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!