Sunday, January 8, 2012

Reading Through History: Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace (1940)

Betsy-Tacy is a 1940 children's novel written by Maud Hart Lovelace and illustrated by Lois Lenski. The main characters are two little girls who grow up across the street from one another in 1890s Minnesota. The first time they meet, the girls have a misunderstanding that nearly jeopardizes their chances of being friends, but after Betsy invites Tacy to her birthday party, they become inseparable. Betsy and Tacy, who are often called by one name, Betsy-Tacy, have wonderful adventures eating supper on the hill at the end of their street, trying to outsmart their big sisters Katie and Julia, and selling sand to the neighbors. They also band together in the face of a tragedy in Tacy's family, and toward the end of the book, make a new friend, named Tib.

Like the works of Carolyn Haywood and Beverly Cleary, Betsy-Tacy portrays a world of childhood innocence and imagination that doesn't really seem to be typical of contemporary children's books. Not only is the story old-fashioned and clearly set in the past, it's also filled with the possibilities of an idealized world where children don't need constant supervision and can feel free to wander the neighborhood without fearing for their safety. There is no question that the story is dated. The mothers have calling cards which they deliver to friends' houses, the main mode of transportation is a horse-drawn carriage, and all the children attend school in a schoolhouse. But it is this historical context that makes the book so charming.

The writing itself also transcends time. The text is clearly written at a child's level. I was able to get inside the minds of Betsy and Tacy as well as I could Ramona's mind or Carolyn Haywood's Betsy's mind. They might live in another time and place, but the thought processes of these girls are universal, as are many of their experiences, from the first day of school, to playing with paper dolls to anticipating a new baby in the family. Lovelace tapped into the way children think and behave, and even if kids growing up in the 21st century don't understand every historical reference, they will see themselves in Betsy and Tacy nonetheless.

Finally, I love the illustrations by Lois Lenski, which depict the style of dress, home decorating schemes, and schoolhouse furniture of the time period. The drawings perfectly match the tone and style of the story and further immerse the reader in the nostalgic atmosphere of this fictional world.

Betsy-Tacy is the first book in a series that follows Betsy through to adulthood. Learn more about Betsy and Tacy and their creator on the website for the Betsy-Tacy Society.


  1. Lovely to find such a well set up review site.

  2. What a blast from my past - I loved, loved the Betsy-Tacy books, as well as Beverly Cleary's and Carolyn Haywoods! Thanks for prompting lovely memories of childhood reading!

  3. So I had to visit your blog just from the title link on the Comment Challenge. Sounded like fun. Then your first post was about a book that I have not read ... but know my sister loved them as well. Maybe I should check this out. And as I type this I see that you recently posted about the Red Sled on your storytime blog (is that different? I will have to go see) and I have read that one and loved it. I'll be back!

  4. Somehow I haven't ever read any of the Betsy-Tacy books.... must change that SOON! :)

  5. Annie - Thanks!

    Amy - You're welcome! This book brought out a lot of nostalgia in me as well.

    Ms. O. - My story time blog is different. It's geared more toward sharing books with children in a library setting, whereas my reviews in this blog, at least as of this month, are for older kids who read independently. Glad to hear that you loved the Red Sled!

    Nina - I think I read the first two or three as a kid, and that was it. I'm excited to read some of the later titles as Betsy gets older.

  6. Mary - Glad to be able to inspire you!