Monday, June 24, 2013

Would Homer Get Into Harvard?

Harvard professor Helen Vendler, known for making poetry come alive to generations of undergraduates, wrote an article for Harvard Magazine last year on how to nurture the poets and painters of the future, pointing out that great artists are not always great students.  This inspired Mona Molarsky, parent of a current student, to consider "what might appear in his application folder should Homer actually apply to Harvard."  She wrote a letter supporting his application from the perspective of his guidance counselor:

"Dear Admissions Office:
It is with pleasure that we write to recommend a student we think would be perfect for Harvard.  He is one of the most gifted writers to ever attend our high school and his musical abilities are also considerable.  Although Homer has not clocked as many hours in the classroom as some of our students, he nevertheless produced two impressive independent projects that described the Trojan War and its aftermath in dactylic hexameters.  In addition, he has demonstrated a strong sense of adventure and community spirit, wandering from town to town to perform these pieces for local residents.  We can say with confidence that his extracurriculars are very strong.

One point about his national rankings: although he sings his work, accompanies by a small harp, Homer should not be measured against musicians or performance artists.  He's actually a "bard: and ranks in the 99th percentile when compared with others in this category.
Because of the unusual circumstances surrounding Homer's performance schedule, his grades and SAT scores do not reflect his true abilities.  It was not easy for him to cram for pop quizzes or do test prer on the road.  And unfortunately, he had no time for physics, calculus, or any AP classes.  We realize this runs counter to your normal admissions policies; nevertheless, we hope you will recognize the special abilities of this student and see your way to admitting him to the freshman class of 2017."

(from the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of Harvard Magazine - I am a little behind in my reading)

Friday, June 21, 2013

Betsy Was a Junior, Group Read, Part 3

It is time for Betsy Ray’s older sister, Julia, to depart on her first step towards the Great World – her freshman year at the University of Minnesota. She shocks Betsy by saying she both hates and loves Deep Valley – “because it has held me for so long,” Julia said. “And it isn’t my native heath. Never was.” Julia plans to study music at the U but tells Betsy (and the reader) that she wanted to study in New York or Berlin but Mr. Ray thought she was too young. And as we have often speculated, how did he even have enough money from the shoe store to lavish the women in his family with summers at Murmuring Lake and college educations? Everyone within a hundred miles of Deep Valley must have patronized his shoe store.
The last Sunday Night Lunch at the Rays before Julia’s departure is extra sad and extra fancy: Anna makes a towering five-layer banana cake, and Mrs. Ray even makes a gelatin salad with fruit (I didn’t know these were common until the 60s!) which almost offends Mr. Ray who thinks his usual sandwiches should be sufficient. “Anyone would think Julia was going to the North Pole!” he says, although “he felt as upset as anyone.” More people come over than usual that night to say goodbye to Julia, and she avoids sentimental favorites when she plays the piano, instead playing a lively new barn dance song:

"Morning, Cy,
Howdy, Cy,
Gosh darn, Cyrus, but you’re
Looking spry…”

For those who have not yet bought the Betsy-Tacy Songbook, you have a treat in store! It is a magnificent look at many of the songs featured in the books.

The Rays go out for a goodbye dinner Monday night at the Moorish CafĂ© where they are joined by Mr. and Mrs. Poppy. Julia’s trunk is already on its way to college and when we learn that Betsy and Margaret get out of school early on Tuesday although the train to Minneapolis doesn’t leave until 4:45, it seems a bit excessive but keep in mind that this is a big event - few women in this era pursued higher education (and if there were local options, they stayed close to home, as did Tacy’s sister, Katie, who enrolls at the German Catholic College in Deep Valley). Julia’s departure for college is not only an opportunity for Betsy to step up and out of the middle sister role, but also provides a source of news from the big city when Julia zips home on a quick trip due to (surprising in her) homesickness. She tells the Rays about sororities on campus, how the older girls had welcomed her, and describes all the fun she has heard about from them – “They give marvelous parties and invite the fraternity men. And the fraternity men give marvelous parties and invite the sorority girls.” Mr. Ray asks how the people who don’t belong have any fun (sarcasm from Bob Ray?!) and Julia replies that she has no idea. “You simply have to belong to a fraternity or sorority if you want to have any fun.” In a way, it is surprising that Julia, a confident leader in Deep Valley is susceptible to the flattery of strangers, but it sounds very enticing and when I first read this book I was as agog as Betsy and Mrs. Ray to hear all the details. Had I had more responsive junior high classmates, I am sure I would have tried to start a sorority myself!

