Required Reading?

231631There are some books that I just assume everyone has read.  Often, these lines are somewhat generational.  For example, I just assume that everyone my age and younger has read Harry Potter.  And I had also always assumed that most older women have read Little Women.  (I definitely think it is less-read today, but I also think it’s more read than people assume.)  For the museum’s book club, we decided to focus this year on books written during our time period (1840-1910) that have been repeatedly mentioned in other things we’ve read.  Little Women was at the top of the list.  Going into our discussion, I assumed that this would be a reread for everyone–though it had probably been decades since they had last read it.  But almost half or our group had never read it!

This led to a really interesting conversation about why they had missed it and what it was like to read it for the first time as an adult.  Everyone liked it, though I’m not sure if our first-timers loved it.

Frankly, I was even more surprised because all of these women love history.  It seems like there are certain books that all of us history lovers (especially the women) have in common: Little Women, Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables seem to be the three most common. We also chatted a bit about what books they had read, and not a lot of historical fiction came up.  Though I still believe kidlit history is one of the best paths to history, it is good to be reminded that there are many ways to become a history fan.

As you know, I have often incorporated my own love of children’s literature into museum programming.  During our Little Women themed event about a year ago, one of my most devoted junior historians confessed that she hadn’t read any of the canon–or even those of the “secondary” canon–Frances Hodgson Burnett, Maud Hart Lovelace, etc.  We might have teased her. I might have threatened to kick her out of the program if she didn’t read at least one of my favorites.  I might have sent over her buddies (who had read all of the required books!) to give her a hard time.  Don’t know if she ever picked anything up, though I still allow her to be a junior historian.

So, what titles make you say “I can’t believe you haven’t read that!”?  What’s in your kidlit history canon?

The joy of rereading

I don’t remember when I first read Little Women.  I do know how I discovered it.  We had a small collection of classics that had been my aunts’–they were girls in the 1930s and 1940s, so they were really beautiful editions.  Little Women was in that collection (I think with illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith, but that copy is at mom’s house), along with Heidi and Bambi and all sorts of other wonderful books.  I also remember loving the book–until Meg got married and the girls grew up and it got kind of mushy.  Eventually, I grew up a bit too, revisited it, and fell in love with the whole wonderful book.

But it has been many, many years since I’ve read Little Women.  Not that I’ve ignored Alcott in the last decade or so.  I’ve been to Orchard House twice–the only literary landmark I’ve visited twice.  I’ve read some of her other works, including Hospital Sketches.  I devoured the dual biography of Louisa and her father, Eden’s Outcasts.  But I haven’t actually read Little Women in at least 10 years.

Currently, I’m preparing a talk on the Civil War in children’s literature, so I simply had to reread it.  And I’m enjoying it so much more than I thought I would, and I can’t figure out why it’s been so long since I’ve reread it.

For the last several years (really, since the advent of goodreads and realizing exactly how many books are on my to-read list), I haven’t spent much time re-reading.  There are so many wonderful, unread books that I haven’t wanted to spend my limited reading time on old friends.  And yet, as I revisit the March family, I’m seeing so many things I’ve never seen before.  Jo is so imperfect and yet so real.  Amy isn’t nearly as annoying as I had previously thought.  Every girl struggles with her faith journey (I love the scene with Amy’s little corner for reflection and prayer).  Before, I had always been of the camp that believed Jo and Laurie should have ended up together.  Now, I agree with Marmee that it would have been a disastrous marriage.  Plus, I’m head over heels with Professor Bhaer!  Even though I know exactly what’s going to happen (we shall not speak of Beth’s death just yet), I’m eager to get back to the story and keep reading.

So friends, what old favorite have you neglected in recent years?  Is it time to renew your acquaintance?

Work hard for a living

I never thought I’d get excited about economic history.  Or economics, in general.  But when everything crashed in 2008, I got interested.  I remember being completely transfixed while listening to This American Life’s podcast about the real estate meltdown (A Giant Pool of Money).  And dumbfounded that I was so fascinated.  I started reading the business section of the newspaper.  And I started subscribing to the Planet Money podcast.

