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Returning to Children’s Books as an Adult

by Rebecca Ripperton
May 28, 2019

As I was writing our All-of-a-Kind Family post two weeks ago, I was struck by the many similarities between the final book of that series, Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family, and the penultimate book in the Betsy-Tacy series, Betsy and the Great World. Both are later books in a children’s book series, but neither could reasonably be considered a book for children. In fact, they’re much more books for young women than for children. I know that I personally first read these books well over a decade ago, but it is the more recent re-reads that have impacted me most.

This fact prompted me to consider the role that these books have played in my own life as I’ve grown up, and also to think about how returning to children’s books as an adult can be an invaluable and rewarding activity. In keeping with that idea, today’s post explores how re-reading these books can serve as a source of guidance and solace for young women, in addition to serving as beloved chapter books for younger children.

A markedly different tone

In both Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family and Betsy and the Great World, the author establishes a markedly different tone from the rest of the series. The topics addressed in these books are more mature than those of prior books in the series, and the tone of both books reflects that fact. In each story, the protagonist is in the earliest years of her adulthood and is seeking both direction and purpose in her life. Both Betsy and Ella also struggle with feelings of isolation. Betsy’s isolation is due to geographical separation: she is in Europe on a year abroad, while her family and friends have remained behind in Minnesota. Ella is closer in proximity to her family, but she is still separated from them through her work and the decisions she must make about her career as a singer and performer. Both characters are bright and accomplished, and are consequently grappling with the question of how best to make use of one's education and intelligence as a young woman at a time when women routinely did not work outside the home, at least not on a full-time basis.

Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family

In Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family, Ella is given the opportunity to perform as a professional singer, but instead of singing arias or other classical music, she is cast in a vaudeville show. She faces the question of whether or not she loves performing so much that she would be willing to do this kind of work until she has her big break. She feels a fair amount of shame over the kind of performance she’s a part of, but still she longs to have a career in music. Another obstacle is her long-term beau Jules’ resistance to the prospect of her working outside their home. Her challenging task is to figure out a way to do what she loves and to be with those whom she loves simultaneously.

Betsy and the Great World

In Betsy and the Great World, Betsy takes a year off from university to travel in Europe. Her dilemma is less defined than Ella’s and her family is also much more fortunate in their circumstances. Betsy has been frustrated in her university classes and wants to pursue a cultural education, one more appropriate to her aspirations as a writer, and her parents willingly support her in taking a year abroad. Lovelace’s descriptions of Europe in the 1910s are exquisite, even as Betsy is suffering from extreme homesickness and unhappiness throughout the story. This book, coupled with Betsy’s Wedding (the book about Betsy’s first year of marriage), provide good insight into the emotional experience of leaving behind your childhood home and entering into foreign territory, both figuratively and literally.

Emily of Deep Valley

Another book in this same vein is Emily of Deep Valley, again by Maud Hart Lovelace. In the story, Emily was orphaned at an early age and lives with her aging grandfather. The book focuses on her wrestling with the question of what to do with her life after she graduates from high school, since she is unable to continue her studies at the University. Both because of her old-fashioned -- albeit very kindly -- grandfather’s perspective and for financial reasons, a college education is simply out of the question. Emily was an incredibly bright and involved high school student, and she falls into a kind of depression after graduation, since she has no clear path or idea of what significant work to do next. But slowly she begins to forge new friendships and carve out a rich and meaningful life for herself. 

To me, this is the saddest of all of the Sydney Taylor and Maud Hart Lovelace books, but I think I also appreciated it the most for that very reason. Emily doesn’t have the same large and supportive family that Ella and Betsy do, nor does she have the same resources and opportunities. Yet she remains quietly resolved to better herself, her own life, and the lives of those around her. It isn’t always an easy book to read, but it is well worthwhile. 

Creating a path where none existed

I first read all of these books when I was probably 12 or 13, but then I found myself eagerly reading them again in my late teen years and early 20s. When I read them originally, it was impossible for me to fully appreciate the nuance with which Maud Hart Lovelace and Sydney Taylor approached the subject of young women transitioning into adulthood.

Both authors show young women struggling with wanting to do something with their talents, but feeling thwarted. These characters all must work to create paths for themselves where none previously existed, and they experience loneliness and isolation along the way. The authors also honor their characters’ desires to have families and to find harmony between their work and their ties to their own parents, as well as their ties to their partners and future children.

While re-reading the books as an adult, I was struck by the penetrating honesty with which Lovelace and Taylor approach these more sensitive topics. Children’s literature is so often idealized, and while these books are, too, in many regards, there is also a surprising degree of candor and openness in the characters’ thought processes and conversations with others. That openness is something I greatly appreciated at times in my own life when I wasn’t sure what my next step was, or was struggling with my own transition from late childhood into early adulthood.

So, I would definitely recommend that if you do read these series with your children, you might consider letting them read the later books by themselves and then absolutely keep a copy around for them when they are older. They’ll appreciate it more than you know!

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First Steps in History

by Lisa Ripperton
​May 23, 2019

“It is a great thing to possess a pageant of history in the background of one’s thoughts.”

