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.

The best presents. . .

I admit it–my favorite part of Christmas just might be presents.  And it’s not so much the receiving (though don’t get me wrong–I do love receiving), but the giving.  It’s the joy in finding just the right thing, something that is more than the sum of its parts, and seeing the reaction when it hits its mark.

Below, in no particular order, are some of my very favorite gift-giving incidents in kidlit history.  Most of them occur around Christmas, but not all of them.  Most of these scenes I first read as a child, and they certainly stuck in my head–particularly the first one. . .

Puffed Sleeves!  Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery.  Anne finally has a group of friends, but Matthew notices there’s something different between her and her friends: she’s not dressed like the other girls.  So, he does his very best to get her a fashionable dress for Christmas, first braving the store (and winding up with rakes and brown sugar) and then enlisting the help of Rachel Lynde.  And Anne’s reaction is wonderful to see:  “Breakfast seems so commonplace at such an exciting moment.  I’d rather feast my eyes on that dress.  I’m so glad that puffed sleeves are still fashionable.  It did seem to me that I’d never get over it if they went out before I had a dress with them.”

Why I love this scene:  First, what girl hasn’t wanted something fashionable, only to be denied because it’s not “practical”?  And then, lovely Matthew comes along and does it anyway.  Anne has been so lonely for so long, and Matthew’s gift is so thoughtful.  She was already a part of the family, but this is the first time she gets a gift where others are thinking of what she wants.  Quite a change for an orphan!  And yes, part of me still wants a dress with puffed sleeves.

The feast in A Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett).  Though not a Christmas gift, I can’t help but include it.  Sara and Becky are in deep trouble, and the Magic won’t save them.  But they awaken one morning and the attic has been transformed: “In the grate there was a glowing, blazing fire; on the hob was a little brass kettle hissing and boiling; spread upon the floor was a thick, warm crimon rug; before the fire a folding chair, unfolded, and with cushions on it; by the chair a small white cloth, and upon it spread small covered dishes, a cup, a saucer, a teapot; on the bed were new warm coverings and a satin-covered down quilt; at the foot a curius wadded silk robe, a pair of quilted slipper and some books.  The room of her dream seemed changed into fairyland . . . ‘It does not–melt away.'”

Why I love this scene: On the magical level, this is right at the top.  Yummy food and beautiful things!  I am amazed that neither she nor Becky heard a thing, but then, I guess that’s part of the magic.  Another moment where an orphan realizes she’s not alone.  Plus, the makeover of the attic sounds delightful–it’s like an early home makeover show.

Jo’s HairLittle Women by Louisa May Alcott.  Marmee must rush off to tend to their sick father.  Money is tight, and so Jo sells her hair.  She insists it was the best thing to do in the situation, but does confess: “I felt queer when I saw the dear old hair laid out on the table and felt only the short, rough ends on my head.  It almost seemed as if I’d an arm or a leg off.  The woman saw me look at it, and picked out a long lock for me to keep.  I’ll give it to you, Marmee, just to remember past glories by; for a crop is so comfortable I don’t think I shall ever have a mane again.”

Why I love this scene:  Yes, Jo makes a big sacrifice for her family.  But the real reason I love this scene is the series of exclamations from her family when she reveals her shorn head.  Best line in the book: “Oh Jo, how could you?  Your one beauty!”  Makes me laugh every time.  And could anyone but a sister get away with that?

The Brass BowlHeaven to Betsy by Maud Hart Lovelace.  Mrs. Ray falls in love with a brass bowl and insists that her husband buy it for her.  Mr. Ray keeps insisting that he would never give her such a gift.  The entire family visits the brass bowl and insists that it’s right for Mrs. Ray.  On Christmas Eve, he caves, but the bowl is gone.  Panic sets in.  But on Christmas morning, the brass bowl is there–because Mrs. Ray bought it for herself!

Why I love this scene:  There’s almost a domino effect as each family member becomes convinced that the Brass Bowl is the Perfect Gift.  But Mr. Ray stands strong–until that last minute Christmas Eve panic sets in.  I just love how Mrs. Ray takes matters into her own hands.  It’s a scene that makes me giggle and rings oh so true.  On this reread, I also couldn’t help but love the following lines:   “‘I have no intention of buying it,’ Mr. Ray answered.  ‘I’m going to gie you a personal present, not a house present.’  ‘I love this new house so much that it’s practically me.”  My sentiments exactly, Mrs. Ray.