A few weeks ago, they posted the following graphic on their blog–all about “children in gainful occupations” according to the 1920 census.  The timing for this piece was wonderful–at work, we’re currently working on an event where we’ll talk about work at the turn-of-the-century.  We’ve made some exhibit changes over the past few years that make business and economic history much easier to teach.  We will talk about jobs at the General Store, Bank or Hotel, but since this is a family-centered event, I want to make sure that we also talk about children working.  We probably won’t delve too deeply into child labor, but I certainly want to talk about the kids of the past that had to earn money for their family’s (or their own) survival.

So, of course, I turned instantly to kidlit history.  Here are a few examples that I’ll be sharing as part of the pre-visit packet of kids earning money–sometimes for their own purposes and sometimes to help the family.  In roughly chronological order:

Meg and Jo in Little Women.  It’s apparent from the very beginning of the book that these girls need to help their family.  Who can forget those immortal lines:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

In Chapter 4, their work is better described.  Meg, at 16, was a nursery governess for four children.  Jo was a companion for Aunt March, as a companion and helper.

Laura in Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years.  First, Laura is a seamstress, earning money to send Mary to the blind school.  Later, she becomes a teacher (and has some horrifying experiences!)

Sara in A Little Princess.  When Sara’s father dies, bankrupt, her boarding school could have turned her out on the street.  Instead, they put her to work.  Miss Minchin tells her:

“You are like Becky–you must work for your living.”

To her surprise, a faint gleam of light came into the child’s eyes–a shade of relief.

“Can I work?” she said.  “If I can work it will not matter so much.  What can I do?”

As a child, I don’t think I got how terrifying this situation might have been.  Of course, the magical dinner that appears later might have helped with that illusion.

Perry Miller in Emily of New Moon and Peter Craig in The Story Girl.  There are tons of hired girls in L. M. Montgomery’s fiction–and of course, we know that before Anne found Matthew and Marilla she was working in a household, assisting with the children.  I think it’s really important to remember that not all of the hired boys and girls in LMM’s fiction are as alone as Sara Crewe appeared to be.  Perry had an aunt whom we occasionally see.  But these were still kids that needed to grow up quickly–Perry was only 12 or 13 when he went to work.

Interestingly enough, the divide between the kids who had to work and the kids who just want some extra money lines up  chronologically.  The books mentioned above are set from the 1860s to the 1890s.  The books below are the late 1890s to the 1900s–a sign of how the world was continuing to change?  That may be a bit of a reach, but it is interesting.

Lucinda in Roller Skates.  She wants to throw a proper Christmas party for Trinket, but needs the money to do it.  She finds all sorts of odd jobs with her neighbors–walking a dog to tutoring English.  There’s this lovely exchange, just after Lucinda is offered the dog-walking job:

“How perfectly glorious!  It doesn’t seem right to earn money so pleasantly.  Mama never paid me to do anything except what I positively hated to do.”

“That’s too bad.  I think money ought to be always earned pleasantly.  Think of how much gayer the world would be if everybody went to work in the morning knowing he was going to do something he enjoyed doing all day!”

Amen!

Tom in the Great Brain books.  Oh, Tom.  A pint-sized con man.  He earns money in all sorts of crazy ways–tricking kids and adults.  But, that wonderful chapter about charging kids to see a flush toilet?  Yep, we’re totally borrowing that idea for the event at the Village.  Even cooler?  There’s a story of one of the Sullivan kids doing the exact same thing with “our” toilet.

My goal for all this list was to stick with the museum’s time period of 1840-1910–so no Henry Reed or the Melendys or others.  But these are all such good examples of kids entering into the workforce–sometimes by choice and sometimes by necessity.  So often, when we think about the past, we’re using rose-colored glasses.  But so many kids had to work to survive.  It’s a startling thought for many young people, but using these stories is a great way to get started.

And then we can start talking about child labor laws. . .

So, what have I forgotten on my list?  Some friends mentioned Understood Betsy and Five Little Peppers.  I’ve never read the other Betsy, and it’s been a long time since I’ve read about the Peppers.  I was hoping to get a reread in, but I think I’m out of time.  Other thoughts?

