Betsy Ray-Feminist Icon
By Christine Gunderson
This month we're talking about why we write Young Adult novels. I write YA because the YA novels I read as a teenager had a bigger impact on me than any of the novels I've read later in life. These YA books weren't necessarily better than the books I discovered and read as an adult. But they had a deeper impact because I read them when I was trying to make sense of...well...everything.
I realized this recently while binge re-reading the series I loved most as a young adult. The Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace are set in a small, fictional Minnesota town around 1910, but the books and characters are based on Maud Hart Lovelace's real life as a teenager in Mankato, Minnesota during the early 1900's.
These books are not edgy. They're full of hayrides and songs sung around the piano and "spoony" boys who try (gasp!) to hold hands with girls.
But they portray the real and honest struggles of Betsy Warrington Ray, a teenage girl with a pompadour, petticoats, and uncooperative hair trying to figure out who she is and how to be true to herself as she becomes an adult.
Improbably, these books set in the early 1900's resonated deeply with me and with thousands of other girls growing up in vastly different eras. The Betsy-Tacy books were published and re-published by Harper Collins, first in 1952, then in 1980, 1996, 2000 and 2009. There's even a nationwide fan club for the series called the Betsy-Tacy Society located in Mankato, Minnesota.
The books aren't preachy, and Betsy isn't perfect, which is perhaps why I loved them so much. Betsy has romantic travails of all sorts. She barely passes algebra. She worries about her hair and clothes and how she looks and whether or not she's popular. She worries about being invited to dances by the wrong boy instead of the right boy, or horror of horrors, not being invited at all. If you replace the petticoats with Guess jeans, Betsy's life in 1906 was pretty much identical to my life in 1986. Teenagers are still grappling with the same issues almost 120 years later. I know this because I live with some.
Betsy aspired to be a writer, a highly improbable career choice in an era when women didn't have careers, but that didn't stop Betsy or Maud Hart Lovelace from achieving this dream. In 1993, New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen gave a speech to the Betsy-Tacy Society entitled, "Betsy Ray, Feminist Icon." Because she was, and still is, corset and all.
Growing up is hard whether you wear your hair in a perm or a pompadour. That's why it's a privilege to write YA, in any era.
Christine Gunderson is a former television anchor/reporter and former House and Senate aide who lives outside of Washington, D.C. with her husband, children and Star, the Wonder Dog. When not writing, she’s sailing, playing Star Wars trivia, re-reading Persuasion, or unloading the dishwasher. You can contact her at www.christinegunderson.com