For Girls & Their Besties (A Valentine’s Day Post)
February 9, 2017 § 9 Comments
In keeping with my tradition of recommending friendship-themed stories for Valentine’s Day (see past posts here and here and here, last year’s exception aside), I am hearkening back to a cherished series from my own childhood. If my daughter’s reaction is any indication, it’s as resonant as ever.
When I was six years old—a quiet girl with mouse-brown hair held neatly between two plastic barrettes—I rode a school bus to my first day at public school in the inner-city of Milwaukee. I remember nothing about the bus ride, nothing about what was on the aluminum lunch box and Thermos which I remember being proud to have in my backpack, and nothing about the inside of my classroom.
What I remember is the playground: a vast sea of grey concrete and black asphalt, populated by masses of children who towered over me, whose games of kickball and double-dutch and hopscotch seemed enshrined in the shouts and shrieks of a coded language. I stood trembling along the edge. Large red rubber balls whizzed by the side of my face.
Probably I wouldn’t remember those details—they would have faded like the colorful posters that probably adorned my classroom walls—would it not have been for what happened next. A girl of roughly my same size—a girl with similar brown hair and softly dimpled cheeks—approached me. I don’t remember the exact words she used when she asked me to be her friend, but I do remember the tenacity, the directness of her voice. I remember thinking she was doing something I would never have been brave enough to do.
And then she put her hand in mine, and I wanted to die of happiness. I wanted to hold that hand forever, to savor the touch of someone who wasn’t family, but whom I knew immediately and with certainty would make leaving my family each day tolerable, even delightful. Our first real true friend is a lifeline to our future, a taste of the joy that intimacy holds for us when we are lucky enough to find it.
My daughter has been lucky to have such a friend since she was one year old. I marvel at the bond between these two girls: one sturdy boned, the other spritelike, the two bonded by their own fanciful imaginations, pressed together in incessant, giggly chatter since before either of them said much to anyone (“Is it possible they are having actual conversations?” I used to wonder. “About what?”). Last spring, on the sorrowful occasion of Emily’s friend moving, I made each girl a photo book with five years of memories. It wasn’t until I laid out the photos that I realized the girls were touching in almost every single one. When they weren’t deliberately holding hands, they were leaning into one another, resting a hand casually, maybe unaware, on the other’s arm.
It is this frequent, gentle touch that so often distinguishes young female friendships. And it threatens every time to bring me to my knees when I consider, as a parent who was once a young friend herself, the sweetness of it.
It is this sweetness that shines through every delicious page of Maud Hart Lovelace’s beloved series, published in the 1940s and set in turn-of-the-century Mankato, Minneapolis, where two five-year-old girls living across the street from one another strike up a lifelong friendship. This friendship renders them, not Betsy, not Tacy, but Betsy-Tacy, a collective entity greater than the sum of its parts. Together, these girls embark upon daily adventures, both real and imaginative, which not only shape their personalities but which challenge them to be better than they could be on their own. Oh, and did I mention they are almost always holding hands?
The only thing more gratifying than sharing with my six year old a favorite series from my own childhood was watching her fall madly in love with it. And I mean madly. Her mounting adoration (getting out of bed each morning, she would cry, “I can’t wait for you to read more Betsy Tacy tonight!”) surpassed even my most ardent expectations. I’ve noticed something about my Emily: for all the animal characters and fantasy themes we enjoy together, it is the stories with reality-based girl characters—those who engage in the same kind of daily activities she does—which rise to the top (Ramona Cleary, Pippi Longstocking, Matilda, Dory Fantasmagory, Nancy and Plum). Add to that a friendship between two girls with big imaginations and even bigger hearts (three, once the girls befriend newcomer Tib), who spend their days huddled together making up stories about what it would be like to live in the clouds, establishing secret clubs, and performing plays about flying girls in the circus—and I should have known we were destined for a Big Win.
Admittedly, I almost didn’t read the Betsy-Tacy books aloud to Emily. Because I really do credit them with sparking my own independent love affair with reading, I initially thought Emily should wait to read them on her own. And yet, I’ve noticed that children today are often reluctant to pick up the classics we loved as kids. The pacing and the character development can be slower than much contemporary literature for young readers, which seems written with a “grab-‘em-out-of-the-gate” mandate. And then there is the enigma of old-fashioned settings: would my daughter know what a hitching post was? Or why the girls return home for “dinner” in the middle of the day?
