Author Archives: Rebecca Ripperton
Author Archives: Rebecca Ripperton
When I think of books that defined my childhood, the Betsy-Tacy series books are the first to come to mind. As I was growing up, I read them more times than I can count. I loved these books with all of my heart then, and to this day, I still enjoy reading them!
The series is about a young girl named Betsy, and her bashful, redheaded friend Tacy. The girls meet when Tacy’s family moves into the house across the street from Betsy’s family. Betsy is excited to discover that Tacy is exactly Betsy’s age, although Tacy initially refuses to speak to her due to bashfulness. But the girls befriend one another at Betsy’s 5th birthday party and soon become inseparable. Together they share the difficulties and joys of growing up, going on countless adventures – both real and imagined.
The books are set around the turn of the 20th century in the small Minnesota town of “Deep Valley.” The series then follows Betsy throughout her adolescence and concludes during World War I with Betsy’s first year of marriage.
In total, there are 13 books in the Betsy-Tacy series. Maud Hart Lovelace wrote 10 books that center on Betsy, and 3 more that focus on other Deep Valley characters. As the series progresses, the reading level of the books also advances, so a child can read about Betsy and Tacy growing up as they themselves are maturing (which is just what I did and recommend). Apparently Maud Hart Lovelace told these stories to her daughter at bedtime before turning them into books. As her daughter grew older, so did Betsy and Tacy. Over time, the two developed into fuller characters, and their stories became more involved.
As a child, these books felt magical to me. Deep Valley seemed like an ideal place to grow up, and Betsy Ray’s “crowd” felt like the sort of friends that anyone would be lucky to have. There was such richness in Betsy’s experience of the world. I loved that Betsy and Tacy played dress up and with paper dolls, just like me. I also loved reading about the many ways in which their lives differed from mine.
In the winter, they would ice-skate on a frozen pond together, and throughout the year, they regularly congregated in living rooms to gather round the piano and sing. When Betsy was in high school, she and her friends would even roll up the living room carpet to hold “dances.” The activities they engaged in weren’t extravagant, but they always seemed celebratory, imaginative, and full of merriment. A strong sense of community is also a constant current throughout the series.
Throughout the series, Betsy aspires to be an author, or “authoress.” As a child, she scribbles short stories and plays that she keeps in an old cigar box. And just like in Little Women, Betsy puts on performances of her plays, recruiting neighborhood children to take part in them.
Betsy also grows up reading classics like Ivanhoe and Don Quixote. Familiarity with great literature is a given in her family, with references to books and poems appearing throughout the series. The world of Deep Valley, particularly in the Ray household, is a place where books and ideas matter.
Betsy’s whole family supports her in her writing and takes great pride in her work. Her mother prepared a writing desk as a special surprise for her, and her father encourages her to establish a regular habit of going to the town library to continue her literary education. In high school, Betsy competes each year in the high school’s essay contest, which is both an honor and a responsibility she treats very seriously. As a child who also wanted to grow up to be an author, I loved reading about Betsy’s relationship with literature and watching it deepen as she matured.
Another aspect of this series that I especially appreciate is the emphasis Maud Hart Lovelace places on music and the arts. Music plays a very important role in Betsy’s family. She and her two sisters all learn to play the piano at a young age, with both parents encouraging their musical talents.
Betsy's older sister Julia has an exquisite voice and takes singing lessons, eventually becoming a professional opera singer in her adulthood. As a teenager, Julia took occasional trips to the Twin Cities to go to the opera with her mother, and eagerly devoured new musical scores whenever she can get her hands on them. All of Betsy and Julia’s friends seem to love music, as well, regularly singing in groups at social gatherings. Betsy's parents also frequent the theater and model an appreciation of the arts for their daughters.
Despite the smallness of the town, or perhaps because of it, there’s a tremendous value placed on art as an important means of enriching our lives throughout the entire series.
The first book, Betsy-Tacy, could be read by children ages 5-8, either as a read-aloud or independently, depending on the child’s age and individual ability. I recommend reading at least Betsy-Tacy aloud in order to give the child a sense of the style and to familiarize them with the Deep Valley and its characters, and perhaps also Betsy-Tacy and Tib, the next book in the series.
