More from the archive

Last week, mom brought another box of stuff to my house for me to go through.  It is truly remarkable what all she hung on to (and a lot of it is now in the recycle bin).  But I did find a few things that prove that my reading tastes haven’t changed that much in the last 20 or so years. 

Exhibit A:  My Summer Reading Club Logbook, from 1988, when I was 8 and 5/6 years old (yes, the fraction is on the logbook).  Some sample books, some of which I’ve been thinking about lately and am about to reread or have reread recently:

Trixie Belden, # 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,  7, 8, and 9.  (It appears I didn’t read these in order–must have had to wait my turn at the library!)

Henry Reed’s Journey (am currently reading Henry Reed’s Babysitting Service)

Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Dead Eagles

The Long Winter

Meet Theodore Roosevelt (I’m currently reading the gigantic Edmund Morris bio of Teddy).

Turn Homeward, Hannalee

The only thing that appears to be missing is anything by L. M. Montgomery.

Exibit B:

But never fear!  In a paper dated September 4, 1990 (6th grade), I had to list both short term and long term goals and how to reach them.  One of my long term goals (and I swear I am not making this up!) was:

“Collect all L. M. Montgomery books.  How to reach: Paying attention to lists of books and sales.”

Yeah, I’m still working on that one, though the list has greatly expanded to include first editions.  But still!

Exhibit C:

And finally, in another paper from 6th grade.  It appears that the assignment was to write a persuasive letter.  I’m guessing that we could write it to anyone living or dead because, well, you’ll see.  Here’s my letter:

April 8, 1991

Dear L. M. Montgomery,

I just love your books and think I would make an excellent character.  I’m smart, a talented writer, and full of mischief.  I have many adventures and misadventures.  My friends are almost as nice as me.  The book could have stuff in it about goals and mischief.  I also have a short temper which would make quite a few interesting chapters.  As you can see, my life could easily be turned into a best seller.

Ummm, yeah.  I didn’t have an ego at all!  But it is obvious that the love was quite deep.

Idol or friend?

As a kid, my focus was always on the stories.  Eventually, I figured out that some of my favorite authors had careers beyond the books I loved so much.  Or that their lives were very different from what I imagined based on their novels.  But no matter what, they were my literary idols.

My love for L. M. Montgomery was growing just as the scholarship was taking off.  Volume 1 of the journals had been published in 1985, and I received my copy in 1993 (I was 13.  Yes, I’ve been a nerd for a very long time).  I think by then I had read a biography or two, so knew that Montgomery’s life wasn’t all sweetness and light.  But the journals were still a bit of a shock.  Part of me admired her more–there are few hints of the darkness in her novels.  But another part of me realized that I probably wouldn’t have been friends with her if our paths had happened to cross.  You know, if I lived in Canada 100 years ago. . .

I’m not saying that I feel a need to be a kindred spirit with the writers I love.  But some of these writers feel so familiar and cozy, even though I’ve only “met” this one side of their life or career.  I want to know more, but it always changes the relationship a bit.

File:Louisa May Alcott.jpgI hadn’t realized that Louisa May Alcott did anything besides write children’s novels until college.  And suddenly, she was in my American Lit class and I was reading a story called “Transcendental Wild Oats.”  In the last couple of years, I’ve read a lot more of her other writing–Hospital Sketches, a few other essays, etc.  My admiration for her has only grown.  Personally, I don’t think any of Alcott’s children’s books can be fully appreciated by the average fan without taking her extraordinary life story into account.  But I don’t think this is necessarily true of Montgomery.  Sure, it’s important for scholars to dissect these intricacies of life and fiction, but I’m not sure how much more I personally get out of her stories by knowing the larger context of Montgomery’s life.

Elizabeth EnrightOne of the great things about this blog for me personally is that it is forcing me (well, force may be a bit strong of a word) to re-read books or try ones that have been on The List for a long time.  I’ve mentioned several times that I am completely head over heels in love with Elizabeth Enright and the Melendy family.  A friend who is also on the Elizabeth Enright bandwagon offered to lend me Doublefields, a combination memoir/short story collection by Enright.

I was almost nervous when I picked it up.  My love of her is new and strong–I’ve now read most of her kidlit (Thimble Summer  and all the Melendy books) and really, really liked them.  But what if that didn’t transfer to the rest of the work?  Would I be disappointed?

