Sunday, June 15, 2014

Reading Through History: Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill by Maud Hart Lovelace (1942)

Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill is the third book of the Betsy-Tacy series, in which the three main characters, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib turn ten years old. Feeling quite grownup, the girls make their way over the big hill for the first time, exploring the interesting people and cultural experiences to be found there. In addition to making friends with a Syrian girl and defending her from racist bullies, they also fall in love with the King of Spain, perform in an Entertainment at school, and get into a huge quarrel with big sisters Julia and Katie.

It’s hard to remember as I read that these books are as old as they are. They read very much like contemporary middle grade historical fiction, and this story in particular addresses very contemporary issues. This book takes on topics like immigration, diversity, and racism and presents very progressive viewpoints on each one. There is a big emphasis on American nationalism, but there is also a deep appreciation for the roots of the girls’ Syrian neighbors, and for the customs that followed them from their home country. Though the three girls are fascinated with kings and queens, other characters in the story express different political opinions that subtly express some of the unrest that was driving immigrants from their homelands in the early 1900s.

Politics aside, this book is also notable for being the first Betsy-Tacy book with a true plot. While the first two books were more episodic, this one has several threads running through it that culminate in one satisfying conclusion. This book also introduces a bit more tension into the girls’ relationship with Julia and Katie, which adds some conflict and drama to the story without sacrificing the overall gentle wholesomeness of the series. It’s also so refreshing to read a story in which the only romance is an imagined courtship between young girls and a young king. This book assumes an innocence on the part of ten-year-old girls that is developmentally appropriate and hugely encouraging.

I love the way these books grow up along with their main characters. I believe this is part of why they are perennially popular - readers can follow Betsy to adulthood, and then pass the books on to their children to begin the cycle all over again. I’m looking forward to seeing what new and interesting things twelve-year-old Betsy, Tacy, and Tib will do in Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown.

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