Timeless

This year marked the 40th anniversary of my museum’s biggest event of the year, Candlelight.  As part of the anniversary, we created a small exhibit and I researched the history of the event.  One thing that surprised me was how quickly the key elements of the event came together: buildings decorated by community groups, performances by community groups, and candlelit paths.  The core elements of the event are pretty much unchanged since 1972–which is pretty remarkable in this day and age.  And there aren’t many museum events anywhere that last for decades–events have a shelf life.  Audiences change, staff change, sometimes even missions change.  While finishing up this project, I realized that probably the biggest factor that’s led to the longevity of this event is the timelessness of Christmas.  People crave tradition this time of year.

We had a smaller event (the reading list and post about last year’s event) this past weekend which featured Christmas chapters from books set during the museum’s time period.  I read quite a few bits from the Little House books and Betsy-Tacy to guests.  For some little ones, it was their first introduction to Laura and Mary.  Many times during the day, I would read a passage, turn to the visitors and say “Does that sound familiar?”  And they would nod eagerly, their eyes round with wonder.  Though the concept of thinking a very good Christmas was a tin cup, a cake, a stick of candy and a penny is completely out of their realm of imagination, the worry about how Santa would find them is still a big concern for kids today.

Historically speaking, it amazes me how set some of our traditions have been for the past century or so.  Though variations of the legend of Saint Nicholas have been around for centuries, Clement C. Moore’s famous poem, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,”  wasn’t published until 1823.  And the visual we have of Santa in a red suit with belly and beard wasn’t firmed up until Thomas Nast drew a cartoon in 1863, smack dab in the middle of the Civil War.  (side note: Nast was more famous at the time for his political cartoons, which I find fascinating.  Early political cartoons and Santa, all in one artist!)  During the 19th century, there were enormous changes in how we celebrated Christmas (for more on this, check out Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas, which I wrote about last year).  But what struck me on this read-through of some old favorites is how these changes weren’t really thought of as new, but the way it’s always been.

Now, historical purists will remind me that the publication dates on these autobiographical novels don’t match the dates they were set, so it’s entirely possible that the attitudes about Christmas better reflect the 20th century than the 19th.  But let’s just ignore that for right now and see what we can find that’s stayed virtually unchanged over the past century and more.  I had thought about typing out some of these wonderful quote and passages for you, but decided that part of the fun is reading the whole chapter.  So, my gift to you is an excuse to pull out an old favorite!

Worry about Santa finding you?  Check out multiple volumes in the Little House series, including Little House on the Prairie (no snow!) and On the Banks of Plum Creek (no chimney!)

The joy of finding the perfect gift for someone?  Take a look at Anne of Green Gables (puffed sleeves!) or Roller Skates (Trinket’s first Christmas tree).

The worry of not being able to give all you want to?  Probably all of the Little House books and Little Women too (“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”)

The importance of stockings!  Again, Little House and also the later Betsy-Tacy books.

Hinting about something you want and not trusting your family to get it for you?  Why, you simply must read “The Brass Bowl” in Heaven to Betsy (possibly my favorite Christmas passage in the BT books.)

Food, glorious food?  Well, descriptions are all over the place, but Farmer Boy immediately leaps to mind.  The description of the feast almost takes up a whole page.

The fun of shopping, even if you don’t buy?  Why, go no further than Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, which also includes one of my favorite bits about the importance of believing in Santa, even if you are grown up.

I know I’m leaving out many Christmas classics.  What are some of your favorites?  These stories have so much in common, even if they were written decades ago.  And I think they’re going to last just fine into the future.  Even as time and technology hurries forward, some things, especially emotions don’t change much.

And now I must run to do a wee bit of last minute shopping myself.  Merry Christmas to you and yours.  And happy reading!