​Charlotte Mason
A Philosophy of Education (V​I.178)

​We recommend that you start introducing historical figures to your child around the age of six through short anecdotes of their daring adventures, vividly told. As your young listener travels with Daniel Boone across the Kentucky mountains, holds the bridge with Horatius, attends a tournament with Richard the Lion-Hearted, paddles down the Mississippi with Marquette, or steams up the Hudson with Fulton, he becomes the comrade of great adventurers, the interested spectator of great deeds.

​Start of a  Pageant of History

All the while he is storing images in his mind of these figures who have played their parts on the world's stage and forging connections with them that may last a lifetime.

Here is a story of the type you might employ for this purpose . . .

Alexander and Bucephalus

​ONE day King Philip bought a fine horse called Bucephalus. He was a noble animal, and the king paid a very high price for him. But he was wild and savage, and no man could mount him, or do anything at all with him.

They tried to whip him, but that only made him worse. At last the king bade his servants take him away.

"It is a pity to ruin so fine a horse as that," said Alexander, the king's young son. "Those men do not know how to treat him."

"Perhaps you can do better than they," said his father scornfully.

"I know," said Alexander, "that, if you would only give me leave to try, I could manage this horse better than any one else."

"And if you fail to do so, what then?" asked Philip.

"I will pay you the price of the horse," said the lad.

While everybody was laughing, Alexander ran up to Bucephalus, and turned his head toward the sun. He had noticed that the horse was afraid of his own shadow.

He then spoke gently to the horse, and patted him with his hand. When he had quieted him a little, he made a quick spring, and leaped upon the horse's back.

Everybody expected to see the boy killed outright. But he kept his place, and let the horse run as fast as he would. By and by, when Bucephalus had become tired, Alexander reined him in, and rode back to the place where his father was standing.

All the men who were there shouted when they saw that the boy had proved himself to be the master of the horse.

He leaped to the ground, and his father ran and kissed him.

"My son," said the king, "Macedon is too small a place for you. You must seek a larger kingdom that will be worthy of you."

After that, Alexander and Bucephalus were the best of friends. They were said to be always together, for when one of them was seen, the other was sure to be not far away. But the horse would never allow any one to mount him but his master.

Alexander became the most famous king and warrior that was ever known; and for that reason he is always called Alexander the Great. Bucephalus carried him through many countries and in many fierce battles, and more than once did he save his master's life.

​What is your reaction?

Doesn't the strong opening at the beginning grab your attention? Aren't you eager to find out what happens? Won't your child be as well?

Don't you imagine that he will wonder what the future has in store for Alexander after this incident and his father's ​suggestion that he seek a larger kingdom?

Narrating the story

With a story this vivid your child may spontaneously retell it. If not, you may want to gently encourage him to share it with a family member not present for the initial reading. It is surprising how powerful the act of narration can be. In fact, Karen Glass has written a whole book about it, Know and Tell: The Art of Narration.

In the simple act of narrating the story, the child selects the details most significant to him, and in the process of putting the story into his own words, moves it into his long-term memory. 

​Fuller picture will emerge

The next time ​the young listener encounters Alexander he will likely greet him as an old friend, and expand his understanding of him based on the new context he finds him in. At this point his interest may be aroused enough to seek additional reading material, more so if he has become an independent reader in the interim.

Where can I find more stories of this sort?

The story above comes from James Baldwin's Fifty Famous Stories Retold. ​This title ​together with its sequel, Fifty Famous People, contain one hundred episodes in the lives of well-known heroes and famous men. Most are historical figures, a few are legendary, but "nearly all are the subjects of frequent allusions in poetry and prose and in the conversation of educated people," according to author James Baldwin.  Nearly all have their roots in Europe.

In contrast, Stories of Great Americans for Little Americans by Edward Eggleston, focuses exclusively on American historical ​figures​.  There are several stories each for some of the characters, including Franklin, Washington, and Audubon.

​What ages ​are these stories good for?

​All three titles listed above were originally published over a hundred years ago as textbooks for a second grade audience. ​Checking the text against modern readability formulas, though, ​yielded a third grade reading level for the Eggleston book and a fifth grade reading level for the Baldwin books. ​All can be used with younger children as read-alouds and with older learners (including adults) who want easy-to-read stories as an introduction to historical figures. I count myself in the latter category, with many years of Social Studies under my belt, but little knowledge of history to show for it.

​One more thing, William Bennett thought enough of Fifty Famous Stories Retold and Fifty Famous People to include a dozen or so stories from these ​volumes in The Book of Virtues, a book with appeal for all ages.

​The Takeaway

​Not only do these short accounts of historical characters appeal to the child's imagination and love of adventure, but they lay the groundwork for further historical inquiry, and furnish background knowledge that enhance his appreciation of other cultural offerings. He may meet the historical figure in literature or encounter allusions in the media, view representations in art museums or in dramatic productions. But if he has been deprived of his rightful heritage and knows nothing about these personages or the part they played in the history of the world, his experience, not being as rich as it might be, will be diminished.

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​Get access to the ebook editions of ​​Fifty Famous Stories Retold, Fifty Famous People, and ​Stories of Great Americans for Little Americans by purchasing the Yesterday's Classics Ebook Treasury, Volume 1

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