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The Wonderful Book Series I Treasured Throughout Childhood

We shared farm life and girlhood dreams.

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photo collage of book betsy-tacy and tib, eiffel tower, suitcase, travel, reading
Andrea D'Aquino
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“It was difficult, later, to think of a time when Betsy and Tacy had not been friends.” This is the first line of the first book in a series that Maud Hart Lovelace wrote between 1940 and 1955, about the enduring friendships of Betsy, Tacy and Tib, growing up in fictional Deep Valley, Minnesota, at the turn of the last century. The stories span their school years through young adulthood when, in 1914, Betsy travels to Europe on her own and realizes her dream of becoming a writer.

From the beginning, their world was my world, and Betsy’s dreams mirrored my own, as a youngster growing up on a family farm where I could run free and my imagination could run with it. Looking back, it’s hard to remember a time when these stories of friendship, adventure and a restless eagerness to grow up, coupled with the bumps and hard truths that come with leaving childhood behind, weren’t part of my life.

I still treasure my own enduring friendships with two schoolmates, Sandy and Carolyn. Like Betsy, I was invested in family and small-town life, while at the same time knowing, as Betsy did, that there was a greater world I yearned to experience.

I read my first Betsy-Tacy book as an 8-year-old, growing up in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, about an hour north of Mankato, where Maud Hart Lovelace grew up. Mankato inspired Lovelace’s stories about Deep Valley that, in turn, motivated my own youthful storytelling.

While Betsy wrote on a trunk found in the family’s attic, my own desk was a steamer trunk on our sunny back porch. I commandeered my mother’s clunky Underwood typewriter to plonk out adventure stories and a play about Martha Washington that my second-grade class performed. I played Martha, of course, battling British soldiers in a standoff that, well ... could have happened. Betsy was chastised for not sticking to historical facts, too.

My own stand-in for Tib’s glamorous Aunt Dolly from Milwaukee was my tart and alluring Aunty Pat, who wore White Shoulders perfume, played poker with the fellas and worked in a downtown Minneapolis bridal shop. She’d arrive at the farm with armloads of shopworn castoffs in tulle, velvet, satin and lace that my own band of neighborhood playmates — much like Betsy’s friends — recycled for endless games of dress-up and impromptu plays, pageants and parades.

Neighborhood children had the run of our farm, with a hill for sledding in winter, a creek with cattails and tadpoles, and the ruins of a cottage in the woods that we were sure was haunted by a wicked witch. Betsy’s world of horse-drawn buggies and rowdy sing-alongs at the local Majestic Motion Picture Theatre did not seem a half-century away.

I understood the joy of being 10 when you have two numbers in your age, the thrill of the first day of summer vacation and a time when a dime was important money, just as Betsy did.

Like Betsy and Tacy, I also felt the sting a little girl feels when pointedly made aware of what’s expected of her. One day, while the girls are playing with Tib and her younger brother Freddie at their house, they construct a playhouse out of firewood.

“ ‘That’s a good little house,’ Tib’s father said, patting his son’s shoulder. ‘Freddie, when he grows up, shall be an architect like Papa.’ ‘What about me, Papa? Will I be an architect too?’ asked Tib.

“ ‘Nein, you will be a little housewife,’ said her father. Betsy and Tacy thought that was strange, for Tib had done as much as Freddie toward building the house.” Exactly!

I sided with young Betsy when she said, I probably never will get married. Most of the girls just plan on getting married but Tacy and I want to see the Taj Mahal by moonlight, and go to the Passion Play, and live in Paris with French maids to draw our baths.” Me, too!

I was as appalled as adolescent Betsy was by girls who “had cedar hope chests and took pleasure in embroidering their initials on towels to lay away. Each one had picked out a silver pattern.” Not me!

But when teenage Betsy becomes so swept up in boys, clothes and parties that she loses an essay contest she should have won, there’s severe personal reckoning. “What would life be like without her writing? Writing filled her life with beauty and mystery, gave it purpose … and promise. Betsy was ashamed of herself. She was deeply and thoroughly ashamed. This feeling had nothing to do with her hurt pride. ‘What makes me feel bad is that I didn’t give myself a chance.I understood too well.

Eventually, Betsy’s fictional life became a template for mine as a young adult: I traveled around Europe on my own, married a journalist and became a writer myself. Over the years, my collection of 10 Betsy-Tacy books have held a prominent place on my bookshelf, handy when I need to reorient my inner compass and ask: Am I giving the best of myself? I leave it to three writers I deeply admire, who have also found lifelong inspiration in the world of Betsy-Tacy & Tib.

“Some characters become your friends for life. That’s how it was for me with Betsy-Tacy.” — Judy Blume

“The Betsy-Tacy books were among my favorites when I was growing up.” — Nora Ephron

“There are three authors whose body of work I have reread more than once over my adult life. Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Maud Hart Lovelace.” — Anna Quindlen

What was your favorite book as a child or young adult? Let us know in the comments below.

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