A New Year’s Wish

Historians, even cultural historians, don’t usually pay a lot of attention to children’s literature.  I learned this the hard way when I was working on my own (and only, so far!) article for a publication.  I searched high and low for someone else that had done something similiar–using an author’s work to see how change trickled down through society.  One of the review comments was that I needed to find more scholarly back-up for my premise.  They had no suggestions.  And the article was ultimately published without any more scholarly back-up.

The Battle for ChristmasSo, you’ll forgive me if I was a wee bit excited when Stephen Nissenbaum, in his book The Battle for Christmas mentions Little Women on multiple occasions.  The 19th century was a time of extraordinary change in the way we celebrate Christmas.  All those complaints we make now. . . too commerical, too much pressure with gifts, and where does the whole Christmas story figure into all of this. . . were first made in the 1830s.  There’s much, much more to the story, and if you’re interested, well, read the book!  Meanwhile, here’s how Little Women fits into things.

First, remember how Marmee gives each of the girls a different edition of the New Testament?  This was part of a much larger trend–there was a whole genre of books that were published soley to be gift books, starting in the 1820s.  By the 1840s, Bibles were also being published as gift books and there was much commentary about the array of choices.  Nissenbaum has this to say about Marmee’s gifts:  “The gift of these Bibles is an effective gesture of emotion intimacy . . . But at the same time they are part of a process by which Marmee is training her daughters to make informed decisions of their own in the confusing world of consumer preferences.”  Point 1 for kidlit history!

Niseenbaum spends one chapter discussing charity and Christmas, comparing everything from Tiny Tim to the Children’s Aid Society (this is the group that started the whole Orphan Train thing).  Nissenbaum uses Little Women again as an example of children learning the gift of charity at Christmas (think of them giving their Christmas breakfast away).   Apparently, by the late 19th century folks were becoming increasingly concerned about the excess of Christmas and hoping to teach children how to give to those less fortunate.  Nissenbaum writes “Beginning in about 1840, yet another kind of Christmas story began to appear.  This kind of story was about children who were already perfect in the Romantic sense, children who did not need to be taught a lesson about selflessness because they were utterly unselfish by nature.  At the very least, these children were willing, even eager, to sacrifice their own Christmas gifts to make other children (or even grown-up) happy.”  Sound familiar?  Point 2 for kidlit history!  

Of course, Alcott has a bit of an advantage over other children’s authors.  Between her famous father and being at the center of the Cocord intellectual circle, she’s bound to be on more historians’ radars.  But one of my wishes is to have such references, even brief references, be less of a novelty.  I would love to no longer get these thrills, but instead say “But of course!”

Christmas Classics

Though it’s not quite the holiday season yet, I’ve spent much of this morning reading Christmas scenes from various children’s books.  For Candlelight (the museum’s biggest event of the year), I decided to create a pre-visit lesson plan for teachers visiting in December.  And what better way to talk about how holidays have changed in the last 150 years than kidlit history?

As I was finishing up, I realized that some of you might be interested in the selections and discussion questions.  What favorite scenes am I missing?

 

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott  (set in the 1860s, during the Civil War)

Chapter 1: “Playing Pilgrims” and Chapter 2: “A Merry Christmas”

Times are tough during the war.  The four March daughters decide to spend their Christmas money not on themselves, but on gifts for their mother.  After they share their breakfast, they put on a play—and end up having a wonderful party through the generosity of their neighbor.

 Favorite Quote

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

 Discussion Questions

How did the Civil War affect their Christmas?

What kinds of gifts do the sisters want for themselves?

What kind of surprises happen on Christmas?  How do their plans change?

Was it a Christmas without any presents?

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder  (Set in the 1870s.)

“Mr. Edwards Meets Santa Claus”

Mary and Laura are worried that Santa Claus will be unable to reach them, since there is no snow and they live so far from other families.  Ma and Pa are worried because they are unable to get Christmas presents.  But Mr. Edwards saves the day!

 Favorite Quote

“They had never even thought of such a thing as having a penny.  Think of having a whole penny for your very own.  Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny.  There had never been such a Christmas.”  p. 250

Discussion Questions

Why is the Ingalls family worried about Christmas?

 How is Santa Claus described?  Is it different than the way we describe Santa Claus today?