During Julia’s brief visit home, “they talked sororities at every spare minute, especially when Tacy and Tib were around. Julia was given to enthusiasms and she knew how to communicate them. The Epsilon Iota house became in her description an enchanted domicile. The various Epsilon Iotas – the dark, queenly one, the red-headed one, the twins, the stunning blonde – moved through Betsy’s head like characters in a romance.”
The University of Minnesota Old Campus Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, includes a number of buildings on the Minneapolis campus that date back to the oldest days of the university.  Who knows which of these old buildings is still in use?  Take a look at Shevlin Hall, which was the headquarters for women students at the U when Julia and later Betsy were students. It provided a dining room, and places where the women could hang out and study between classes, and likely meet with their advisors.

Student life was certainly more than sorority rush, and as Mr. Ray pointed out, they were supposed to be studying! You will remember than the Merry Widow Waltz was a sensation sweeping across the country in Betsy in Spite of Herself, when Betsy and all her friends started wearing very wide hats. The craze had continued and co-eds at the U were scolded for wearing their hats to class, which prevented the instructors from seeing what the girls in the back row were up to (reading interesting books instead of taking notes, according to this Minneapolis Tribune article from November 1908). Here is another article on the Merry Widow hat by my talented acquaintance Evangeline Holland that you will enjoy (she really needs to read some Betsy-Tacy).

When you think that Vera Brittain (beloved by me since adolescence), born in 1893, a year after Betsy, was living in Derbyshire as Betsy is growing up in Deep Valley, desperately trying to persuade her parents to let her study at a decent school so she can take the entrance exam for Oxford, while Betsy is passing notes in class and these girls at the U are ignoring their professors… but I am getting ahead of myself. Still, it is worth remembering that access to a university education appears to be taken for granted by Betsy and many of her friends but was not common in Britain for several more generations.  A movie about Vera starring actress Saoirse Ronan is planned.
With hindsight, it is easy to recognize that sororities are not the best idea for Deep Valley High, but Betsy has loyally followed Julia in many activities – joining the Episcopalian Church, flirting with boys, learning to play the piano – at first it doesn’t seem that different from the other clubs Betsy, Tacy and Tib have started. I am the eldest in my family but for those with older sisters what are some of the reckless things your sisters inspired?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Betsy Was a Junior, Group Read, Part 2

The consensus from the Betsy-Tacy listserv seems to be that you don’t want to do high school again. I am telling you, it would be more fun this time. We are better dressed, have better hair, and have learned how to be good friends. Speaking of friends, every plan for a new persona (i.e., Betsy Ray, every September) needs a gimmick or some kind of motivation or what they now call an elevator speech. For Betsy, the long-hoped-for return of Tib Muller from Milwaukee is another vehicle to launch what she hopes will be a special year. Warning signal: when Tib reveals that she has been laughing the silly laugh Betsy advised, although her mother feels it creates a false impression (Mrs. Muller was always a practical parent). Betsy revels in the interest Tib arouses from Deep Valley boys at Murmuring Lake, and in addition, she knows it will be more fun to talk about boys to Tib (who is interested and eager to date after attending a girls school in Wisconsin) than to Tacy, who is a loyal friend but doesn’t understand what the fuss is about. Cynically speaking, having a cute friend who is new in town is a good way to be in the center of activity, and Betsy knows this, although it’s not as if Betsy has ever been suffered from lack of social life.

Having Tib back may help attract some masculine attention at the Lake and at Deep Valley High, but at home Betsy is facing a different challenge as Julia is about to leave for her freshman year of college at the U. Betsy knows what a hole Julia will leave in the Ray family and realizes she should try to help the family cope with her absence. I love Julia’s enthusiasm for everything she undertakes, and I must have been very influenced by her glamorous departure for college because for years (junior high and early HS) when people asked me where I wanted to go to college, I would say, “The U, of course!” “U of what?” they would ask, puzzled. “UMass?” When they finally understood that I meant the University of Minnesota, they were even more perplexed. “Do you know someone who goes there?” they would ask. Ah, not exactly.
Anyway, Betsy has a lot of goals for this year: compensate for Julia’s absence, learn to play the piano, develop her writing, get involved in student government, and as I mentioned the other day, she boldly says she’ll date Joe Willard. Instinctively, she knows that she and Joe share interests in a way no one else does at school, but it has been hard to develop their friendship because of his pride. But if she “weren’t going to go out with Joe this year, I’d try to make that Dave Hunt talk,” Betsy thinks to herself.

