When bedtime stories and headlines collide

3343248It’s not often that I get the pleasure of reading books aloud to little ones.  The local nephews are either way too big (18 years old!) or way too little (7 months old).  There are no local nieces.  But, I am an occasional babysitter for two delightful little girls in the neighborhood that love to read.  We have continued to work our way through the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace, and we just wrapped up Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill.  They totally understood Julia and Katie’s big fight and felt like finding out who would be Queen of Summer was quite the agonizing cliff-hanger.  They were fascinated by Little Syria–the food, the language, the clothes.  But as I read, I kept thinking about the current war in Syria.  I was almost afraid that the dark headlines and stories of recent weeks had somehow fluttered downward into their heads and they would put two and two together.  Even though they’re young, they’re smart girls.  It was in the realm of possibility.  If they asked about how Little Syria of 1900 Deep Valley was connected to Syria today, what would I say?

For those that haven’t read BTGOBH, Little Syria is a part of Deep Valley that is just a little bit separate from the rest of the community.  The girls first meet Naifi, an immigrant about their age, during one of their famous picnics on the Big Hill.  They don’t share a language, but they do end up sharing laughter and snacks.  Later, Naifi is teased by some boys, and they rush to her defense.  And then they visit Little Syria.  Because of the way they had helped Naifi, they instantly make friends.  Naifi’s father invites the girls to their home.

They are fascinated by this different way of living.  A hubble-bubble pipe, a muinjaira, a different language, kibbee, raisins,  and figs. (food is always important in the Betsy-Tacy books).  Naifi’s father hesitates about their desire to be queens, saying “I do not think that queens are good to have.”

When the truth comes out about their trip to Little Syria, the fight deepens.  The girls are in trouble–not because they went to Little Syria, but because they didn’t have permission.  Mr. Ray, the ever-wise and patient father, shares with his girls a bit about the history of Syria:

Mr. Meecham and I started to talk about his neighbors.  He’s interested in them, and no wonder.  They come from a very interesting country.  You can read about their county in the Bible.  The Deep Valley Syrians are Christians, but most Syrians are Mohammedans.  Syria is under the control of the Turks, and the Turks are Mohammedans too.  A good many of the Christian Syrians are coming to America these days.  And they come for much of the same reason that our Pilgrim fathers came.  They want to be free from oppression and religious persecution.  We ought to honor them for it.

In some ways, not much has changed.  Though now it is two Muslim factions fighting, it is still a war about religion.  Syrians are again fleeing their country.    I often get tired of that over-used saying about how we must learn history or we are doomed to repeat it.  We repeat past mistakes all the darn time, and we never learn.  If anything, history gives a greater depth to the present.  Reading this passage made my heart ache for this ancient country.

Though I try to follow world news, I am certainly no expert on the ins and outs of the civil war in Syria.  And I’ll admit that I had kinda ignored the Syrian crisis.  But after re-reading BTGOBH again, I started paying more attention.  Thinking of Naifi and her family gave a face to the thousands that are fighting to survive right now.  This week, as I listened to stories on NPR about the recent declaration that this is, in fact, a civil war, I kept thinking about the immigrants of 100 years ago and the conflicts that brought them here.  Where might a Little Syria pop up today?  And would their neighbors be as excited and welcoming as Betsy, Tacy and Tib?

My girls didn’t make the connection between the headlines and their bedtime story.  And I’m still not exactly sure what I would have said if they asked.  Because I certainly don’t understand.

Evangelism

My poor, neglected blog.  I knew it had been a long time, but I hadn’t realized it had been over two months.  Sheesh!  And it’s not like I’ve quite dropped off the face of the earth or stopped reading–just the usual very busy fall.  So what brings me back, finally, to this little corner of the internet?  An old favorite, of course.