Betsy-Tacy and Tib is appropriate for a slightly older child, somewhere in the range of 6-10 years old. Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill and Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown could be read by children ages 8-12 and 10-13, respectively. The remainder of the books are generally ideal for children ages 12-18, although the final two books of the series are about Betsy’s adulthood, travels in Europe during World War I, and the first year of her marriage, so an older reader might appreciate them more than a younger one.
After reading the first two or three books with a parent, I would let a child take responsibility for when and how they read the remainder of the series. You could even consider letting them take responsibility for finding the books, which is what we did in our home.
When I initially began to read the Betsy-Tacy series, we had the first 2 or 3 books at home, and then I slowly collected the remainder of the series over time. It was always exciting to go into a bookstore or library sale and look to see whether or not they had the next book in the series. Our local library also had several, which I checked out to read at home.
For me, the process of hunting for each new book definitely generated a lot of excitement, so even though you can now purchase all of the books from Amazon at a single go, I definitely recommend encouraging your child to look for them for themselves at libraries or at book sales. It’s a great way to give them some ownership of their reading habits.
Have you ever read any of the Betsy-Tacy books? Please leave us a comment below telling us about your favorite memory of these stories!
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com.
This post is the fourth (and final) installment of our series on helping students incorporate more structure into their writing. If you'd like to read more, check out our earlier posts: Writing as a Complement to Reading: Why Write?, The Importance of Freeform Writing, Writing Beyond the Essay, and Writing a Retrospective Outline.
Writing well is a difficult undertaking, and for good reason.
In order to write well, an author needs to be watchful, perseverant, and a careful thinker. It’s also necessary to be a creative thinker, a grammarian (more or less), and a compelling storyteller. Moreover, a writer must be someone who is willing to spend countless hours revising his or her work.
So how can a student possibly become a good, much less great, writer by the time they enter college? The task seems to be almost impossible.
In my experience, many teachers, parents, administrators, etc. believe that their students are “failing” at writing. And to be perfectly honest, this view does not seem to me to be entirely just to the students (or to their former teachers). Learning to write well takes a tremendous amount of work, and it also requires considerable time, as well as maturity and a sincere commitment on the part of the student.
Think for a moment about how children learn to read. Vast resources and effort are poured into teaching children to read independently. Parents and teachers alike read aloud to them and encourage them to read on their own. Yet we don’t expect children to grapple with truly difficult texts for at least a decade after they’ve first begun to read. Instead, children are gradually introduced to more challenging books as they mature.
With writing, on the other hand, not nearly so much effort is put into instruction, yet our expectations for the outcome are disproportionately high. We expect adolescents, with very little practice or support, to write as though they’ve been writing diligently for decades. It is simply not reasonable. (In saying this, it is not my intention to defend bad writing or to suggest that standards be lowered; rather I’m trying to point out that many students take a long time to become great writers and understandably so.)
To continue the comparison between reading and writing, writing is also an activity that, much like reading, an individual will naturally begin to excel at in his or her own time. Until that time comes, much of a teacher’s efforts to improve a student’s writing will often feel futile and frustrating to both parties.
So, all of this begs the question: what do you do while waiting for writing to “click” for a student? Our answer to this is for them to read. The absolute best thing a student, or anyone, can do for their writing is to read.
To me, reading well and widely is the single best thing that anyone who wants to be a writer can do. It is, after all, one of the most important activities that we as human beings do. In reading, we learn so much about language, about how to use words, about syntax, about structure, about movement, and much more. We engage with ideas, learn how to evaluate the arguments of others, as well learn how to shape arguments of our own.
It’s worth noting here, though, that maintaining a consistent reading practice is not a “quick fix” to poor or disorganized writing; rather it’s something with benefits that will accrue slowly over time. The benefits of reading will likely not be immediately apparent in a student’s writing, nor may they be evident for years. Even if their writing doesn’t seem to be progressing in as rapid a manner as their teacher may wish, if a student is reading widely and carefully, their writing will improve. Even if they are not writing much or at all at the present time, reading will still be of benefit to their writing in the future.
The following are a couple of notes and suggestions about reading to improve a writing practice, although they are by no means comprehensive. Hopefully you find some of this information helpful!