 What were the presents that Mary and Laura received?

More Adventures of the Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald (set in the 1890s)

Chapter 1: “The Night the Monster Walked”

Tom Fitzgerald, aka The Great Brain, has reformed and is no longer tricking his friends out of items.  But in the aftermath of Christmas, he’s up to his old tricks.

 Favorite Quote

“It was the first Christmas parents bought presents for their sons, believing my brother wouldn’t try to connive their kids out of them.”  p. 2

 Discussion Questions

Have you ever tried to be a better kid to get what you wanted for Christmas?

 What reasoning does Tom give for his bet with Parley?  What do you think the real reason?

 What do you think of the reaction of the town to the tracks of the “monster”?

 Do you think Tom and John’s punishment was appropriate?

Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace (set in the 1900s)

Chapter 10: “Christmas Shopping” and Chapter 11: “Mrs. Poppy’s Party”

Every year, Betsy and Tacy go shopping and this year, they bring a new friend along.  Christmas celebrations last longer this year, with the addition of Mrs. Poppy’s party.

 Favorite Quote

“You see,” Betsy explained to Winona when they invited her, “we usually make our Christmas presents, or else our mothers buy them for us. . . the ones we give away, I mean.”

“Then why do you go shopping?” Winona asked.

“We go shopping to shop,” said Tacy.

 Discussion Questions

What kind of stores do the girls visit?

 Why do the girls choose to buy an ornament every year?

 How does the Ray family celebrate Christmas?

 How do they continue celebrating at Mrs. Poppy’s?

 Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer  (set around 1900 in New York City)

Chapter 6: “Born is the King of Israel”

Lucinda decides to plan a special holiday surprise for her friend, Trinket.  She takes odd jobs around the   neighborhood to earn money for presents.  And all her friends join them for a party—and Trinket’s very first Christmas tree.

 Favorite Quote

 “It’s the nicest tree I ever had, and it will be Trinket’s onliest up to now.  I do hope you’re as excited about it as I am, Miss Nettie.”  Lucinda spread sugary fingers about Miss Nettie’s neck and said something that surprised them both: “I do love you, Miss Nettie.”  p. 112.

Discussion Questions

How do Lucinda’s neighbors help her in throwing the Christmas party?

How is the Christmas tree decorated?

What kind of traditions does Lucinda have to celebrate?  How are some of those shaped by where she lives?

Why do you think this was such a memorable Christmas for everyone?

General Discussion Questions

Of the traditions mentioned in these stories, what traditions do you also use to celebrate?

 How are some of these Christmases from the past different from your Christmas?

If you read more than one selection, what do these celebrations have in common?  How are they different?  What are some reasons for these differences?

If you could pick one Christmas to celebrate with some of the characters mentioned above, which would it be?

Ordinary things

Last week, I finished American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work by Susan Cheever.  It’s an odd little book, full of lots of literary gossip and fluff and not much substance.  But towards the end, there’s this passage:

“Reading Little Women again, now, I can see how profoundly the book influenced me–as a woman, but even more than that as writer.  Without intending to, Louisa May Alcott invented a new way to write about the ordinary lives of women, and to tell stories that are usually heard in kitchens or bedrooms.  She made literature out of the kind of conversations women have while doing the dishes together or taking care of their children.  It was in Little Women that I learned that domestic details can be the subject of art, that small things in a woman’s life–cooking, the trimming of a dress or hat, quiet talk–can be just as important a subject as a great whale or scarlet letter.  Little Women gave my generation of women permission to write about our daily lives; in many ways, even though it’s a novel, in tone an dvoice it is the percursor of the modern memoir–the book that gives voice to people who have traditionally kept quiet.  In fact, the foundation of the American memoir can be found in Alcott’s masterpiece and in that of her friend Henry David Thoreau.  Alcott’s greatest work was so powerful because it was about ordinary things–I think that’s why it felt so ordinary even as she wrote it.  She transformed the lives of women into something worthy of literature.  Without even meaning to, Alcott exaulted the everyday in women’s lives and gave it greatness.”  p. 191-192

Little Women has been a part of my life for a very long time.  I think I first read it around the age of 8 (post Little House, but probably pre-Anne).  I only made it through the first half.  Once Meg got married, I decided it was icky with all that romantic stuff and stopped reading.  A few years later, I picked it up again and it was no longer icky.