Call me a control freak (you would not be the first), but I simply couldn’t risk my daughter missing out on these books. And so I read them to her. And I swear to you: she has never pressed her little body into mine so fervently, as if willing herself into the stories, or at least into the bond we were building around them. “Tell me again, Mommy, about how these were your favorite books when you were my age?” she would ask. (But seriously, with everything going on in our country right now, is it really so terrible to want to escape to a time when little girls spent their days picnicking under giant oak trees, when their biggest mistakes were lopping off each other’s braids to wear in pillboxes around their necks?)
Reading the books aloud meant I could justify purchasing The Betsy-Tacy Treasury, which contains the first four books in the series (with Lois Lenski’s original black-and-white illustrations), beginning when the girls are five and continuing through their tenth year: Betsy-Tacy, Betsy-Tacy and Tib, Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, and Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown. The anthology also boasts forwards by Ann M. Martin, Judy Blume, and Johanna Hurwitz, all of whom gush about the bond they felt as children with Betsy and Tacy. (Anna Quindlen goes so far as to put Maud Hart Lovelace on the same pedestal as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, so clearly I am not alone in my affection.) And the anthology contains a fascinating Afterward, which points out which events and characters in the books were derived from Lovelace’s own childhood, with the inventive young Betsy—who pens her own stories while perched in a tree—a stand in for Lovelace herself.
Betsy and Tacy are largely what one would consider “good girls”: joyful in their approach to life, models of inclusion in their play, regular participants in family chores, and eager to listen, comfort, share with, and praise one another. But lest you think the Betsy-Tacy stories are mere sugar and spice and all things nice, I assure you there is a healthy dose of mischief, mistakes, and drama, which grows in complexity as the books advance. (After the first four, the series continues with six more books in three subsequent treasuries, spanning high school, college, marriage, and Betsy’s writing career, though I told Emily we should probably wait until she’s a wee bit older to read those.)
When they are six, the girls take advantage of being alone in Betsy’s house by cooking (and then forcing themselves to eat) “Everything Pudding,” using all the ingredients they can reach in the kitchen. When they are only slightly older, to the later horror of their mothers, they pretend to be poor beggars at a stranger’s house, simply because they run out of snacks on a walk. And when they are ten years old, they sink to insincere tactics to convince a classmate to take them with her to the Opera House, an undergoing that comes at a price and with a good old fashioned lesson on how we treat others.
How we treat others is perhaps the most enduring theme throughout Betsy, Tacy, and Tib’s friendship. And it’s one that feels especially topical today. The girls aren’t only developing their appreciation for one another’s differences, they are also opening their eyes to the differences of others. On several occasions, Lovelace reminds us that children are often the first to see past the stereotypes of race and class. Betsy and Tacy’s zeal to earn signatures on a contest sheet might be what initially lures them into the small immigrant settlement on the other side of the hill, known to their mistrusting neighbors as “Little Syria”; but it’s their ability to connect with the wide-eyed, giggly Syrian girl whom they find there that begins to bridge the two communities (how’s that for topical?). Later, in the fourth book, Betsy inadvertently brings about a reunion between her mother and her estranged uncle, all because of her kindness towards a wealthy old widow whom Betsy alone recognizes as lonely.
Long before there were television, video games, and giant trampoline parks, there were backyard sheds and grassy knolls and trees to climb. To be sure, the Betsy-Tacy stories are a specific portrayal of white middle-class suburban America in the late 1800s and early 1900s (Tib is the first in her town to ride in a “horseless carriage”!). And yet, Lovelace’s transcendent themes of friendship and adventure, resourcefulness and optimism, will find a warm place in the hearts of many of our daughters today. At least, they did in my daughter.
Happy Valentine’s Day to the girls who are lucky enough to have someone to hold their hands; to the girls brave enough to initiate these special friendships; and to the girls who have them to look forward to.
(P.S. My nine-year-old son would like me to add that he stole the book several times while Emily and I were reading it and that he found the stories “very good,” especially the third and fourth books.)
(P.P.S. If you still aren’t buying the friendship-book-for-Valentine’s-Day gift, go ahead and check out this romantic beauty. That may or may not be what Emily is getting this year, seeing as we’ve already read the above recommendation. Or I may cave and get her this.)
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