Umm, no.  The memoir section was fabulous. I saw traces of the Melendys in her life, and her personality really seemed to come through.  I could be completely wrong, but I think the two of us would have a great afternoon together, talking and laughing.  I think I could have been friends with Elizabeth Enright.  We have the same philosophies about kids.  Her childhood was different than most, but not heartbreaking like Montgomery’s.  She’s someone I would love to have gotten to know.

I don’t feel that way about all of the authors I love.  Most of them, I am perfectly content to love them from afar.  But, if time were not a limitation, I would be writing lots and lots of fan letters to Enright, begging her to come to my house for tea or wine.  My fan letters to Montgomery and Alcott would be very, very different.  Plenty of admiration, but not offerings of friendship.

Are there authors you wish you could be friends with?  Or is this my own strange fantasy world?

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. . .

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.

Wanting to know more. . .

A big part of the intrigue with kidlit history is the idea that there’s always more to discover.  These favorite stories are based on something within the author’s life, which should make the biographer or historian tingle with anticipation.  But, because these were written for children, these authors are rarely given the same consideration that writers for adults receive.  It can be really hard to find more than basic biographical stats on many of these authors.  In my mind, there are different levels of biography–the very basics (usually just a few paragraphs), a full length study of the subject’s life with little to no historical context, and then a full, rich study of the subject’s life and times.  It’s become social history, not just biography.  Isn’t the saying “no man is an island”?  But it seems to me that many biographies (of anyone, not just writers) treat their subject as if that individual was only affected by their own actions and perhaps a few family members. 

I have yet to find a decent biography on Frances Hodgson Burnett, though based on the little bit I do know, it’s a great story.  There are lots of biographies on Laura Ingalls Wilder, but I’m not sure any of them have jumped to that final level of biography.  I’ve not seen anything significant on Sydney Taylor or Elizabeth Enright.  And though work has been done on Maud Hart Lovelace, none of it is what I would call biography.  Each of the recent non-fiction books focus on one part of her life, not the whole story.  And while Sharla Whale’s Betsy-Tacy Comanion is a commendable piece of research, it’s not even close to a biography.  The snarky part of me thinks it’s really just a collection of BT trivia.

Two exceptions for this lack of scholarly consideration for children’s authors are Louisa May Alcott and L. M. Montgomery.  In recent years, Alcott has finally become know for being more than just the writer of Little Women, but also part of one of the most interesting and intellectually well-connected families of the 19th century.  Eden’s Outcasts by John Matteson is a stunning dual biography of Alcott and her father Bronson.  Bronson was a fascinating though frustrating man.  I’ve long been fascinated by how much happened in Concord in the mid-19th century, and this book help explains how it became such an intellectual hot spot.  This week, PBS’s series, American Masters, is featuring Alcott.  In Dallas, it’s airing on December 28 at 8 p.m.  No idea on where this particular documentary falls in the biography spectrum, but it’s probably worth a look, especially if you’re unfamiliar with Alcott’s work beyond Little Women.

Currently, I’m in the middle of one of the best biographies I’ve read in quite some time: Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings by Mary Henley Rubio.  Montgomery scholars have a truly amazing cache of primary sources.  LMM kept a journal for most of her life (and constantly recopied and revised it).  They began publishing the volumes in the mid 1980s–I received my copy of Vol. 1 back in 1993.  (I was 14–yep, the nerdiness goes way back!)  Many, many biographies have been written.  Books of scholarly essays have been published.  Books of her letters have been published.  When I heard about the new biography, I figured I would probably read it eventually, but it wasn’t a huge priority.  After all, I’ve read more than a few biographies of LMM.  I’ve read 3 volumes of her journals.  I felt like there wasn’t too much more to learn.  But then I had a conversation with another LMM fan/scholar at a convention about the other Maud.  Kate told me it was the definitive biography, a must-read, and fabulous.  It took me a few months, but I finally followed her advice.  And now, I can barely put it down.

Rubio’s research is astounding.  She sets LMM’s life in context, her writing in context, and has remarkable insights into why LMM did what she did.  I have newfound respect for LMM’s grandmother.  I have more sympathy for her husband.  And I cannot wait to re-read all of LMM’s novels.  This is the kind of biography that more writers of children’s literature deserve.  Again, Rubio has it easier than many with the wealth of material.  However, she also gives LMM the respect she deserves–and the place she deserves in our society.

Frankly, I’m tired of these author’s stories being discounted because they only write for children.  Aren’t children the most important audience?  These stories have become a part of our lives and our psyches, because we read them when we were young.  They have shaped generations of young minds.  Isn’t it time we know more about what shaped them?