As You Like It Besty and Joe by Maud Hart Lovelace.  “It was proper for a boy to give a girl only books, flowers, or candy.  It would be proper for Betsy to give Joe nothing more.”  And so she purchases the red, limp-leather edition of As You Like It.  Alas, the course of true love never did run smooth.  Tony asks Betsy to the New Year’s Eve dance first, and Betsy and Joe fight over it: “Either you’re my girl or you’re not.”  He tosses her present at her.  She opens it and realizes it is the exact same edition of As You Like It.  “Inside he had written ‘We’ll fleet the time carelessly as the did in the golden world.’ But Betsy knew he had written that before he knew that she was going to the dance with Tony.  She put her face into her hands and began to cry.”

Why I love this scene:  Well, it’s certainly not because it’s as happy and joyful as some of the other gift giving scenes.  But for an old-fashioned romantic like me?  Well, it’s perfect.  Not quite on the level of the O. Henry story, “Gift of the Magi,” it still has to mean something extra special to give the exact same present to each other.  If nothing else, it’s another sign that Betsy and Joe are made for each other.

Trinket’s First Tree  Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer.  Lucinda realizes that her little friend Trinket has never had a Christmas tree.  And one can’t just have a tree–but a party and presents too.  So she works extra hard to earn money in December and invites the whole neighborhood to surprise Trinket.  She is completely captivated.  “There is always one Christmas that belongs to you more than any other–belongs by right of festival and those secret feelings that are never spoken aloud.  This Christmas belonged to Lucinda in that way, and I think it belonged to many of her friends.”

Why I love this scene:  Lucinda is only 10, and it may be a bit hard to believe that she’s so thoughtful.  But I love the way the ornaments are almost all handmade and everyone joins in.  And it’s so easy to imagine the look on Trinket’s face when she first sees the tree.  What magic!  It’s not so much the gift, but the experience–they’ve made a wonderful memory.

Mr. Edwards as Santa Claus Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  No snow and a practically flooding creek means that Santa won’t be able to get to the Ingalls family in time for Christmas.  Luckily, Mr. Edwards meets Santa in Independence and is able to bring the gifts after all.

Why I love this scene:  First, it’s really funny.  When you read again as an adult, you sense the worry that Ma and Pa have that Christmas won’t happen as planned for his kids.  And when Mr. Edwards arrives, the story is told with plenty of ( )s and interjections and questions–exactly the kind of questions any kid would ask about Santa.  For example, when Mr. Edwards says he meets Santa, Laura asks: “‘In the daytime?’ She hadn’t thought that anyone could see Santa Claus in the daytime.  No, Mr. Edwards said; it was night, but light shone out across the street from the saloons.”  Giggle.  The presents themselves are simple–a tin cup, peppermint candy, a heart-shaped cake, and a penny.  “Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny.  There had never been such a Christmas.”  What puts this tale over the top for me though is Mr. Edwards–that man knows how to tell a story and keep kids believing in Santa.

Originally, I set out to find 10, but at 7, I ran out of steam.  Do you have a favorite scene that I’ve left out?  What is the greatest kidlit history gift of all time?

The beginning

Thus far, the vast majority of books that I’ve talked about here are ones I first read as a child.  I grew up with Anne and Jo and Laura.  But there’s one very important exception.  I didn’t discover Betsy Ray until I was an adult–halfway through college.

Oh, I had heard about the Betsy-Tacy books, largely from friends who shared my love for L. M. Montgomery.  I had seen the article in Victoria Magazine about the 1997 convention.  But let’s face it–when you’re in college, there’s not a ton of time for extra-curricular reading.  That is, until you take a children’s literature class and have to read 100 books in one term.

So I picked up Betsy-Tacy, which just happened to be in my college library.  And I really liked it.  The girls felt real and natural–they acted like kids in a way that so many fictional children just don’t.  When I came home for Spring Break, I bought the entire rest of the series at a local bookstore.  Luckily, everything was in print.

Since then, I’ve read the books several times.  I’ve made tons of Betsy-Tacy friends.  I even traveled to Mankato this past summer the inspiration.  And now, they are again back in print.  These re-issues are so beautiful–I’m head over heels again!  What is it about these books?

As a historian, there are certain subjects or areas of history that seem to get all the attention.  Things like the Civil War.  The frontier era.  World War II.  Important politicians.  I’ve never been one to follow those kinds of trends: give me Reconstruction over the Civil War any day.  Women’s history before traditional political history.  And let’s talk about what happened after the frontier was settled. 

