Wednesday, May 21, 2008

My Potential Comfort Food Becomes Someone Else's Take-away Meal

Here in Detroit, Vernors Ginger Ale is the beverage of choice. Unlike other brands of ginger ale, which are usually colorless in appearance and dry in taste, Vernors is a golden-colored drink, very sweet and tangy, and gives off so many tiny bubbles that your first sip is usually followed by a sneeze. It's definitely a comfort food in these parts. If you've got the flu, you sip Vernors to settle your stomach. If you've got a cold, you heat Vernors and drink it to quiet a cough. If you're depressed, you pour Vernors into a glass containing two or three scoops of ice cream to make a "Boston Cooler" -- which is named after Boston Blvd. in Detroit, not the city in Massachusetts. (Some years ago there was a movement to rename these ice cream floats "Detroit Coolers," but it never quite took off.) People who were raised in Detroit and then move away often request that remaining family members send them shipments of Vernors from time to time. If you grow up with certain comfort foods, it's hard to go without. And if you're not from here, you don't know what you're missing.

I guess the same is true of "literary comfort foods."

Back in the early 1990s I began to hear a lot about an old series of children's books by Maud Hart Lovelace. Beginning with BETSY-TACY, which was published in 1940, and continuing through BETSY'S WEDDING in 1955, the ten books trace the experiences of best friends Betsy and Tacy of Deep Valley, Minnesota, from before they start school until marriage.

I became curious about these books after reading two appreciative articles by writer/editor (and Betsy-Tacy fan) Ilene Cooper -- one in the review journal Booklist and the other in the New York Times. I began hearing people refer to the series as "literary comfort food," meaning comfortable stories that welcome you back again and again when you need to get away from daily stress and strife. I later learned there was even a Betsy-Tacy Society and a "Tacy's House" in Mankato, Minnesota that hosts lawn parties and neighborhood walks.

Boy, it sounded like a lot of people LOVED these books. Yet I had never even heard of them! Having spent a lot of time in my local library as a kid, I think I can say with absolute certainty that these books were not included in my library's collection. Nor do I recall seeing paperback copies anywhere. (I did find a reference to a 1962 Scholastic paperback printing of BETSY AND TACY GO DOWNTOWN.) So I guess it all goes back to what you grow up with. Just as regional comfort foods New England clam chowder and Louisiana gumbo weren't part of our midwestern diet back then, Betsy and Tacy seemed to be a "literary comfort food" that somehow bypassed my part of the world in the 1960s and 1970s as well.

A few years ago, I decided to remedy the situation by finally reading the Betsy-Tacy series. Most of the libraries I tried either didn't have the books or just owned one or two volumes. A few of the titles had been issued in paperback by then, but not all of them. Then I looked online and saw the going price for many of these books was in the HUNDREDS of dollars. So I put my plan on the backburner and went on to other reading.

Sometime after that, I was visiting New York and stumbled upon the entire ten-volume series at a used bookstore -- for only $4 a piece! They were nice later printings with dustjackets and I was thrilled to get them. When I returned from my vacation, I told a couple co-workers who shared a cubicle about my great find in NYC. Having also grown up around here, they had never heard of the Betsy-Tacy books either and asked if they could borrow them. "Sure, I probably won't get around to reading them for a while," I said, and brought the books in the next day.

For the next week, every time I approached their cubicle during lunch break, my two co-workers would each be hunched over a Betsy-Tacy book and either wave me away because I was interrupting Important Reading or stop to tell me about some interesting scene in the book:

Co-worker: Listen to this -- Betsy, Tacy and Tib just wrote a love letter to the king of Spain!

Me: Who's Tib?


Co-worker: Guess what Betsy's sister ends up doing for a career?

Me: I dunno. Girls didn't have many options at the turn of the century. Did she become a teacher?

Co-worker: No, she becomes an opera singer!


Co-worker: Guess what! Betsy ends up getting MARRIED!

Me: I know.

Co-worker: How did you know?

Me: The name of the last book is BETSY'S WEDDING.

Co-worker: Oh...oh, yeah.

