The Classics Crusade has begun! After admitting my shame and detailing the various children’s classics I have never read, I have committed to reading and reviewing one per month for the next year or so.
First up: Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace, illustrations by Lois Lenski. HarperCollins, 1940.
Betsy Ray and Tacy Kelly are two best friends who are nearly inseparable. They eat together, play together, and one fateful night on a dark road, a terrible accident will bind them in the keeping of a dark secret. A secret so dark, so sinister, that it threatens to destroy them both.
Oh, wait. That doesn’t sound quite right. So sorry.
Betsy-Tacy is actually an incredibly sweet and lighthearted story about friendship and the magical power of imagination.
When a new family moves in across the street, Betsy Ray hopes with all her heart that they will have a little girl just her age. Sure enough, there is a little girl just her age. At first, it seems Betsy and the new girl will not hit it off. A minor miscommunication and Tacy’s intensely shy demeanor cause Betsy to believe the new girl’s cries of “Tacy, Tacy!” is an insult of some sort. When Betsy discovers that the girl was simply trying to introduce herself, she invites Tacy to her birthday party, where the two join hands and become best friends forever.
The best part of Betsy-Tacy is the depiction of the type of relationship only possible between that of two young children. Betsy and Tacy play with paper dolls, go on adventure walks, and dress in grown-up clothes to “go calling” on neighbors. They also share a mind’s eye in their rich imaginings; sitting together on a giant feather that floats up and over Hill Street, taking a pretend buggy ride to the glamourous-sounding city of Milwaukee, enjoying doughnuts with a talking horse. There is a unique intensity, a gentle you-and-me-versus-the-world dynamic, and a way of transforming everyday surroundings into magical settings that defines the bond between these two friends.
I can see why legions of women, now with children and grandchildren of their own, still hold Betsy-Tacy dear to their hearts. To read about Betsy and Tacy’s childhood adventures is to journey back to one’s own first friendships and imaginary landscapes. For adults, it is a trip back to an innocent time and place filled with possibility and potential. The world of Betsy and Tacy is gentle, pure, and clean. Even death (touched upon when Tacy’s baby sister dies) is just a slight shadow that passes briefly over their lives only to give way to new life (Betsy’s family welcomes a new baby.)
My feeling is that Betsy-Tacy currently holds more nostalgic appeal for grown women than it holds for new readers. That is not to say that there aren’t young girls who will pick up Lovelace’s series, identify with the two heroines, and enjoy them immensely. I think as a one-on-one read-aloud for children between fourish and sixish, Betsy-Tacy would work nicely. A chapter read by a mom or dad at bedtime could be a lovely tradition. As a choice for a newly independent reader, however, I have some doubts. For most children just beginning to read independently, Betsy-Tacy would be quite a challenge. The vocabulary, length of the chapters, and some of the phrasing would intimidate many new readers. On the other hand, for most children who are already comfortable reading on their own, it is a bit too easy and doesn’t hold much of a “hook” to keep their interest.
Nevertheless, if not for Betsy-Tacy, we would likely not have Ivy and Bean, Clementine, Just Grace, or Amber Brown, some of my very favorite young chapter book heroines. And so I salute both Betsy, Tacy, and Maud Hart Lovelace for forging the path and leading the way to a now-rich cannon of spunky girl characters for generations of young readers to enjoy.