I think I’ve always known it was an important book, and my admiration for Alcott and her work has only grown in recent years.  But I don’t think I’ve ever thought of this book as the forerunner for my favorite genre of fiction.  Because when I’m not reading kidlit, I’m usually reading fiction about women and their lives.  The books published by Persephone leap to mind, along with a lot of others.

But it does make me wonder: without Alcott, would there have been a Lovelace or Wilder or Taylor or Enright?  What do you think?

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?

Christmas won’t be Christmas. . .

This Christmas will be quite a bit smaller than usual.  Of course, with the economy still in the doldrums, I don’t think I’m alone in this.  But it’s not like things are quite to the point of Jo’s moan: “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents!”

Looking back at kidlit history, there are plenty of bleak Christmases–or Christmases that would certianly be bleak by modern standards.  Marmee has encouraged her children to not buy presents because “it is going to be a hard winter for everyone; and she thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army.”  Of course, it being Little Women,  after their initial conversations about spending money on themselves, they decide to buy gifts for Marmee.  And then they sacrifice further by giving up their breakfast.  I do not think I am quite this good.  They are rewarded, of course, for their goodness with an evening feast from Mr. Laurence.  After all, this is Little Women.

I’ve always been interested in when traditions get started and how quickly they take hold for the vast majority.  Though children’s literature isn’t perhaps the best way to judge these transitions, it is one way to trace their paths into our daily lives.  Little Women was published in 1868.  Two classic Christmas traditions are casually mentioned–stockings (mainly, that they weren’t hanging up them up that year) and Santa Claus (a possible culprit for the Christmas feast?).

Based on some quick research, it appears that the stocking tradition came to America through European immigrants.  The stocking story is part of the myth of St. Nicholas.  Clement C. Moore first publshed A Visit From S.t Nicholas back in 1823–so stockings were certainly being hung by the chimney with care in at least a few American homes.  This poem, and later the work of cartoonist Thomas Nast, helped cement our ideas about St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus.

The Santa Claus refeFile:Santa Claus 1863 Harpers.pngrence confused me a bit more.  For the holiday event at the Village, kids meet St. Nicholas, in part because that particular name was more common in the 19th century.  So what’s Santa doing in Little Women in 1868?  Nast first drew the image that we now recognize as Santa–plump and bearded–in 1863.  

In the coming years, he refined that image.    My guess is that the 1860s were indeed a time of transition from St. Nicholas to Santa Claus.  I do wonder what picture was in the girls’ head when they gave credit to Santa.  Was he in red or green?  Tall and skinny or short and plump?  Perhaps being on the East Coast made that transition faster for Alcott.

What other Christmas traditions have you noticed in your reading?  Have any of them surprised you?

Pilgrimages

This afternoon, whilIMG_2116e attempting to be domestic, I caught up with one of my favorite NPR programs, This American Life.  A few weeks ago, they aired a new episode called “The Book That Changed Your Life.”  How could I not listen?  The entire show was fantastic, but I was particularly intrigued by Act 4: Little Sod Houses for You and Me.  A longtime fan of the Little House books travels to De Smet for the first time.  She interviews locals, tours the homesites, and attends the annual pagent.  It was a vacation that sounds quite a bit like the type of vacation I take on a semi-regular basis.

And then I realized–one of the best parts of being a fan of kidlit history–these books that are based on the author’s life–is that you can see the “real” places.  It’s a very special way of connecting with fiction.  How much easier is it to picture Laura on the prairie after you yourself have been on the prairie?  How do Betsy and Tacy’s dinner on the bench change when you realize they had the best seat in the entire neighborhood?  How do Montgomery’s descriptions of the colors of PEI change when you’ve also seen the red roads and blue sea?  

