Authors: Maud Hart Lovelace
Illustrated by Vera Neville
, and R
“Haste thee nymph, and bring with thee Jest and Youthful Jollityâ¦”
Introducing the Crowd
The Party for Phyllis
Julia Leaves for the U
Those Things Called Sororities
The Old Pill
“Hence, Loathed Melancholy!”
Agley-er and Agley-er
The Curling Iron
The Strong Silent Type
O Tempora! O Mores!
A Bolt from the Blue
Two More Bolts from the Blue
Still Another Bolt from the Blue
“Sic Transit Gloriaâ¦.”
The Consequences of Folly
The Junior-Senior Banquet
I'm embarrassed to admit that, unlike many of her most ardent fans, I didn't meet Miss Betsy Warrington Ray until I was an adultâ¦in my thirties!
I was introduced to her by my children's book editor at HarperCollins, Abby McAden, when I first started writing the Princess Diaries series. Abby (who, in addition to her work as an editor, also volunteered part-time as a children's librarian) felt the Betsy-Tacy books served as a superb example of a series that followed its heroine from occasionally flighty girlhood to mature young womanhood in a truly satisfying progressive arc.
And as can be observed by Betsy's legions of fans, who have kept the books about her in print for many decades, thousands of others have felt the sameâ¦and as soon as I read them, I became as devoted as any of them.
How could a series of novels in which the heroine has neither red hair, a tiara, magical powers, a boyfriend who is a vampire, or a cell phone be so bewitching? Well, Betsy won my heart not just because of the humor, vivacity, and realistic emotion with which her creator, Maud Hart Lovelace, imbued her, but also because of
her believable struggles to find her voice as an authorâ¦not to mention true love (both of which echoed my own struggles not just at Betsy's age but through my twenties and even beyond).
How many of us can relate not only to Betsy's romantic (and authorial) travails but also to her friendsâlike Tacy, refusing to give up her serviceable coronet of braids just because “puffs” are popular, and pint-sized Tib, always up for a party?
And how many of us have longed for a family like the Rays (those of us who weren't lucky enough to have such unconditionally doting parents, loving sisters, and a loyal housekeeper like Anna, declaring us “puny” no matter what kind of outlandish hat we're wearing)?
Slipping into a Betsy book is like slipping into a favorite pair of well-worn slippers. It's always a pleasure to live in Betsy's world for a little while, to experience her simple joys as well as her (thankfully short-lived) sorrows.
And Maud Hart Lovelace makes it easy for us to do so. When, at the beginning of each “high school book,” Betsy reviews her old journals to remind herself of the triumphs (but more often the tribulations) of the year before, it's just like any of us glancing back at our old diaries:
Her freshman year, and her joy in finding a crowd, her discovery about her writing, and her yearning for Tony.
“I've never been as in love with anyone as I was with Tony when I was fourteen,” Betsy sighs to herself in
Betsy and Joe
, upon recalling ninth grade. Who can't identify with this? I know I still Google my freshman crush. And he never once came over to my house for onion sandwiches.
It is, of course, just before her freshman year (
Heaven to Betsy
) that Betsy first meets Joe Willardâhe of the blond pompadour and recklessly protruding lower lipâat Butternut Center, when he waits on her at Willard's Emporium while she's buying gifts for her family (because the Rays always take presents home when they've been away on a visit).
Her life will never be the same, but Betsy doesn't know this, of course.
Her sophomore year, her trip to Milwaukee to visit Tib, the attempt to be Dramatic and Mysterious in order to captivate Phil Brandish, Phyllis' twin.
“After I got him, I didn't want him,” Betsy morosely recalls.
Of course not. After all, Phil wanted to hold hands, and Betsy, we know, just wasn't ready to take that enormous step (as she famously informs the befuddled Phil in
Betsy in Spite of Herself
)âespecially when she realizes her heart truly belongs to Joe Willard, upon whom
Betsy sets her sights her junior year, “when she had been all wound up in sororities.”
But it was only “a small series of misunderstandings,” Betsy tells herself, that kept her and Joe apartânot, as we all know, the fact that Betsy didn't, at that time, truly yet know herself. Surely she and Joe would end up together, as they were always meant to be.
Betsy Was a Junior
, just like every year, Betsy knows everything's going to be different! This time, Betsy's going to be the perfect friend and daughter, staying home and taking the place of her beloved older sister, Julia, who's leaving for her first year of college at the “U” to study music. Betsy's going to learn to play the piano, be elected a class officer, head up a committee for the junior-senior banquet, win the Essay Contest (as she attempts to do, every year)â¦and, of course, “go with Joe Willard.”
It wouldn't be a Maud Hart Lovelace book if anything went according to Betsy's plans. But Betsy crashes and burns so spectacularly in
Betsy Was a Junior
that the novel quickly became one of my favorites of all time. Betsy tells herself so many times that she's going to buckle down and “be serious.” She confesses to looking forward to a chance to finally getting to work “almost with longing.” (This is something I say to myself ten times a day, only to be distracted not by a fudge party, like Betsy, but by a new episode of
Law & Order
. Speaking of which, mmmm, fudge.)
