Thursday, May 28, 2009

Maybe This Time

There's a series of books that I love, perhaps, better than all others, and it's being reissued yet again, thanks to HarperCollins. It's the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace, and actually the first four books have been in print for quite a while, but the later six have been out of it and are the ones coming back in.

It's hard to explain, or even for me to put a finger on, exactly what makes these books so good. Even people who get past the fluffy-sounding titles and romance-novelish author's name sometimes have trouble letting go of their irony to see that these are actually GOOD, well-written books. Good on their own merits, not just as nostalgia pieces.

HarperCollins has been generous in their reissues; but the "high school" books were dropped because of poor sales. Now they're being returned in an innovative idea: the later six books are being published two to a volume. (With forewards by Meg Cabot, Anna Quindlen, and Laura Lippman!)

I think this is a great plan, though some of my numerous Betsy-Tacy friends are skeptical (we are always skeptical about any Betsy-Tacy related innovations; don't ask about cover illustrations). Why? Maybe this time, they'll sell enough... because maybe this time, they're long enough.

(You may remember that I mentioned "long" as being one of my guesses as to what makes YA novels sell well to wide age ranges.)

A bit of background: the series, fictionalized autobiography of a Laura Ingalls Wilder stripe, covers Betsy's life from almost 5 to young married life. There are ten main books. The last one ends where World War I begins.

I first read the high school Betsy-Tacy books when I was in elementary school, and I was sure not only that my high school experience would be pretty much like that, but that it was exactly what I wanted in high school. Dances, football games, pep rallies, a crowd of friends over every Sunday night. Then I got to high school and realized I would have hated, hated, hated going to Deep Valley High. I hate all that stuff and avoided it as much as possible. And yet I still like to read about it. Why? I think it must be because Betsy herself is so normal, so timeless, so much like me in spite of her pep rally attendance.

Freckles were fading out of a pink and white skin, the delicacy of which she guarded carefully.

"It's the only pretty thing about me," she often muttered savagely while rubbing in creams at night. "Straight hair! Teeth parted in the middle! Mighty good thing I have a decent complexion!"

As a matter of fact what one noticed first and like best about Betsy were her eyes, clear hazel, under dark brows and lashes. But her frown, as she tied on the sunbonnet, expressed disapproval of her entire physiognomy.

In Heaven to Betsy, which covers Betsy's freshman year of high school, you find the parties and pretty dresses, but there's a lot more going on. Betsy is anxious about impressing new friends, about doing well in school, about possibly changing church denominations. Are she and her best friend growing apart? Is it disloyal to like new things better than old, beloved things? Why isn't she prettier?

The Betsy-Tacy books will poke your nostalgia button, for sure, and if you love descriptions of vintage clothing and elaborate hairstyles--well, you've probably already read them. But if you're looking for solid, time-tested YA, for quality writing, for affirmation that teenage girls have been the same for at least a hundred years, hang up your irony and read Heaven to Betsy. And then hand it to any middle school girl you know.

1 comment:

Jess said...

I've always noticed these at the library - mostly since I passed that intensely old-fashioned stage - but still, I can't believe I've never read them.