The Betsy-Tacy books do that.  She came of age exactly 100 years ago (DVHS, Class of 1910).  In just the opening chapters of Heaven to Betsy, we learn about modern improvements in the Ray family’s new house (indoor bathrooms!  gas stove!  gas lights! furnace!).  Not that Betsy liked the change: “Betsy thought her heart would break.  Didn’t they know how much she loved that coal stove beside which she had read so many books while the tea kettle sang and the little flames leaped behind the isinglass window?  Didn’t they know how she loved the yellow lamplight over the small cottage rooms?  And she thought it was cozy to take baths in the kitchen beside the old wood-burning range!”  There’s the push and pull of new technology here, one of those things we don’t often think about (especially regarding something as accepted as an indoor bathroom) 

As Betsy mopes about the move, where does her mother suggest she go to cheer up?  The new movie theater!  The next year, she falls in love with a boy who just happens to drive a fancy red automobile.  All of these things sound so familiar to us, but they’re just the beginning of the modern era.  I’ve always loved learning about when something we now accept without question is new.  How did people feel when they first saw a car?  (just ask Tib in Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown).  How did the telephone change things? (ask anyone in Deep Valley!)

The Little House books are so often referred to when talking about historical ficition and books based on an author’s memories.  Their “realness” is part of their appeal–and part of the reason for their inclusion in so many school curriculums.  But I think Betsy-Tacy should be in the same sentence–and also a part of school curriculum.  As a museum educator, I’m constantly on the search for non-pioneer historical fiction (since most of my museum’s history is about what happens after the frontier is settled).  Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown is on my list.  Blessedly, in these new reissues, Harper Collins has done an excellent job of pointing out the “realness” of Betsy as well.  Each volume includes a brief biography of Maud, some additional information about each book (how things match up and where they don’t) and most importantly, tons of pictures.  It’s a kidlit history fan’s dream come true! 

These books portray those first awkward moments as we enter the 20th century.  It’s a story that is both familiar and strange.  And it’s one of my favorite stories of all. 

There are several parties nationwide celebrating the re-issues of these books.  Hope you’ll help us celebrate!

10/23    Bainbridge Island, WA at the Library http://www.krl.org/index.php/bainbridge-island this date is still a bit tentative

11/7      Highland Village, TX Barnes and Noble http://store-locator.barnesandnoble.com/event/3010339-8

11/8      St. Paul, MN at the Red Balloon Bookshop http://www.redballoonbookshop.com/

4/17/10 Dallas, TX, Dallas Heritage Village http://www.dallasheritagevillage.org/  (hey, that’s my museum.  I wonder if there’s a connection. . . )

Everybody poops. . .

For anyone who spends any time with children, there are certain questions and subjects that come up over and over again.  Subjects like bathrooms and poop.

At a museum like ours, this comes up fairly frequently.  We have outhouses, including one two-seater (glamour!).  We also have donkeys–you can always tell when they poop in front of a school group–there are usually lots of screams!  One of our homes also features an indoor bathroom, one of the earliest in Dallas.

One point that we try to make with our kids is that an indoor bathroom is a really big deal.  And it’s also one of those things that wasn’t immediately accepted as an “improvement.”  This is a historical concept that us modern folks can find hard to understand.  After all, indoor plumbing is certainly at the top of my list of reasons why I’m glad to live today and not back then (along with modern medicine and the right to vote).

Last week, I picked up The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald.  I know I read this as a kid.  I know I read it multiple times as a kid.  And yet, my memories of the book are more than a bit fuzzy.  So I entered into 1896 Utah as a practically new reader.  And imagine my thrill when the very first chapter is all about a brand new indoor bathroom! 

The entire town is checking it out, and they’re all secretly thinking that this family is nuts to put such a thing inside.  Aunt Bertha says “this is going to make us the laughing stock of Adenville.”  J. D. says “it will stink up the whole house.”  Of course, Tom sees it as an opportunity and charges neighborhood kids a penny to watch it installed.

As J. D. listens to his neighbors wonder at his father’s sanity, he becomes very, very worried: “I flung myself on the bed and began to cry.  I had always been proud of Papa in spite of him buying crazy inventions that didn’t work.  But this time he’d gone too far. . . Nobody would come to our house anymore.  How could Mamma entertain the Ladies Sewing Circle in a hosue that smelled like a backhouse?  It would be the same as entertaining in our old backhouse.  I visualized callers at our house stopping at the front gate and putting clothespins on their noses before entering our house.”

But it’s installed and it works the way it’s supposed to.  And Tom has yet another opportunity to make money off of his friends as he makes a sign that says “See the magic water closet that doesn’t stink.” 

And then the bathroom isn’t really mentioned again.  It’s become a part of their lives, as new technology so often does.

By the time of Heaven to Betsy (set in 1906–exactly ten years later), an indoor bathroom is no longer questioned.  In their new home, the bathroom is a definite improvement, as Mrs. Ray exclaims “I’m going to take one bath after another all day long!”

I’ve always been intrigued by those early times of transition–when a new thing isn’t quite accepted yet and people are still wondering.  Often, it doesn’t take long for it to become old hat.  But how lucky we are to have these books that helps us explore the wonder and curiousity of the beginning of modern conveniences.