Amy Dolnick Rechner was a lonely college freshman -- you know the one, whose roommates went home every weekend to their boyfriends. It was late fall, getting darker earlier each time she entered Walter Library at the University of Minnesota to study. She recalled the day she took a break, idly thumbing through the stacks, when she saw them.
"There were the Betsy books and I literally remember going, 'Ohhh!'," Rechner said. "I sat down on one of those filthy steel stepstools and the next time I looked up, it was pitch dark outside. That was the first time I encountered the idea that grownups could re-read children's literature."
Rechner, of Naperville, Ill., is among devotees coming to Minnesota next week for a convention for the Betsy-Tacy book series, written by Maud Hart Lovelace about her childhood in Mankato, which she called Deep Valley.
There will be talks, tours, singalongs, cocktails with some "perfectly awful girls" (it's an in-joke), and even the chance to be a hired girl, scouring coal scuttles and such in the homes preserved as Betsy's or Tacy's.
The allegiance to Betsy-Tacy books resembles the devotion others have to such classics as Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books, or "Anne of Green Gables," the Oz series or Harry Potter.
First-time readers often consume series in great gulps, unaware of how these stories may stay with them for the rest of their lives. That happens over time, after they've grown used to images and passages popping into their heads at unexpected moments: when they are afraid, or argue with a friend, or need to discipline a child or find a kindred spirit.
"It's like going to your happy place," Rechner said. "Your place is a fictional world that somebody else created, but you can time-travel yourself into it. You grab your copy of 'Anne of the Island' or whatever and you go away for awhile. It's like crawling into the warmest, fuzziest socks in the world."
Seeking security, simplicity
Girls tend to have more fuzzy socks than boys, although the Harry Potter books enveloped both genders. Heather Vogel Frederick, who writes the "Mother-Daughter Book Club" series in Portland, Ore., was in Denver's airport the day after the final Harry Potter book was published.
"You could have heard a pin drop -- in the Denver airport!" she said. "Everybody was reading that book."
Series often snag us through an emotional attachment to a character, Frederick said. "They become very real to you and that's why you want to step into that world again. I've known people whose childhoods weren't so happy or were rocky, and in the fictional world they knew how things were going to turn out. I think we all have a yearning for that solid framework of family and friendship and love."
Kathy Baxter, a children's literature consultant from Coon Rapids and co-founder of the Maud Hart Lovelace Society, recounted a favorite passage in "Heaven to Betsy," when she and her sister decide as teenagers to switch from the Baptist to the Episcopalian church. They fear this will hurt their father's feelings, and that people will talk, but he tells them not to be swayed by others' opinions. He is more concerned that they approached their decision thoughtfully.
"The most important part of religion isn't in any church," he tells them. "It's down in your own heart. Religion is in your thoughts, and in the way you act from day to day, in the way you treat other people. It's honesty, and unselfishness, and kindness. Especially kindness."
Baxter said the New York Public Library refused to buy this installment in 1945 "because they said you can't have a book about kids switching religions. But to me it shows the decency, respect and deep affection shown by Mr. and Mrs. Ray toward their children."
Julie Schrader had never heard of the Betsy-Tacy series until she was an adult with kids of her own. She came to the books with a historian's eye, as a way for young readers to learn what ordinary family life was like in the early 1900s. For all the coal scuttles that needed scouring, "the simple problems they had then, we have now," she said. "Nothing changes with friendships."
Schrader, who wrote "Maud Hart Lovelace's Deep Valley" (Minnesota Heritage Publishing, $34.95), wished she had read the books earlier. "I do envy those who read them as kids and how the stories have stayed with them," she said. "That's why it's important that kids are exposed to these books when they are young."
What makes a classic?
In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts found that between 1982 and 2002, the number of young adults who read literature dropped 20 percent -- representing 20 million potential readers. Reading incentive programs swept the country, reversing the trend. But the turnaround also may have been fueled by the serendipitous appearance of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, which then served as a sort of literary flint for other, albeit darker, series such as the vampirish "Twilight" books, or even the almost unbearably bleak "Hunger Games" trilogy.
Whatever the motivators, the news is good: In Scholastic's 2010 Kids & Family Reading Report, more than six in 10 kids ages 9 to 11 said they read for fun and to be inspired. More than four in 10 said the most important reason to read books is to open up the imagination.
While it's pure speculation to guess which modern books will prevail as classics, a spirit of hope and optimism is necessary "for certain books to become part of every American girl's mental wallpaper," Frederick said.
So however courageous Katniss Everdeen may be in "The Hunger Games," the series' dreadful view of the future makes it less likely that a girl, or a college co-ed, middle-aged woman or grandmother will turn to it when she's feeling down and seeking a bit of escape. "If you take away that optimism and hope, you're not going to be a classic," Rechner said.
As her final authority, Rechner turned to C.S. Lewis, whose "Chronicles of Narnia" have sold more than 100 million copies.
"No book," Lewis once said, "is really worth reading at the age of 10 which is not equally (and often more) worth reading at the age of 50 and beyond."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185