This summer, I met two very special little girls and became their occasional babysitter.  They live in the neighborhood, are an absolute hoot, and plus, it’s a wee bit of extra money for the trip to Hawaii (yes, part of my absence was spent in Hawaii) and some major house projects.  As soon as I met Grace (age 9) and Sophie (age 7), I knew that these kids were ripe for my influence–there were books all over their house, and Sophie has one heck of an imagination.  I knew right away that these girls needed to meet Betsy and Tacy.  And about a million other of my favorites too–right now, there’s a wee bit too much Disney Fairy stuff in their life.

Now, I’ve been a book evangelist for the kids in my life for years.  I give books as gifts, cross my fingers, and hope for the best.  Rarely do I hear anything, though I’m always thrilled when I do.  I’ve had some pretty good success with nephew Bobby (we had a very memorable text conversation after he finally read Hunger Games), but never, ever with any of my favorites.  The closest was when I gave Katie a copy of Anne last year–she took it to dinner with her but was too distracted by the Bob Armstrong dip to actually start reading it.  But hey–a kid that takes books to dinner–that’s my kind of kid.

The first time I babysat Grace and Sophie, I brought Betsy-Tacy with me.  I knew that they had reading time (specifically, read aloud time) before bed and very carefully introduced my book.  Right away, they seemed intrigued, closely examining the pictures and asking questions.  And each time I came back, they made sure I had brought the book and we read a few more chapters.

I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten to share one of my favorites like this before.  It is pure magic.  They’re listening so hard and get so wrapped up in the story.  My favorite moment with them was when we read the Easter Egg chapter, the chapter in which Baby Bee dies.  I was a little nervous about this bit, mainly because I wasn’t sure how much their parents had talked to them about death and dying.  When we got to the line “She didn’t come over the next day, nor the next, for Baby Bee died.” Sophie gasped.  Like really gasped with the whole wide-eyed shocked expression on her face.  We stopped for a minute to talk about how there weren’t as many good medicines back then, so sometimes people died.  And then we got to the part where Betsy explains to Tacy: “But she gets all the news. . . Do you know how she gets it?  Why, from the birds.  They fly up there and tell her how you are and what you’re all doing down at your house.”  At this point, ever practical and literal Grace says “That’s not how it is at all.”  I almost burst out laughing, but managed to keep a straight face.

The last time I watched the girls happened to be Sophie’s 7th birthday.  I wanted to get her a little something, so picked up a clothespin doll from our museum store.  Sophie was completely enraptured with the little brown-haired doll and said (at absolutely no prompting from me!): “It’s Betsy!”  That wasn’t at all my intention when I gave it to her, I swear!  After all, this is a grown-up doll, not a little girl doll.  But she played with Betsy all night and has requested a red-headed doll.  And that night, they chose to read an extra chapter of Betsy, rather than have some time to read their own books.  My work here is done.  Though the next time I come over, I’m thinking about making sand jars, and that will probably really send them over the top.

The Betsy-Tacy Treasury: The First Four Betsy-Tacy Books (P.S.) CoverFor Christmas, guess what these little girls are getting?  Why, the new Betsy-Tacy Treasury, of course!  Isn’t it awfully nice of Harper Collins to publish this right when I have such good little converts?  They’re going to eat up all the extra information and photos and biographies with a spoon.

Have you been able to successfully share some of your kidlit history favorites?  Any great stories?

Head and Heart

College was never really a question for me.  I was one of the “smart” kids, and my parents had gone to college.  Somehow, it wasn’t until I got to college and was knee deep in a women’s history class that I realized that this whole higher education for women was all relatively recent.

Again, I can probably blame some of the books I read as a kid.  Higher education was never really a question for Anne Shirley–after all, with the stigma of being an orphan, she had to have a way to make her way in the world just in case a husband wasn’t in her future.  Though Laura Ingalls doesn’t head to college, her sister Mary does go away to school.  And as a teacher, Laura certainly kept learning.  And so many of the books I love end before the main characters are college-aged, so it just wasn’t an issue.