Later, Betsy's well-meaning decision to start a sorority at Deep Valley High Schoolâthe Okto Deltas, or Eight Devilsâhampers her progress with her writing even more. Though the “progressive dinners,” dances, sleigh rides, and theatricals the Oktos host boost Betsy's popularity immensely, especially with boys, her writing isn't the only thing that falls to the wayside, with disastrous but typically Betsy-esque results.
She had prided herself on being a popular girl. But she had never been less popular. Of course, the “popularity” with boys had been niceâ¦.
Friendships, Betsy's grades, and even poor sister Margaret's eyelashesâbut worst of all, the competition against Joe Willard for the cup in the Essay Contest, which Betsy prizes more than anythingâare all jeopardized, until Betsy finally realizes:
Sisterhoods!â¦You couldn't make sisterhoods with rules and elections. If they meant anything, they had to grow naturallyâ¦. You ought not to go through life, even a small section of life like high school or college, with your friendships fenced in by snobbish artificial barriers.
“It would be like living in a pasture when you could have the whole world to roam in,” Betsy thought. “I
don't believe sororities would appeal very long to anyone with much sense of adventure.”
(Though of course we know from Elle Woods of
that sororities can't be
It's the whole world that Betsy's parents are determined to give to Betsy and her sisters, in spite of the fact that Mr. Ray voices a hope that his eldest daughter, Julia, will “meet someone she'll want to marry” after college and “settle down and use her voice for lullabies” instead of pursuing a career in the opera.
Don't worry: It's not that Mr. Ray has old-fashioned ideas on what a woman's place is. As Anna Quindlen wrote in her excellent 1993 speech to the Betsy-Tacy Society: “While the Rays have three daughters, early on two of them are already committed to having careers outside the home, Julia as an opera singer, Betsy as a writer. Betsy's parents are totally committed to this idea for them bothâ¦arguing vociferously that Betsy's work is as good as any that appears in popular magazines.”
And “not once, in any book, does any individual, male or female, suggest to Betsy that she cannot, as she hopes to do, become a writer.” It's just that “music is a very hard career,” Mr. Ray worries, and Julia is “too young to make such an important decision.” When events transpire in
Betsy Was a Junior
to make all of Julia's dreams a reality, however, Mr. Ray soon finds out where her true
priorities lie and is satisfied about Julia's aspirations for her future. Because the Rays are always ready to support their daughters one hundred percent, as long as they aren't trying deceive anyoneâ¦most especially themselves.
But the art of self-deception is one at which Betsy Ray excels, one that again and again almost ends up costing her not only her career dreamsâsuch as when “boys and parties” keep her from doing any “serious writing” in
Betsy Was a Junior
(and what aspiring writer of any age does not find this lament familiar?)âbut also the love of her life, as when Betsy attempts to balance two beaus, Tony Markham and Joe Willard, in
Betsy and Joe
In fact, it isn't until Betsy buckles down in
Betsy and Joe
, actually managing to finish and send out her stories about “New York debutantes” (all of which are rejectedânot that this bothers Betsy: she merely writes more and sends them out again, a perfect lesson for any aspiring writers out thereâ¦though in real life, Maud Hart Lovelace sold her first short story at age eighteen, for ten dollars, to the
Los Angeles Times
), stop using Magic Wavers in her hair, and be honest with herself and with Tony Markham, that she's able to achieve two of her longest held and most elusive goals, both of which involve Joe Willard.
It takes a trip back to Butternut Center and Willard's Emporium to seal the deal, however.
His blue eyes, under those heavy brows, were boring into her. His lower lip looked defiant, and so did the swinging walk with which he came toward her. She blushed.
“What are you doing here?” Joe asked. His tone was almost rough.
“Don't act as though you were going to put me out,” she said. “I'm buying presents to take home to my family.”
“Oh.” He seemed nonplused.
“The Rays always take presents home when they've been away on a visit.”
And so, with the expertise of a true artistic genius, Maud Hart Lovelace brings us neatly back to where we began with Betsy and Joe: exactly where the two of them met, so they could put aside their many misunderstandings and start over.
Because both of them have grown in the four years since the “high school books” began. They aren't awkward fourteen year olds anymore but adults. Things have changedâ¦as they rightfully should have in a series that begins when the heroine is five years old and follows her from kindergarten to high school graduation. Suddenly Betsy Ray, senior, who didn't believe in holding hands her sophomore year, is rethinking some of her long held beliefs.
Then he kissed her. Betsy didn't believe in letting boys kiss you. She thought it was silly to be letting first this boy and then that one kiss you, when it didn't mean a thing. But it was wonderful when Joe Willard kiss her. And it did mean a thing.
Have truer words ever been written in any book? Because it most certainly would be silly to let first this boy and then that one kiss you, when it doesn't mean a thing (although it could be argued that you couldn't
it wouldn't mean a thing unless you tried it first with a variety of boys, just to be sure).
But when you are old enoughâand when it is the
personâit most certainly
mean a thing, as Betsy finds out, the spring of her senior year.
By setting aside pretence (and Magic Waversâ¦though of course it is always nice to have curls now and again), and being fully herself, Betsy becomes at last who she's truly always wanted to be: a writer, the name on the calling cards she receives as an eighteenth birthday gift from her mother, the kind of heroine any author would be honored to have created, whether her books are about a charming turn-of-the-century Minnesotan aspiring authoress, or a reluctant princess:
Miss Betsy Warrington Ray.