The era of teen vampire angst, suggestive music videos and conspicuous consumption apparently leaves some longing for the good old days. That’s likely why Laura Ingalls Wilders’ “Little House” series of books has never gone away. “Little Women” has been reread for generations, and “Anne of Green Gables” is still considered both historical fiction and a compelling travelogue.
For fans of the genre, Maud Hart Lovelace’s “Betsy-Tacy” series is right up there, too. The series follows best friends Betsy Ray and Tacy Kelly from age 5 until their weddings. The 10-book series was published beginning in 1940, but takes place at the turn of the century. That’s a simpler time indeed, yet the heroines’ thoughts, actions and conflicts have modern themes.
The first half of the series has been in continuous print for more than 60 years, and this fall, publisher HarperCollins Perennial rereleased the latter six books (“Heaven to Betsy & Betsy in Spite of Herself,” “Betsy Was a Junior & Betsy and Joe” and “Betsy and the Great World & Betsy’s Wedding”) after company Vice President Jennifer Hart recognized that what is old is new again.
The books have been compared to the “Gossip Girl” series of books (the basis for the television series on the CW), only with Sunday-best clothes and ice cream parlor dates instead of Juicy Couture hoodies and hooking up.
“I am a lifelong fan of the books,” says Ms. Hart, who is not related to Maud Hart Lovelace. “I grew up reading and rereading the books.”
Turns out Ms. Hart is not alone. There is a Betsy-Tacy Society, which has restored Lovelace’s Mankato, Minn., home and turned it into a museum. There is a Maud Hart Lovelace Society, as well as listservs and three Facebook groups uniting fans in cyberspace.
A Betsy-Tacy convention is held every couple of years. This year’s speaker was Meg Cabot, author of “The Princess Dairies” series. Ms. Cabot is a fan, too. She started reading the books as an adult while she was writing the first “Princess Diaries” book. She says she was inspired that the series followed a character from “an occasionally flighty girlhood to a mature young womanhood in a truly satisfying literary arc.”
“As soon as I read them, Betsy’s ranks of devoted fans grew by one,” Ms. Cabot wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. “While it’s easy for the uninitiated to wonder how in this day and age a series of novels in which the heroine has neither magical powers, a boyfriend who is a vampire, nor a cell phone can appeal to readers who are used to consuming racy fare such as “Gossip Girl” or “The Vampire Diaries,” anyone who’s gotten to know Betsy … has had her heart won over.
“Betsy’s journey is one with which girls today will easily identify. Lovelace doesn’t weigh down her narrative with the kind of tedious descriptions about rabbit-skinning I always skipped over in the ‘Little House’ books,” Ms. Cabot writes. “Despite her lack of a car, PowerBook, or cell phone, Betsy deals with the exact same insecurities and problems as any modern teen … just circa 1910, instead of 2010. Her mind races with thoughts such as ‘Everyone got invited to the party but me,’ ‘He hates me,’ ‘Everybody’s talking about me behind my back,’ ‘Oh, why did I do that?’ or ‘He wants to go too far, and I’m just not ready!’ But what’s always made Betsy seem so real is that when she makes a mistake and falls down, she gets right back up. It’s what makes her such a fantastic role model to girls everywhere.”
Ms. Cabot, along with modern writers Anna Quindlen and Laura Lippman wrote forewords for the reissued books. Ms. Quindlen and Ms. Lippman also count themselves among the fans of the series.
Ms. Quindlen, former Newsweek columnist and author of several novels, says Betsy — and Ms. Lovelace — inspired her that a woman could become a paid writer.
“These are female-empowerment books,” she writes. “The linchpin of Betsy’s life is her friendship with her friends Tacy and Tib. Her relationship with her boyfriend and eventual husband, Joe Willard, is between equals. I think the best of the books is “Betsy in Spite of Herself,” because it gives such a vivid picture of the ways young women are tempted to mold themselves in some uncomfortable image and likeness.”
Julie Schrader, executive director of the Betsy-Tacy Society, says although the society will celebrate 20 years in 2010, the museum is a work in progress. Still, fans come to Mankato to see the two historic homes located across the street from one another. Lovelace’s house and her best friend’s house served as the settings for the books and now are known as Betsy’s house and Tacy’s house. Betsy’s house recently was renovated, decorated and furnished as a museum. Tacy’s house holds the Maud Hart Lovelace archives and gift shop.
“I think people like the return of innocence and to a simpler time we probably crave,” Ms. Schrader says. “Yet people still relate to the modern themes.”
The story of the author is key to the “girl power” theme, too, Ms. Schrader says.
“When Maud grew up, her parents were ahead of their time, ” she says. “They encouraged their daughters to go to school and to be what they wanted to be. They were a little progressive.”