Carney's House Party/Winona's Pony Cart: Deep Valley Books (P.S.)I didn’t discover Carney Sibley until I was an adult, but I instantly loved the depiction of college life in Carney’s House Party.  Like the other “teenage and older,” Maud Hart Lovelace books, this one has also been reissued in a lovely package.  It includes an introduction by Melissa Wiley, best known for her prequels to the Little House books.  There are other reasons to love Carney–infinitely practical, she falls head over heels for a man that is wrong on paper but is totally right.  More than anything, this book is a romance.  But I’m not here to talk about romance.

Carney is an unusual girl for her time.  Unlike her classmates from Deep Valley High, she goes away for college–all the way to New England and Vassar College.  Among her classmates at Vassar, she’s unique in being “midwestern.”  Not a lot of families were willing to invest that kind of money in their daughter’s education.  Let’s give Carney a bit of context.

Oberlin College was basically the first college in the country to admit women–admitting 4 in 1837.  Vassar itself was founded in 1861, the second of the Seven Sisters (first was Mount Holyoke also in 1837 and last was Barnard in 1889).  But just because these colleges existed didn’t mean that the general public accepted higher education for women. . .

By the 1880s, more and more women were continuing with their education–and more and more women were struggling to figure out what to do with that knowledge.  Jane Addams has a wonderful passage in her memoir, Twenty Years at Hull House, that describes her frustration at having nothing to do–which ultimately led her to found Hull House and offer careers in social work to other educated women.

Around the turn of the century, active efforts began to dissuade women from pursuing higher education, especially alongside men..  The following is taken from the National Women’s History Museum online exhibit, “The History of Women and Education,” which I highly recommend if you want to find out more about this topic.  In the 19th century, many folks worried about the following:

  1. Women would suffer nervous breakdowns if they were to compete in a man’s world.
  2. They would be corrupted and lose their purity.
  3. Their reproductive systems may be harmed.
  4. A learned woman might be an unfit mother and wife.
  5. Education would masculinize women. 
  6. If men and women associated together in college they may begin to find each other less attractive.

Dr. Edward Clarke stated, “A woman’s body could only handle a limited number of developmental tasks at one time – that girls who spent to much energy developing their minds during puberty would end up with undeveloped or diseased reproductive systems”

So where does Carney fit in all of this?  Right smack dab in the middle!  In the midst of the house party, with all of its fun, Betsy reads an article from the Ladies Home Journal, one of the leading women’s magazines of the era.

“Here’s just what we want, an article on women’s colleges.”

It was written by a parent, and he didn’t like women’s colleges any too well.  “Our daughter has come back to us mentally broadened, but somehow we feel a loss in emotional qualities.  The head of the girl has been trained without the heart.”

“What nonsense!” Carney interrupted.  “You don’t go to college to get your heart trained.”

As she falls in love with Sam, it becomes clear that he wants her to continue school, because it will make her be a better wife and mother–another common belief at the time.  And maybe it does.  But at the same time, this modern feminist is a wee bit irked that Sam wants her to graduate, but there’s not much mention of Carney’s desires.

Right now, I’m reading Sister of the Bride by Beverly Cleary.  Set in the early 1960s, there are moments where I feel like I’m back in the 1910s with Carney.  Greg wants Rosemary to finish school.  Greg wants Rosemary to get good grades.  But what does Rosemary want?

For many of us, these kinds of thoughts and reactions and reasoning seems quaint and old-fashioned.  Of course women can learn alongside men!  Of course women should go to collge (in fact, for the first time, there are more women graduating from college than men).  And yet, it’s still awfully complicated.  How do you balance career and family?  This isn’t something I’ve personally had to struggle with yet, but I do wonder how I’ll balance career and kids when the time comes.

So, the conversation they had on  Carney’s porch really wasn’t that long ago.  And in some ways, we’re still having that conversation.  Here’s to Maud Hart Lovelace of reminding us where we fit in the scheme of things.