At the end of that week, my co-workers told me they wanted to buy the books from me...because they absolutely couldn't live without them! They'd each keep five of the volumes. Well, what could I say? I'd gotten such a kick out of their enjoyment of Betsy-Tacy all week and, hey, when it comes to children's books, I'm all about sharin' the love. So of course I sold them the books. As any chef will tell you: if there's one thing better than EATING comfort food, it's preparing it for someone else. This picture of Betsy and Tacy might just as well be called, "Peter's co-workers leaving the library with the books they just bought":

Several years have passed since then. Those two co-workers have moved on to other jobs, but I love the idea that they're probably still reading their Betsy-Tacy books whenever they crave literary comfort food. I still haven't read the books. But one of these days I'll get around to ordering them from interlibrary loan and actually sit down and read the entire series -- book in one hand, Vernors Ginger Ale in the other.


Anonymous said...

I read these books over and over as a child so I was so happy to read your posting about them. They gave me hours and hours of reading pleasure. My local library did have them so I was lucky. I hope you get to read them someday.

I'm a huge fan of your blog. I've learned a lot from your insights. Thanks for taking the time to share.

Anonymous said...

As a bookseller, I've watched the Betsy-Tacy books go in and out of print twice since the mid-1990's. As a reader, who happened to get hooked on the series just after they went out of print the second time, I am in great suspense--I had to leave off at the beginning of Betsy and the Great World. has a teaser of the first couple of pages, so I read them, but prices even on used paperback copies are prohibitive. My local library collection stops after Heaven to Betsy. I really hope HarperCollins will "resurrect" these again soon. I want to read about Betsy's grand tour and wedding!

Unknown said...

Comfort food, indeed. I was introduced to Lovelace's series during the early 80's by my mother. We were new to town, and the local library had the entire series (all early printings, sigh). My mother was all-to-happy to introduce one of her favorite childhood series to her 9-year old daughter, Betsy. Needless to say, my name is not a coincidence.

ILL the series - it will make for a cozy couple of days reading during some rainy, boring weekend. It's a comfortable coming of age series, though, with a growing specter of the Great War during the later books - if my memory holds true.

And the Vernors is good too. I have been known to buy a couple of boxes when in the Great Lakes region to transport home. The last few years Giant has started carrying it in DC, which has made me a happy woman.

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Hi Anonymous. I'm glad you enjoyed the entry. Thanks so much for reading my blog. Peter

Hi Emily. It amazes me how many people know and love these books, yet Harper keeps letting them go out of print. That wouldn't happen if Ursula Nordstrom or Charlotte Zolotow was still in charge! Now it's all about the $$$. Sad. I hope you don't have to wait to long before you read about Betsy's trip and wedding! Peter

Hi Betsy. How wonderful to be named after a character in a children's book! And thank goodness your mother's favorite author wasn't Beatrix Potter, or we'd be calling Jemima Puddleduck or Tiggy-Winkle! The inclusion of war material in the Betsy-Tacy books interests me, as I've always been intrigued by how subtlely information on that era was woven into the background of Eleanor Estes' Moffat books. Glad to hear that Vernors is being sold in our nation's capital too! Peter

Anonymous said...

As a former mid-westerner I can couch for both Vernor's AND the Betsy-Tacy books. I learned to love Vernors while living in Ohio, but didn't discover the Betsy-Tacy books until I moved to Arizona in 1975.

Ahh, I'll never forget that moment. I was reshelving books in my grade school's library when I picked up Emily of Deep Valley. I flipped it open, the clouds parted, and the sun shone down on the illuminated page -- or so it seemed to me. I checked EoDV out and read it that night then checked the rest of the series out the next day. I have never been the same. I was thrilled when I FINALLY go to read Winona's Pony Cart and Carney's House Party for the first time within the last 10 years. It's taken me a long time but I now have hardcover copies of all the books.

Anonymous said...

the betsy-tacy series is coming back in print sometime this fall. i believe you will be able to order them from amazon. i've been reading them for years...and i love them!!

Anonymous said...

Guess what - the Betsy-Tacy society now owns Betsy's house and is trying to purchase tib's, too. And we have conventions when we all get together and talk about the books. Are there any other children's books so loved? Peter, please read them.