When I was a kid, I begged and begged and begged to go to Prince Edward Island.  The love Montgomery has for this Island comes through so strongly in the books, I had to see what all the fuss was about.  There were multiple conversations about how to make the trip work, but PEI is a very long way from Texas.   My college graduation trip was to Boston, and we even tried to make it work from there, but it was still just too far.  But this did allow me to have one of my first real literary pilgrimages–we headed to Concord.  I dipped my feet in Walden Pond.  And Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women at a very tiny desk, was at the very top of my list of must-sees. 

Orchard House has a unique challenge when it comes to literary pilgrims–though Alcott set her classic at Orchard House, Beth died before the Alcott family ever moved in.  And for those that only know the fiction and not the history, it can come as a bit of a shock.  The tour guides do a wonderful job of pointing out the things that are “just like the book” and where history and fiction diverge.  I’ve been back one other time to Concord and toured Orchard House yet again.  The Alcotts are such an interesting family, and I’m glad that the site hasn’t fallen into the trap of being all Little Women all the time. 

The next summer, I found myself on Prince Edward Island with one of my dearest friends.  I had submitted a paper to a Montgomery conference, and it was accepted.  When we finally crossed the bridge from Nova Scotia to Prince Edward Island (and I do mean finally–the trip did not have a smooth beginning!), chills ran up and down my spine.  We did all the expected Anne things–toured Green Gables (which felt odd–and far too commercial), saw the musical (can’t really recommend it), drank raspberry cordial.  But my favorite part of the trip was just driving the tiny country roads, walking along the ocean, and also seeing the Homestead.  The house where Montgomery grew up is no longer standing–all that’s left is the foundation.  And the views and the paths and the land where Montgomery became a writer.  This was my favorite spot on the Anne pilgrimage, and it was the spot where I felt closest to Montgomery’s stories.

Last summer, I headed to Mankato, Minnesota with a few hundred other fans to do all things Betsy-Tacy.  There were more than a few folks who got misty-eyed at seeing Betsy and Tacy’s house for the first time.  After all, these are places we’ve read about for years and there they are–three-dimensional and real and beautiful.  And they may not be quite what we pictured in our heads, but there’s a magic about seeing this place you’ve read about.  For the most moving spot was not Betsy’s house, but the Carnegie Library.  This was the spot where she really began growing up — she explored the world through the books in that library.  And walking up those stairs, just as Maud/Betsy did so many times, was extraordinary.

A few friends and I took a side trip to Walnut Grove.  Not much of Laura’s is left, but again, we had the land.  I waded in Plum Creek and looked out at the prairie.  Suddenly, it made much more sense that baby Grace got lost on the prairie–Texas prairie and Minnesota prairie are very, very different.  And I thought about those people, such as the Breswters, who could not be happy in such emptiness.

These literary pilgrimages will always be a part of my travel agendas.  In museum classes, we often talk about how important and special the “real thing” is.  How unexpectedly moving certain objects can be–such as Lincoln’s hat or George Washington’s desk or a slave’s shackles or Eleanor Roosevelt’s knitting needles (an object that moved me to tears once).  This conversation usually occurs while we’re talking about the future of museums–how the internet cannot replace the emotions that come with being in the same place with these truly special artifacts.  And I think these literary sites are a lot like that.  We’ve read about them and taken these characters into our hearts.  So to walk the same halls that these writers and their inspirations walked is a truly unforgettable experiences.  And so for those frew friends that thought I was beyond weird to be so excited about visiting Mankato or Concord or Cavendish or Walnut Grove, I say “perhaps it’s time you met my other friends, Betsy, Jo, Anne and Laura.”

What literary pilgrimages have you been on?  And where are you wanting to go?

Note:

Preserving these literary historic sites is not easy or cheap.  The following non-profits are doing all they can so we can continue to visit these magical sites.  If you’re a fan of any of these books, please consider supporting them:

Betsy-Tacy Society

Orchard House

Laura Ingalls Wilder Home (the Mansfield site–there are many Little House related sites, so I picked one)

L. M. Montgomery Institute (again, there are many Montgomery related sites on PEI, but the Institute is the center of scholarship)