Excuse me, I have to get back to my book.

PS  If I’m missing any key and wonderful biographies of kidlit history authors, please let me know!

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 sparest of spare rooms

For the first time in my adult life, overnight guests can sleep somewhere besides the couch.  As a fairly new homeowner, I have a spare room!  With an extra bed!  However, as a fairly new homeowner, the bed is a hand-me-down and the mattress has certainly seen better days.  Buying a new mattress has been on the to-do list for months, but various financial setbacks have pushed it on down the list.  But I’ve had overnight guests anyway. . . and then I end up feeling bad because I know their bed is not comfortable.

I have finally starting digging out of my financial hole, so I’m thinking there might be mattress shopping this weekend.  As I was plotting out where to go, budget, and what to do about bedding (my comforter from college currently resides on the bed–and it’s not terrible, but it’s no longer me), I had a kidlit flash: Anne being told that she could sleep in a spare room. 

I’m sure you all remember the scene (and if you don’t, then you need to read Anne of Green Gables.  Go do it right now–I’ll still be here when you get back).  Anne is invited to attend a concert with Diana and spend the night.  As Anne is desperately trying to persuade Marilla she says: There’s just one more thing, Marilla. . . Mrs. Barry told Diana that we might sleep in the spare-room bed.  Think of the honour of your little Anne being put in the spare room bed.  This wasparerooms a very big deal.

And then, a classic Anne scrape (where it’s not really her fault, but really, could it have happened to anyone else?):  The two white-clad figures flew down the long room, through the spare-room door, and bounded on the bed at the same moment.  And then–something–moved beneath them, there was a gasp and a cry–and somebody said in muffled accents:

‘Mericful goodness!’

Anne and Diana were never able to tell just how they got off that bed and out of the room.

It is Aunt Josephine, a rich aunt, who has quite a temper.  Later, Anne apologizes in a way only she can, concluding with: And then we couldn’t sleep in the spare room after being promised.  I suppose you are used to sleeping in spare rooms.  But just imagine what you would feel like if you were a little orphan girl who had never had such an honor.  Anne and Aunt Josephine discover they are kindred spirits, and Aunt Josephine promises Anne: when you come to town you’re to visit me and I’ll put you in my very sparest spare-room bed to sleep.

When I first read this as a kid, the magic of the spare room really made an impression on me.  I had grown up in a house with a spare room.  Usually, when we traveled somewhere as a family, my parents were in a spare room (as the kid, I rarely was!).  A spare room was not unusual at all in my life, but it certainly was to Anne–which I think is part of the reason the scene stuck in my mind (that and the image of them jumping into bed with Aunt Josephine!).

In thinking about the homes we have at the Village, we really only have one house that features a “spare room.”  In one of our log houses, I always talk to kids about the idea that everyone lived in one big room–there were no separate rooms for children.  But there weren’t any separate rooms for guests either!  Even when the family moved on up (we have both their first Texas home–a one room log house and their second–which is much, much larger!), there was no spare room for guests.  Oh, we have a trundle bed underneath one of the beds, but not a whole room. 

Though I am by no means an expert on houses in the 19th century, it seems that spare rooms developed after two things happened.  1.  The frontier was settled, so supplies were more plentiful.  And the cost of construction went down.  2.  People had to be rich enough to be able to afford to have a spare room.  For decades, it was something only the rich could afford–and then, eventually, even the middle class could aspire to a spare room.  I wish I knew, when people were making choices about their houses, what the trends were.  A formal parlor or a spare room?  A dining room?  Some other special room?  What were the priorities?  Thinking of the two houses at the Village that are from around the turn of the century, both have dining rooms, a formal parlor, and a family parlor.  But only one has a spare room–and it’s not even the “richer” family.  But based on one little museum, I hate to make dramatic assumptions.

Anne was an orphan–she was poor and had been working in poor, crowded houses.  At the orphanage, her bed was one of many in a giant room.  So her thrill at being allowed in a spare room makes a lot more sense.  When she first arrives at Green Gables, the spare room is deemed to be too good for her.  Sleeping in a spare room was a sign that she had arrived–she was no longer thought of as an orphan first, but as a friend and honored guest.

And soon, my honored guests will be a bit more comfortable in my spare room.  Now, if I could just figure out what kind of bedding I want. . .

What have been your experiences with spare rooms?  And were they colored at all by Anne’s thrill?