Friday, October 8, 2010

How Betsy, Tacy, and Tib Taught Me to Read

Betsy-Tacy (Betsy-Tacy Books)Recently, I had the chance to relate one of those stories that only works written down. In my application essay for the Denver Publishing Institute, I told part of one about being, I don't know, four or five years old and seeing a sign, and telling myself that I could read that sign, and therefore, I could read anything.

This is an example of an unreliable narrator.

I'd been reading for years at that point, but the words sounded so good in my head (internal monologue!). It was dramatic.

When I was small, I: I really don't know much about bookstores when I was small. We had a Waldenbooks in town, the only bookstore I knew of within at least an hour's drive. Sometimes, a trip to Seattle would mean that I'd see something like a B. Dalton. I longed for a $20 gift certificate to buy books with, and I longed to have that much money for a rare trip to Portland, where Powell's was lots of bookstores and so many books it hurt my head.

Today, I buy most of the books I read. Another chunk I pick up as advance copies. A few are borrowed from friends. I'm thankful that I have these options, because I like to keep the ones I like best (though I absolutely hate moving hundreds of books when I change residences and keeping up with the dusting). I keep a lot of books for reference reasons and to make reading lists with, and for some books--maybe evidenced by the pickup in advance copies from summer 2008 that I've been reading and reviewing lately--I need to be roommates with a book for a while before it draws me in.

When I was little, my main source of books was a Carnegie library. I checked out books by the shelf, practically. I wanted to read everything in the children's room. I didn't quite get there, of course, and my plan was rumpled by a library remodel during my tween years, after which time all of the books were in a big room on one floor. I sometimes ask people what they think (reading) life would have been like if YA lit had been such a strong category in those times that start stretching backward about a decade ago. My library had a teen section after the remodel, but its contents were nothing like what's on offer today. The other big, big question is this: what would my life have been like if I hadn't had to dig into everything else?

I read some truly fantastic books. Some truly fantastic older books. I know that if I looked at them today, I might see their flaws and problems, and some of my old favorites now sit in an uncomfortable space between nostalgia and embarrassment. I can't remember anything else interesting about a book in which a witch's spell is saying the alphabet backwards, but I can still recite it that way in under three seconds. I read some book about a girl who figured out how to kiss her own elbow and thus learned to fly, and another about a girl with silver eyes. I read all about Cherry Ames's adventures in nursing. I read about Laura Ingalls and living next to Plum Creek. I read about Baby Island and islands where a Swiss Family might live.

One series, in particular, was about Betsy, Tacy, and (sometimes) Tib. They lived in Minnesota in the early 1900s. They started as playmates, finding their way to a bench at the top of a hill, putting on shows, singing and dancing. Best of all, best of all, they grew up. Each book was a new year, new adventures. The reading level and thematic depth increased, matching the characters' growth.

Maud Hart Lovelace's books were dusty and creaky when I first found them on the bottom shelf in the far corner of the library, but I read them again and again. The last time I read them through from beginning to end, I was in high school, and I didn't have much hope of ever owning copies of my own.

I look at English papers from high school and college, and I know I must have been able to get along in those courses well enough based on my grades. For every good grade I sat in dozens of discussions feeling lost, like I'd never see the things my classmates did, never be able to analyze and describe beyond gut instinct. And while there's more story in the middle, it doesn't start up again until I have the first couple of Harry Potter books in my hands. The first was cute, but when I opened the second and third books, I saw a pattern in the subtle changes in vocabulary and emotion that signaled a series that would remind me of the Betsy-Tacy books. I predicted that I was in for an epic coming-of-age adventure.

It all clicked.

I read differently now than I used to, conscious of applying or rejecting analysis of structure, plot, character, themes, and so on. These are the reader's tools I was missing out on. I wouldn't presume to say that I do pick up on every little nuance that I might, but I am able to read critically, even if I tend to read for entertainment most of the time.

Anyway, today, I'm putting all of the Maud Hart Lovelace books on my wish list.

What book taught you to read?

Thanks to Mitali Perkins for the heads up about the reissues! I knew that the first couple of books were out again, and she's contributed the foreword to Emily of Deep Valley, another of Maud Hart Lovelace's books.


  1. I love this post! You telling yourself you could read at an early age reminds me of Betsy asking her mother how to spell "going down the street." I too grew up reading and rereading Betsy-Tacy. I hope you can join us on November 15th when I'll interview Mitali Perkins and Melissa Wiley about this fall's Lovelace reissues and all things Betsy Tacy!

  2. That is so cool! I hope I can make it. I love those books so much.


Related Posts with Thumbnails