A Tale of Two Emilys

It’s gotta be tough having a star for a sister.  You know you’re special, but how do you get your chance to shine?   If in some alternate universe, all of an author’s creations were to meet, would Emily Starr get in a cat fight with Anne Shirley?  Would Emily Webster be jealous of Betsy Ray?

I’ve always found it somewhat ironic that when discussing either the Anne series or the Betsy-Tacy series, someone will periodically sigh and say “I really like Anne (or Betsy), but Emily speaks to me in such a different way.  I adore her.”  What are the odds that these much-beloved but not quite as famous characters just happen to share the same name?  But this sentiment, though spoken often, is usually spoken quietly.  It’s not quite sacrilege, but there’s this underlying feeling that we’re supposed to like the big name, the name that made the author famous, more.  But  somehow, there’s a passion for these two very different and yet very similiar Emilys.

Emily of Deep Valley: A Deep Valley BookIn celebration of the recent re-issue of Emily of Deep Valley, an event that has been heralded throughout the land, I present to you: A Tale of Two Emilys.  These wonderful characters have so much in common, yet both are often ignored in favor of the bigger star of Anne or Betsy.  I read these two books back to back, knowing that these two characters had some similiarities, but hadn’t realized how much they truly had in common.  Basically, if you love one Emily, you’ll probably love the other too.

Emily of New MoonBoth Emily’s are orphans, though they’re not orphans like Anne Shirley.  They live with family, even though that family doesn’t always understand them.  Aunt Elizabeth doesn’t get Emily’s sense of humor or her need to write.  Grandpa Webster doesn’t understand Emily’s desire for college.  But Emily Starr contiues to write, and Emily Webster continues to learn.  Lovelace wrote about Grandpa Webster and Emily:

He looked up quickly.  “Your last day of school?”

“Yes, and not just for this year.  I’m graduating.  Do you remember, Grandpa?

“That’s right,” he answered in a pleased tone.  “You told me you were.  Now you’ll be at home all the time.”

Emily was silent.

“I wouldn’t let you stop until you finished high school,” said the old man, sounding proud.  “Would I, Emmy?”

Both girls have slow, shy smiles.  Emily Starr finds her first real friend in Rhoda Stuart, only to be dumped as soon as someone more interesting came along.  But then Emily finds her true friends–Ilse, Perry and Teddy.  Emily Webster never quite fit in with her cousin Annette and her crowd and is even more out of the loop once they head off to college.  But then she makes friends throughout her community–friends in Gwen Fowler, Yusif and Kalil, and of course, Jed Wakeman.  Can I digress just a moment to let you know how dreamy I find Mr. Jed?  Yep, of all the love interests created by Lovelace, he just might be my favorite.  Double sigh.

Both girls make the best of their situation.  Emily Starr finds the scraps of paper to write and write and write.  She doesn’t let herself be cowed by Aunt Elizabeth (sometimes I wish I had a “Murray look” of my own!).  Emily puts up her hair and begins to fill her time with things that interest her–dancing lessons and piano lessons and the Browning club and the Wrestling Champs and English lessons for the Syrian women. 

Both girls live in a home full of old-fashioned traditions–traditions that they love, even though they both acknowledge that other people may not understand.  New Moon still burns candles; the little house on the slough is decorated just as Emily’s grandmother left it.  And though neither girl really resents these traditions at the beginning of the novel, they embrace by the end in a way they hadn’t before.  Montgomery wrote:

“I suppose you’ll not like candles very well, Emily, after being used to lamps at Wyther Grange,” said Aunt Laura with a little sigh. . .

Emily looked around her thoughtfully.  One candle sputtered and bobbed at her as if greeting her.  One, with a long wick, glowed and smouldered like a sulky little demon.  One had a tiny flame–a sly, meditative candle.  One swayed with a queer fiery grace in the draught from the door.  One burned with a steady upright flame like a faithful soul.

“I–don’t know–Aunt Laura,” she answered slowly.  “You can be–friends–with candles.  I believe I like the candles best after all.”

