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What Books Shaped You?

By Arts & Culture Editor Joan Kirschner

If you’re a kindred spirit, reading has also been your lifelong habit, hobby, pleasure, and panacea. With a stack of books on hand, literally and digitally, I have my figurative ticket to yet-to-be-discovered friends, knowledge and adventures…and an antidote to stress, anxiety, and life’s uncertainties. Our childhood reads influence our adult lives – what were your touchstones and favorites?

During elementary school, my weekly allowance was 25 cents, and I saved those quarters and birthday money for books – at 69 cents – at Woolworths: Nancy Drew, nurse Cherry Ames, and “stewardess” Vicki Barr. Sue Barton nurse novels were popular too, and now vintage nurse romances of the 50s and 60s are resurging.

Whitman Publishing reprinted classics inexpensively, and my Louisa May Alcott favorites Rose in Bloom and Under the Lilacs were adds to my bedroom bookcase. During COVID I bought and reread another JFK-era Whitman favorite, the Donna Parker books.

Our Pennsylvania town opened a new library in 1966, where readers faced the scenic Delaware River. I visited weekly with my father (who admitted playing hooky to read). In the older building’s children’s room, I had discovered the Andrew Lang fairy tale books, and Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb, seeding my love of vintage books and illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith, Maxfield Parrish, Arthur Rackham, Howard Pyle, and N.C. Wyeth, but little did I know that other books I came to cherish would resurface later as both inspiration and a source for friendship and camaraderie…

You Have to Draw the Line Somewhere by Christie Harris fed my ambitions, the Oz books by L. Frank Baum led me to magic realism, the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder was my first historical fiction, but the 10 Betsy-Tacy autobiographical novels by Maud Hart Lovelace had the greatest significance. Set mainly in “Deep Valley” (Mankato), Minnesota, they follow Betsy, an aspiring writer, and her close friends through their early 20th century childhood, high school, and young adulthood, and stress the themes of friendship, loyalty, and self-discovery.

Years of searching eventually resulted in this coveted flea market find!

First published in the mid-twentieth century, they have been reissued, and have a still-growing following.

In the New York Times in 1992, I read an article about literary organizations, and learned there was a Betsy-Tacy Society. In the Brooklyn telephone directory, I discovered the author’s daughter lived around the corner. When I called, she invited me to an upcoming gathering at her apartment, where I joined 30 or so women chatting excitedly and oohing and aahing over the framed original book illustrations on the walls, and objects Maud had written about on display.

The organization was (and is) based in Mankato, with hundreds of members in the U.S. and abroad. There was a monthly newsletter, and I had just missed the first convention. An email list-serv soon formed. I joined the New York chapter, and 30+ years later, I’ve since attended several conventions and get-togethers nationwide. Funds have been raised to restore the childhood homes of “Betsy” and “Tacy.”

I now belong to the New England “Newbetsy” chapter, what we still call “The List,” and a Facebook group – but best of all is the many friendships we’ve all made over the decades. Just about everywhere a fellow BT fan may travel, there is generally someone eager to meet for conversation and conviviality.

Illustration Art Venues

Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, the Berkshires

Society of Illustrators, New York. Afterwards, enjoy the Maxfield Parrish mural, and a cocktail, in the King Cole Room (reopening 8/31), at the St. Regis Hotel

Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Delaware

Philadelphia: Louis C. Tiffany mural-sized glass mosaic The Dream Garden, inspired by Parrish

Online: National Museum of American Illustration (Newport, Rhode Island – under renovation)

Joan Kirschner is a Boston area writer/blogger who reviews books, museum exhibitions, theater, film, music, and travel experiences. Her commentary previously appeared on SonsiWoman.com, UllaPopken.com, WomenofGloucesterCounty.com, Trazzler.com, and IndieReader.com. She attributes a lifelong love of reading and cultural events to parents who encouraged her interests early on. Joan began as a retail and mail order catalog copywriter when typewriters, carbon paper, X-Acto knives, and hot glue were found in advertising offices everywhere. She advanced through the ranks and changes in technology, eventually taking on corporate communications, social media, and digital advertising and promotion. She managed and mentored younger writers, acquired skills in art direction, and had responsibility for print and digital communications reaching millions of customers. Surrounded by the babble of languages in Manhattan and Brooklyn and sympathizing with the challenges of non-English speakers, she earned a certificate in the Teaching of English as Second Language (TESOL) and began teaching and tutoring adults and college students. Joan now works part-time in grants administration, freelances occasionally, and covers books and the arts at No Shortage of Words.

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