Harper Perennial has made a project of reissuing the works of Maud Hart Lovelace during the last three years, and theyve now worked their way back to the beginning. Unlike some of her later books featuring an older Betsy Ray, the earliest of Lovelace/s autobiographical childrens novels about Betsy and her friends have rarely been out of print, but now the first four books in the series have been collected in a one-volume Modern Classics edition, featuring the original illustrations. Like the other reissues, this one includes supplemental material: biographies of the author and illustrator, background about the real-life models for characters and events in the stories, and forewords by contemporary authors who are fans of the books.
The stories in this volume are ones that I read and re-read and loved dearly when I was in the age range that Lovelaces characters are here. Betsy Ray and Tacy Kelly are across-the-street neighbors who meet when they/re five years old and soon become the inseparable Betsy-Tacy. Within a year or so, they are introduced to Tib Muller, who lives a few blocks away in an enchanting chocolate-colored house with a round tower room, and the twosome becomes a trio; Lovelace revisits them a couple of years later in Betsy-Tacy and Tib. At this stage, the novels take place at two-year intervals. When they all turn ten, the girls are grown-up enough to explore the immigrant settlement on the other side of the Big Hill; at twelve, they get to discover the attractions of downtown Deep Valley, Minnesota. The first two novels are largely episodic and not about much more than the girls' games and small adventures; theres more overall plot to Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill and Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown.
These books grew out of stories that Lovelace told her daughter about her own childhood, and there are places where the writing has the feel of oral storytelling. It's also very strong on physical descriptions that effectively bring things to life in the readers mind. Like the best children's writing, it doesn't talk down to the child reader; however, there are some noticeable--and appropriate--differences in tone and style between these novels and the ones that follow Betsy and her friends through high school and into adulthood.
I haven't revisited the first Betsy-Tacy books for decades; I used to think I'd read them again with my daughters if I had them, but since I ended up with a son, that didn't happen. And I never owned these books--they're closely associated with my own childhood love affair with the library, which was something I shared with Betsy. Reading them now is like a double dose of nostalgia for me; I'm not only immersed in Betsy and Tacy's turn-of-the-(20th)century childhood, but I revisit my own childhood in the 1970s, when I read about them for the first (and second, and third) time. By then, we took things like cars and telephones for granted, but we were still able to roam our neighborhoods with a fair amount of freedom and play games that sprang mostly from our imaginations. I think the experience of childhood has changed more between my time and now than it did between Betsy's time and mine. But the experience of reading about Betsy, Tacy, and Tib's childhoods again was as enjoyable as it ever was--it hasn't gotten old--and I'm glad I can finally put these books on my keeper shelf.