Aunt Elizabeth, coming in from the cook-house, heard her.  Something like pleasure gleamed in her gulf-blue eyes.

“You have some sense in you,” she said.

I really, really adore both of these books.  It’s been a while since I’ve reread either of them, and their magic just washed over me.  Montgomery has this richness in language that some people might call “purple” but it feels like home to me.  But there are such pointed insights into people and emotions and the world around us that it can take my breath away–and most importantly, makes me stay up far too late reading.  Sometimes the observations seem so obvious, but no one has laid them out in quite the way that Montgomery does.  For instance, chapter 21 “Romantic but not Comfortable” opens like this:

A certain thing happened at New Moon because Teddy Kent paid Ilse Burnly a compliment one day and Emily Starr didn’t altogether like it.  Empires have been overturned for the same reason.

Lovelace doesn’t use as many words as Montgomery, but her observations are no less sharp.  I just love this exchange between Emily and Grandpa Webster:

“Emmy,” he asked.  “Is Jed courting you?” . . .

“Why, Grandpa!” Emily cried.  “What makes you say a thing like that?’

“Well,” he answered defiantly, “it looks that way to me.  It’s flowers, flowers, flowers!  And candy, candy, candy!  And books!  And shows!  And picture of Abraham Lincoln for me, although he’s a rebel and he admits it.  By Jingo, I know courting when I see it!  I went couring once myself.”

Both of these books are deeply satisfying.  And the new edition of Emily of Deep Valley is even more satisfying.    Included is a bit of background on the woman, Maguerite Marsh, on whom Emily is loosely based and a too short biography of Vera Neville.  Mitali Perkins wrote an amazing foreword, one that I’m not ashamed to admit made me tear up a bit.  It’s one of those essays that speaks eloquently to the power of the right book at the right time.

And maybe that’s what’s most important about Emily Starr and Webster.  For so many girls, these books have been the right book at the right time.  As Mitali wrote in her foreward “Yes, Emily has many likeable character traits, but unlike Betsy, she isn’t best friend material at all.  Why not, you might be wondering?  Well, because Emily is me.”

Beyond the frontier

At my museum, we get a lot of school tours.  Sometimes, we even get survey responses or comments or samples of the lesson plans teachers use to prep for the field trip.  Generally speaking, this makes me very, very happy.  And generally speaking, I’m amazed to see how creative teachers are in connecting their textbooks (usually somewhat boring and dry) with our village (hopefully, less boring.  Definitely louder).  Except for one thing.

Over and over again, teachers say “This museum is exactly like Little House on the Prairie.”  Or “This perfectly complements our unit on Little House on the Prairie.”  Now, don’t get me wrong–I love Little House.  Heck, these were the books my tiny young history loving brain was weaned on.  However, we have over 30 buildings at my museum.  Only a few of them can be connected to that pioneer time period.  So, does this mean that the kids aren’t connecting at all to the majority of our buildings?  Can they only think about history in the frontier/pioneer context?

Of course, I understand that many of the readers of this blog (whoever they may be) do not live in North Texas, will probably never visit my museum, and are wondering why I’m jumping on this particular soap box today.  But my frustration really speaks to a much larger issue in kidlit history–there seem to be a plethora of pioneer/frontier books out there, whether you’re looking at non-fiction, historical fiction or kidlit history (for visitors of the blog, here as part of the “Share a Story, Shape a Future” blog tour, check out my definition of kidlit history here).  This is not a bad thing–after all, it’s an important part of our American story, of how we became the great and crazy nation that we are today.  But some kids perhaps wonder: what happens after the frontier is settled?  How does a frontier town (like Dallas was) become a city?  What happens next?

And perhaps teachers wonder too.  But Little House really seems to have a lock on the historical fiction based on a “true story” category for kid readers or as a potential choice for classroom units.  But today, I’d like to suggest three other series that share some of those wonderful qualities that Little House has for so many readers: the details, the great characters, and the fact that all of this “really happened.”

