Sunday, June 29, 2014

Reading Through History: Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace (1943)

Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown is the last of the "younger" books of the series, and it very much represents Betsy's transition from girlhood to adolescence. Several plot points demonstrate the obvious maturity of the girls' interests, concerns, and interactions.

For the first time, in this book, Betsy's circle of friends expands beyond Tacy and Tib, and also takes in Winona. The three girls spend a significant portion of  the story trying to con Winona into using her comp theater tickets to take them to see a stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Though it has a happy resolution for everyone, this storyline shares much in common with the "mean girl" plotlines popular in middle grade fiction today, which often occur in stories about the middle school years.

Change is also represented by the advent of the "horseless carriage." Mr. and Mrs. Poppy, wealthy owners of  the local opera house, buy a car and Tib is lucky enough to be their first passenger. This new technology shows how the times are changing as Betsy approaches her teens, and it also introduces the influence of Mrs. Poppy, which will help Betsy's family locate a long-lost uncle and encourage Julia in her musical endeavors.

Another element of this book that really stands out is the change in Betsy's relationship to books. A Carnegie Library opens in Deep Valley, and for the first time, Betsy has access to great books and not just to dime novels. Her parents comment on the benefit of this, and Betsy immediately demonstrates a deepened commitment to her own writing. 

Though all of the series has been wonderful up to now, this book is more engaging than the earlier stories. As Betsy's life begins to take shape, her new challenges have higher stakes and more interesting outcomes. If one were trying to hook a late elementary school reader on this series, it would be wise to start with this book, as it most closely resembles contemporary middle grade fiction, and it is most likely to spark the investment in Betsy as a character that is necessary to enjoy the others of the series.

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