Encourage students to identify for themselves the authors whose style of writing they are drawn to and admire. I think this is an important exercise for writers of all ages to do, and one that I would leave very open-ended by simply asking the question.
Students need to desire to become better writers for their own sake, not for ours, and permitting them to select their own literary models is an important step in this process. If we hold up Melville as an example of literary excellence and they’ve had to fight through every last paragraph of one of his stories, they may become disengaged from the project of writing because he is not a literary hero to them (or at least not at this time).
Besides, the writers whose work we think we should admire are often not the writers whose work is most instructive to us. Give students the opportunity to decide which authors they want to be their teachers, and they'll be a lot more motivated to learn from them.
And here I do mean study poetry, not just read it passively. A poem is such a concentrated form of language that a close examination of it can be tremendously fruitful to us both as readers and as writers. Unfortunately, scansion isn’t something that many people get excited about, but it does yield a wealth of information about poems written in meter. Scanning poems also teaches us that there is typically much more sophistication in their construction than at first meets the eye.
Attempting to write poems ourselves can also a beneficial practice because of the form’s many constraints. It is very challenging to actually say what you mean to say in so few words, in meter, and also in a pleasing manner. Even more difficult is the task of capturing an expansive thought in this more restricted form. However, the care with which we learn to write and to read poetry does translate to heightened care in reading and writing prose, as well.
Probably someone far more insightful and articulate than I am has already said everything I could ever say about this topic, so I'll be brief here. I would just encourage you to have your children and students read Shakespeare aloud over and over throughout their lives and to never “retire” a play. You may have seen more productions of Twelfth Night or Much Ado About Nothing than you can count, but continue coming back to these plays over the years, and your life -- and writing practice -- will be all the richer for it.
Learning foreign languages can benefit our writing in numerous ways. Among these benefits are a deepened and more nuanced understanding of grammar, and a more creative relationship to words and to syntax.
For whatever reason, many students find that learning the grammar of another language doesn’t feel quite so agonizing as studying English grammar. It’s also virtually impossible to learn grammar in a foreign language without contrasting it directly to the grammar of your native tongue. As a result, learning a new language can provide good grammatical reinforcement to students who may be less than optimally motivated to study English grammar.
In terms of language use, when we learn the roots of English words, we begin thinking more of the literal meanings as opposed to their colloquial uses. Knowing etymological roots allows us to use words much more precisely and, I believe, creatively. (As a bonus, you’ll need to look up far fewer words in the dictionary!) Examining the sentence construction and syntax in foreign languages can also be instructive and give us insight into how we might craft sentences in our own language differently.
Another practice that has been immeasurably rewarding for me has been reading writers who are not native English speakers but who still author their books in English. Such authors are considered “exophonic” writers, meaning that they write in a language other than their native tongue.
I’ve found that these writers tend to use words in striking ways and often teach me a great deal about the expansive nature of the English language. Some well known examples are Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Conrad, Jack Kerouac, Kahlil Gibran, and Milan Kundera. Yiyun Li is another, perhaps lesser known, contemporary exophonic author whose prose is also exquisite. You can find a more comprehensive list of exophonic writers here.
A related practice is reading the work of native English speakers who have grown up all around the world. Just as British authors of a certain era have a particularly “sensibility”, so do the authors of other places and times. Modern Nigerian literature is my personal favorite instance of this phenomenon. I love reading 21st century Nigerian authors for the vibrancy of their language and imagery. I always come away feeling that I have learned to see the world more brightly through their eyes.
Lastly, recognizing that reading is the most important thing you can do to prepare students to become better writers requires a great deal of faith. By encouraging students to read, you aren't imparting an easily quantifiable skill, nor do you know how long it may take a student to begin writing seriously. However, rest assured that offering students literature of the highest quality will change their lives for the better in countless ways, including giving them an elevated standard to aspire to in their own writing. (To read more on the topic of writing as a natural consequence of reading, see our earlier post Writing as a Complement to Reading: Why Write?)
Have you ever read books, plays, or poems that directly or indirectly improved the quality of your writing? If so, what book was it and how did it help your writing? Please leave us a comment below, letting us know — we’d love to hear from you!