Recommendation #1:  The Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. 

I admit it, I talk about these books a lot on this blog.  Heck, these books are part of the reason I began writing this blog.  But I will continue to beat this drum until Laura Ingalls Wilder and Maud Hart Lovelace are in the same sentence on a regular basis.  These books also chronicle a girl growing up, from the time Betsy turns five and finds a best friend to graduating in 1910 to marrying in 1914 to sending her husband off to World War I.  Betsy is such a real character–I didn’t discover her until I was in my 20s, but when I did I had flashbacks to when I was 10 and 14 and. . . Well, you get the idea.  But from a history perspective, there are still all the great period details–playing with paper dolls, going to the Carnegie Library for the first time, the first car in Deep Valley, political talk (Teddy Roosevelt!), women’s suffrage, World War I.  The high school and beyond books, recently reissued, even include some great background material including tons of photos.  And the younger books have all sorts of ideas for fun classroom projects, as well as that taste of what life was like over 100 years ago.  Plus, these books are just plain fun.  Betsy is just a generation younger than Laura, but her life is so different.  Her family is settled, physically and financially more comfortable, and Betsy really doesn’t do a lot of chores.  Yet, Betsy lives in one of the same states that Laura spent part of her childhood–Minnesota.  What a great way to compare and contrast what a difference a few things (like the railroad) can make to a person’s every day life.

119247Recommendation #2: The Great Brain Series by John D. Fitzgerald

I have a sneaking suspicion that these are even less well known than the Betsy-Tacy books.  Which is even more of a crying shame since they feature boys–a gender that is definitely lacking thus far on my kidlit history timeline.  Set in late 1890s Utah, these books are funny.  J.D.’s older brother, The Great Brain, is constantly swindling every kid in town.  And yet, they still fall for all his tricks.  Again, there are still period details–an indoor bathroom!  the spiffy toys! the wonders of the Z.C.M.I. store!  Every now and then, The Great Brain’s antics will make you twitch, but you gotta love his parents.  They seem to do a lot of sighing.  These boys are just a few years older than Betsy, so there’s a lot of fun similarities.  Though I can’t quite imagine Betsy pulling off a monster hoax. . .

Recommendation #3:  All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor

There are scenes from this book that you’ll never forget: dusting for buttons!  eating crackers in bed!  the books in the storeroom!  I don’t know how many times I read this book as a kid, but whenever I reread it, I feel like I’m cuddling up in a cozy blanket.  Plus, in addition to all the great period details of life in New York just after the turn of the century, you’ll also learn about Judaism.  The only book that makes me hungrier than All-of-a-Kind Family is Farmer Boy.  There are still a tons of things to talk about history wise, but it’s such a different life than what Laura had.  Much of this is due to the sheer size of New York–which could lead to a great conversation about urban versus rural.  Opportunities and/or technology had a lot to do with where you lived, not when you lived.  For instance, electricity and running water were not uncommon at the turn of the century, but if you lived in a rural area, you might not get electricity until the 1930s.  Or, to use the Great Brain books as an example, public school only went through the sixth grade in his town–high school meant boarding school.  And yet, they’re practically the same age as Betsy, who went to a high school just down the street.

Though these books take place years after the Little House books, time-line wise, the difference is just the blink of an eye.  A generation, really.  And think how different these growing up stories are.  These are all stories of our American past.  There’s so much beyond the frontier.  Honestly, I’ve always been more interested in the stories of that middle, building period.  It takes a lot of courage to head out into uncharted territory, but it takes a lot of courage to stay and build too.  These are just a few of my favorites–I know there are many more to explore, and I’m looking forward to continuing the journey.

This post is part of a larger blog tour: Share a Story, Shape a Future, specifically Day 3: Just the Facts: The Non-fiction Book Hook.  To continue your tour, click here.

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. . .

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 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. . . )

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)