more forlorn even than herself–a little figure which was not much more than a bundle of rags, from which small, bare, red, muddy feet peeped out, only because the rags with which their owner was trying to cover them were not long enough.  Above the rags appeared a shock head of tangled hair, and a dirty face with big, hollow, hungry, eyes.

As an adult, my heart breaks for these children, just as I’m impressed that Burnett doesn’t just talk about Sara’s plight, but other poor, abandoned children.  But what would I have thought as a child?  This is what I wish I remembered.  I think I would have been startled.  Kids aren’t supposed to be in situations like that.  I was safe and warm and well-fed in the Dallas suburbs.

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. . .

To be pretty. And grown up.

For me, it was dangly earrings, curly hair and contacts.  For Anne Shirley, it was upswept hair and long skirts.  For Betsy Ray, it was no freckles and curly hair.  And for Mona, it was a bob and red nail polish.  Those beacons to girls of what it might be to be grown up.  And even more importantly, to be pretty.

When I was young, I first desperately wanted curly hair.  Little did I realize how fabulous my straight glossy hair was–and I was even less aware that once I hit puberty, that straight hair would vanish.  So, I got a very classic 1980s perm in 4th grade.  Pierced ears were next.  Mom thought this was crazy talk–she doesn’t like needles, so the idea of having one pierce your ear just for fun?  Yep, not on her list of things to do.  But she relented, with the caveat that I could not have any earrings that dangled.  One birthday, my friend Jennifer gave me dangly earrings.  I begged and begged for mom to let me wear them–because then I would be fashionable and stylish.  Eventually, she did.  I still have those earrings.  They really aren’t terribly dangly–maybe an inch long.

But what I seriously pined for was contacts.  I was one of those lucky kids who got glasses in 3rd grade.  And remember, this was in the mid-1908s–not exactly a decade known for good glasses.  Once I hit junior high, I would sometimes just take off my glasses and look in the mirror.  Without those silly glasses, I was almost pretty.  Maybe I would finally have a boyfriend.  And be pretty.  And be grown up.  My 8th grade graduation present was contacts, and I wore them for the first time on the last day of school.  Some people barely recognized me.  I felt vindicated in my longing for contacts.  And I knew high school would be better.  It was, but not because of the contacts.

Looking back, we refer to those years as my ugly duckling years.  Not sure that I’m all that swanlike now, but things are definitely better.  If I was truly a bare-your-soul blogger, I would post one of those truly bad pictures from those years.  But I’m not going to do that.  Because this is a blog that is about books and history.

So about those books and history–or at least history other than my own.  As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve recently fallen in love with the Melendy family.  In The Saturdays, set in the 1940s, one of my very favorite chapters was about Mona’s Saturday.  She does what I think every other awkward, teenage girl has longed to do–she went out on her own and did what she thought was necessary to be pretty.  And grown up.  She knows exactly what she’s doing:

“After all, nobody ever asked me not to,” she told herself.  “I never promised I wouldn’t.”  But all the time she knew that she was quibbling; the corner of her mind that never let itself be fooled was well aware that neither Father nor Cuffy would approve of what she was about to do.

So, she goes into the beauty shop and for $1.50, she takes an important step toward becoming grown up.  She has her hair cut and her nails manicured.  She loves the way she looks.  But she also knows that when she gets home, her family may not feel the same way.

Rush said, “Jeepers!  You look just like everybody.  Any of those dumb high school girls that walk along the street screaming and laughing and bumping into people.  Why couldn’t you have waited a while?”

“What in heaven’s name has got into you, Mona?” inquired Father, red faced from choking.  “I never thought you were silly or vain.  When you’re eighteen years old if you want to go in for that sort of thing it will be all right, I suppose.  But not now.  There’s no way we can bring your braids back, but at least we don’t have to put up with those talons.”

And so Mona eventually gets the red nailpolish off and is properly chastised for growing up too fast.  But though I had never done a similiar thing, I understood her motivations so well.  And I began to think about previous kidlit history heroines and their own steps towards trying to be pretty and grown up.

