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Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers

by Rebecca Ripperton
March 11, 2019

Our family's experience reading Little Britches

We first read Little Britches aloud as a family when my brother and I were somewhere between the ages of 10 and 12. Over the years, we read a lot of books together, but this one was certainly one of everyone’s favorites. I don’t remember how quickly we went through this book, but I do remember that we begged our mom to please read just one more chapter every single night. (We were also very glad to discover that Ralph Moody wrote 7 more books in his autobiographical series – but more on those in another post). 

Westward bound

Little Britches is the captivating story of a New England family that moves to Colorado in the beginning of the 20th century to take up ranching. The book is narrated from the perspective of the young Ralph Moody, or as he comes to be called, “Little Britches.” Moody does a fantastic job of capturing the excitement of the rural west at that time, as well as many of the dangers and inherent difficulties of living there. In reading this book, it's hard not to become entranced with farm work, horses, and especially with the entire Moody family.

When the Moodys first arrive in Colorado, their land allotment is poor and the house promised to them in a dilapidated condition. Most of their savings had been poured into the move, so the only animals they can afford at first are two old nags – both far from ideal for farm work. Additionally, Mr. Moody's health continues to suffer, despite the fact that the family had moved to Colorado in hopes of improving it. 

But nevertheless, the family places their faith in God and is determined to make the best of their less than ideal circumstances.

Becoming a “cow poke”

The responsibilities that Ralph assumes in Colorado are serious ones, and the work he undertakes suitable for a much older man. When he is 10, his father agrees to let him spend an entire summer on a ranch about 20 miles from home. There, he works with a gang of “cow pokes” that take him under their protection and tutelage. These ranch hands adore and respect him, and Little Britches looks up to them in turn. 

Ralph's job at the Y-B ranch is simple, so to occupy the rest of his time, a cowboy named Hi Beckmann helps Ralph break in a beautiful blue roan mare called Sky High. Hi also teaches Ralph to perform all sorts of stunts and tricks with her.

Over the course of the summer, Ralph becomes an excellent rider and horseman, and even competes as a pair with Hi in the Labor Day Round-Up trick riding competition. Ralph’s description of trick riding is definitely the high point in this book, and quite possibly even more exciting than going to see an actual rodeo!

Overcoming the on-going difficulties of ranch life

Although the family does begin to fare better, their life in Colorado is never easy and they continue to be a family of relatively humble circumstances. Their crops occasionally fail, and from time to time an animal might become injured or die. In times of drought, Ralph’s father and his neighbors fight over water access with men upstream of them, with shots fired on both sides. Mr. Moody’s health also deteriorates as the book progresses.

But no matter how poor in means they may be, the Moody family remains rich in integrity, spirit, and resourcefulness – a fact that makes them well-respected and even beloved members of their community. The Moodys also pride themselves on being rich because they have a God who provides for them, and also because they have one another as companions.

The Moody family

Throughout the book, Ralph’s family reads aloud together – on picnics, in the evenings, and on holidays. Usually mother reads aloud to them, although later on the entire family acts out plays from Shakespeare. The children and the parents all cherish this special time that they are able to spend together. Each member of the family plays an important part on the farm, whether it be taking care of the animals, helping father in the fields, or mother around the house. 

Ralph has a particularly special relationship with his father, and this relationship is to me the most moving aspect of the book. Mr. Moody is a man of few words, but remarkable character. Ralph respects him more than anybody else in the world and always strives to make him proud. In particular, Ralph feels tremendous pride when his father asks him to be his “partner” on the ranch, and begins to shake his hand whenever they part. When his father speaks to him of his wrongdoing, conversely, Ralph takes heed and does not need to be admonished twice.

Becoming a man of integrity

Ralph’s father also speaks to him often about the importance of character and of always ​being “open and above-board.” In an episode where Ralph has deceived both of his parents about his reasons for borrowing a horse, his father tells him:

“A man’s character is like his house. If he tears boards off his house and burns them to keep himself warm and comfortable, his house soon becomes a ruin. If he tells lies to be able to do the things he shouldn’t do but wants to, his character will soon become a ruin. A man with a ruined character is a shame on the face of the earth.”

This memorable allegory stays with Ralph through the remainder of his life, even after his father passes away.

Ages

The first book is recommended for children ages 9-12. It can be read independently, although I would suggest that it makes a phenomenal read aloud. It is an especially good read aloud for boys or any child with lots of energy and a love of adventure.

Ralph himself is between the ages of 8 and 11 in this book, and notes that he is placed in 3rd grade in the beginning of the book and then in 6th grade at the end. (His sister Grace is 2 years older than he is, while the rest of their 3 siblings – Phillip, Muriel, and Hal – are younger.) It could be both interesting and exciting for children to read when they are his same age, although older children and adults will enjoy it, as well. 

As a note of caution: there are some difficult moments in this book, all of which are related to the realities of homesteading and none of which are gratuitous. The book, for instance, begins with both of the Moody’s horses falling through a train trestle. Although both animals ​do survive the ordeal, this section can be hard to read. If you have younger or more sensitive children, you may want to read the first two or so chapters to get a sense of how the author addresses these difficult topics before reading them aloud with your family.

Share your experience

Have you or your children ever read Little Britches? If so, tell us about your favorite memory of reading it in a comment below!

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4

The Betsy-Tacy Series

by Rebecca Ripperton
March 4, 2019

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.

The magic of Deep Valley

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.

Betsy as an “authoress”

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.

A love for music and art

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.

Ages

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.

Giving a child ownership of their reading

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.

Share your experience

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!

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