For a long time now I have been too emotional to really write about THE BEST SERIES OF ALL TIME:
There is a part, in Betsy in Spite of Herself, when everyone in Betsy Ray's Deep Valley High School class is required to read Ivanhoe over the summer. Betsy is one of the few who has, but when she sits down to write a synopsis of the novel, she is so overcome by her desire to do it full justice that she chokes and doesn't manage to complete the assignment. I feel her. This is exactly the feeling I have sitting down to put my thoughts on Maud Hart-Lovelace's series into words.
This feeling about the books - which start when Betsy's 5 and follow her through her early 20s and the beginning of World War I - is not unique to me. Perhaps because you grow up with them, age along with the characters and the writing, the affection you feel for the world of the books is very intense. It's also an intensely appealing universe; the autobiographical stories are set in a a world of happy families, safe streets, and a tight circle of friends known as The Crowd.
A lot of writers have talked about how meaningful Betsy-Tacy was to them growing up. In fact, the new editions, which properly classify the books as "modern classics" and are beautiful and dignified and almost make one forget the treacly atrocities of the past decade's children's edition, feature prologues by Anna Quindlen, Meg Cabot, and Laura Lippmann. All the women talk about the fact that, although she is growing up in the early 20th Century, Betsy always assumes - as does her supportive family - that she will have a career. Sure, she likes boys and fashion, but there's never any question that she'll have an independent life as a writer and world-traveler, just as her sister will become a professional singer and they'll all go to college.
And Betsy is a great heroine: relatable, complex, smart but prone to errors of judgment and famously bad at math. The Crowd, as one friend told me, shaped her idea of teenage life - and she was forever disappointed that she wasn't able to find such a cohesive, supportive group of friends. Because the way friendship is portrayed - between girls, and between the sexes - is really nice. There's rarely jealousy or pettiness or back-stabbing, despite the fact that the characters feel real (as, if you read The Betsy-Tacy Companion you'll find they all are.) The author was clearly someone who loved people and loved life, and this comes through. This is also probably why the books are particularly wholesome to read at a young age - although make no mistake, they hold up, and there's no better comfort read. Betsy and Joe is my particular poison, although I also have a fondness for the spin-offs Carney's House Party and Emily of Deep Valley. Comforting, yes - and by the way, the food and clothes descriptions are great - but also inspiring. I've joined the Betsy-Tacy Society, and I want to go to Mankato someday and see the author's real house. But in a way, these early loves are always personal, and even as it's wonderful to share them with fellow nerds, you know that your relationship with Betsy is special. Read - or re-read - for yourself, but I've tried to, well, "hit the high spots."