Anne Shirley, set in the late 1800s, longs for puffed sleeves.  But there are other mile-markers on the road to being grown up.  On Anne’s 13th birthday, she and Diana discuss how close they are to being grown up–Anne is convinced “that in two more years I’ll be really grown up.”  Diana declares:

“In four more years we’ll be able to put our hair up,” said Diana.  “Alice Bell is only sixteen and she is wearing her hair up, but I think that’s ridiculous.  I shall wait until I’m seventeen.”

Fast forward, twenty years or so, and you meet Betsy Ray.  When Betsy is 13, Anna comes to live with the family.  And Anna brings two very magical things into Betsy’s life: Magic Wavers and freckle cream.  Both quickly become an integral part of her new beauty routine. 

After supper, Betsy telephone Tacy and Winona for prolonged conversations, then went upstairs to wind her hair on Magic Waers, take a warm bath some of Julia’s bath salts in it, and rub the new freckle cream into her face.  Wrapped in a kimono she sat down to manicure her nails.

But Betsy still doesn’t feel like she’s pretty.

“Oh, Tacy!” she said in a lowered voice.  “I wish I was prettier.”

“Why, Betsy, you’re plenty pretty enough.  You’re better than pretty.”

“I don’t want to be better than pretty.  I’m tired of being better than pretty.  Sweet looking!  Interesting looking!  Pooh for that!  I want to be plain pretty like you are.”

These girls, generations apart, are all struggling to be 13–right on the edge of being grown up, but not there yet.  Feeling not yet comfortable in their own skin, and definitely not pretty.  And everyone wants to grow up faster–to get through those awkwards years and on to the glamorous future.  And I think these struggles are a very large part of why these books remain popular today.  Who hasn’t been snarky about another girl’s fashion choices?  Who hasn’t wished they weren’t just one step closer to being grown up?  And though the standards of beauty have changed–from rogue being unheard of in Anne’s time, to only on one woman in town (Miss Mix) in Betsy’s time, to being something expected when you’re grown up in Mona’s time, the emotions and the feelings are the same.   A 13 year old girl just wants to be pretty.  And grown up.

ETA: Last night, after posting this, I was lying in bed, trying to sleep and realized that I had forgotten one of the best, funniest incidents of a teen girl struggling to be pretty: Anne dying her hair green!  How could I forget this?  I blame the cold.  At any rate, one of the recurring themes in Anne is her hatred of her red hair.  But when the peddler’s potion turns it green, it is one of the funnier moments in the books. 

“Dyed it!  Dyed your hair!  Anne Shirley, didn’t you know it was a wicked thing to do?”

“Yes, I knew it was a lilttle wicked,” admitted Anne.  “But I thought it was worth while to be a little wicked to get rid of red hair.  I counted thecost, Marilla.  Besides, I meant to be extra good in other ways to make up for it.”

The things we’ll all do, in those desperate attempts to be beautiful.  And yet, one of the signs of Anne growing up, besides talking a bit less, is that she comes to accept her hair.  It deepens a bit as she enters adulthood and becomes a “lovely shade of auburn.” I suppose patience is a virtue (I certainly got my curly hair), but boy, it certainly is hard to wait.

Happy New Year!

They spent the old year’s last hour quietly around the fire.  A few minutes before twelve, Captain Jim rose and opened the door.

“We must let the New Year in,” he said.

Outside was a fine blue night.  A sparkling ribbon of moonlight garlanded in the gulf.  Inside the bar the harbor shone like a pavement of pearl.  They stood before the door and waited–Captain Jim with his ripe, full experience, Marshall Elliott in his vigorous but empty middle life, Gilbert and Anne with their precious memories and exquisite hopes, Leslie with her record of starved years and her hopeless future.  The clock on the little shelf above the fireplace struck twelve.

“Welcome, New Year,” said Captain Jim, bowing low as the last stroke died away.  “I wish you all the best year of your lives.  I reckon that whatever the New Year brings us will be the best the Great Captain has for us–and somehow of other we’ll all make port in a good harbor.”  —“New Year’s Eve at the Light,” Anne’s House of Dreams, L. M. Montgomery

I have long loved this image of New Year’s Eve and have even been known to open the door at midnight.  It has all the qualities in a New Year’s Party that I look for–good friends, laughter and stories.  No fancy parties for me!

Here’s to a 2010 filled with lots of good books and good history.