Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Book Review: B Is for Betsy

(Part of a different series, about a different child called Betsy than the Betsy-Tacy books discussed yesterday...This is the new edition, not the one I have, and yes, it does include most if not all of Haywood's trace-and-color-friendly drawings inside.)

Title: B Is for Betsy

Author: Carolyn Haywood

Date: 1939

Publisher: Harcourt Brace & Co.

ISBN: none

Length: 159 pages

Illustrations: drawings by the author

Quote: “Betsy was unhappy because today was the first day of school. She had never been to school and she was sure she would not like it.”

Betsy has heard that school is a “terrible place” where teachers hit children with switches if they’re late. This is, of course, a book about how a nice, friendly teacher who reminds Betsy of her favorite doll, a nice policeman who walks across the street with the children, and nice neighbor children who become Betsy’s friends, convince Betsy that she likes school.

In 1939 many people believed children’s stories ought to give children a general idea that we live in a safe, friendly, orderly world, and B Is for Betsy is that kind of book. So were the eleven more books about Betsy that follow it. Betsy’s disappointments include not being able to buy the exact present she wanted to give a friend (so they could play with it together) because her mother noticed her admiring it in the store and bought it as a present for Betsy.

Life was not, in fact, one long sweet dream in 1939, although many parents made heroic efforts to allow children to think it was. Nice parents tried to cover up things that might alarm their children. Nice children let their parents do this. Betsy’s parents “go away” for a week…because someone is ill? Dying? Already dead? Good girls like Betsy didn’t ask questions. They picked flowers. If worried, they might have acted out their tensions by picking someone else’s flowers instead of their own or their parents'. Nice adults forgave them for that kind of thing as long as the children didn’t ask hard questions.

Sometimes Betsy’s life on Planet Nice really is nice, even warmed by touches of humor. The first grade collect food to fill a Thanksgiving basket for the pretzel vendor, “Grandma Pretzie”:

'Will there be a turkey in the basket?’ Betsy shook her head and looked very grave. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Miss Grey says that turkeys cost a great deal. She thinks that Grandma Pretzie would like a chicken almost as much as a turkey. But Billy Porter says that Thanksgiving is the day you eat turkey…And I think Billy is right…where can we get a turkey, Father?’…

'Well,’ said Father, ‘I don’t know, but turkeys are very fond of secrets and surprises. They have a way of popping up when you are not expecting them.’…

One evening when Father came home, he had two big turkeys with him…

Betsy brought a loaf of bread and a pound of butter. Father drove Betsy to school that morning because she had so much to carry. Father had a big package all wrapped up in brown paper.

Many primary school children enjoy revisiting a story even after they know the ending by heart, so the obviousness of the ending of this episode is not necessarily a bad thing. I enjoyed the Betsy books, and likewise the Eddie books, in grades three and four. I might have enjoyed them earlier if I’d discovered them sooner.

What I have is a discarded library copy: thoroughly used, much mended, slightly musty-smelling. As a child I never minded tears, tape (as long as it was the nice but expensive kind that doesn’t stick the pages together), fingerprints, or pencil marks in a book. I expected books to be older than I was and enjoyed the evidence that I was sharing them with other readers, some perhaps as old as my parents. That’s an awesome thought when you’re eight years old.

And I never traced the line drawings from the pages of any of my Haywood books to color them in, but that was clearly the author/artist’s intention. 

As noted last week Carolyn Haywood no longer needs a dollar, and you might be able to get some of these books for less than $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment. If, however, you want all twelve of the Betsy books, you can order the complete set here (currently) for that price, for a total of probably $75 (or $76 online) since the hardcover books were slightly oversized.