Sometimes the planning and anticipation is more fun than the reality. Once it is time for the first day of school (Betsy wearing a new sailor suit – check out this Pinterest page  – on the left there is a picture of two “home frocks” from 1910 that seemed promising – check out the blue dress on the left), Betsy tries flirting with Joe Willard and he doesn’t respond. Later in the day, to her horror, she learns he has started dating, but the lucky girl isn’t Betsy – it is Phyllis Brandish (who, like Tib, has left Browner Seminary for Deep Valley High School), twin sister of Betsy’s ex.

Betsy realizes her plans have gone aft-agley [does Maud mention this quotation comes from Robert Burns (1785): “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, gang aft agley” – often go wrong. In Betsy’s era there would have been a lot of memorization of poetry] and the first day of school is totally ruined when she sees Joe with Phyllis. After one day of school, she has to step back and revamp her plans. Some people can adjust and move on without hesitation, but I think the setback with Joe catapults Betsy into a frivolous mindset that is not sufficiently offset by a sense of responsibility, and which causes her to (again) lose sight of her real self and goals. “Agree or disagree?” as my IT pal at work likes to say.

English friends who read the high school books are often surprised by the coed school and the unchaperoned socializing that goes on in 1908-09 Deep Valley, but for the moment, we will just enjoy the Crowd and ignore the question of whether Betsy is too boy-crazy. And maybe Joe Willard is off with Phyllis but Tony Markham is delighted the Rays are back in town: “[h]e tried to act nonchalant about their return but the affection he felt for them all shone in his big black eyes.” Betsy’s crush on Tony is long gone but there is no denying he fits right into the Ray home…. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The One and Only Ivan (Book Review)

Title: The One and Only Ivan
Author: Katherine Applegate
Publication Information: Harper, hardcover, 2012 – Newbery Medal 2013
Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Plot: Ivan, a Silverback gorilla, has lived for years in a cage the Exit 8 Big Top mall and video arcade. His only friends are Stella, a tired elephant; Bob, a quirky homeless dog; and Julia, whose father cleans the arcade and Ivan’s cage at night.  Ivan is mostly resigned to his lot and, encouraged by Julia, entertains himself by drawing.  When customers stop coming to the Big Top, owner Mack purchases a baby elephant, Ruby, to pull in the crowds.   When Stella realizes she can’t protect Ruby, she makes it clear to Ivan it’s up to him to make sure Ruby doesn’t die in captivity.

What I liked
: I certainly don’t know what a gorilla’s voice sounds like but Applegate did an amazing job making me forget anything but Ivan’s story.  It is understated and sad, but charming at the same time.  Ivan has blotted out his memories (of a happy childhood) so as to endure captivity and has a hard time coming up with a story for the baby elephant, Ruby, but he is the type of resolute character who doesn’t let his friends down.  However, Bob, the dog named by the insightful Julia, had more personality, and I am glad he had a happy ending.  I was very aware of all the dreadful ways this book could have ended, and was grateful to be spared.  I was also struck by the way Ivan revealed his real name was Mud, and it reminded me of how slaves sometimes had their own names but their owners called them whatever they felt like.

What I disliked: I am not a big fan of animal stories, so this was not my kind of book although I did enjoy it.  I probably would have picked Wonder, which I thought was really exceptional, had I been judging the Newbery Awards.  However, I did not read all the contenders and neither one is the type of book I loved as a child or teen.
Newbery Awards: For a complete list, click hereThe Hero and the Crown (1985) and The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1968) are probably my two favorite winners.  Nowadays, Robin McKinley might be considered YA; a Printz candidate instead.  And where is that next Damar book, anyway?
Source: I bought Ivan last month for my nephews but it might be too sad for them!
(photo is of a Silverback gorilla but is not the real Ivan that the book was inspired by)

Monday, June 10, 2013

Betsy Was a Junior, Group Read, Part 1

Chapter 1 - As I take the baton for the Betsy-Tacy listserv's discussion of Betsy Was a Junior, I ask you to imagine it is the end of August rather than early June and that we are all about to return to high school. Part of me is horrified at the very idea, but part of me is convinced I could do it so much better now! What do you think? For those like me who wished high school were more like Deep Valley or Harkness High, would you make a few lists a la Betsy Ray and do a Groundhog Day-like second attempt if that were possible? Or did it live up to your expectations in the first place and you don’t need a do-over?
I think it is fair to say that of all Maud’s books this inspires the strongest emotions due to Betsy’s involvement with sororities and how it affects those around her. One of the reasons we have high standards for Betsy is that we have seen her take stock of herself at the beginning of every school year, make goals, try to live up to them, make mistakes, learn and move forward. As with Beany Malone, sometimes it just seems as if she isn’t getting the message and keeps making the same mistakes. Well, I know I make mistakes so why should I hold Betsy to a higher standard? Plus, I understand one needs human angst to make a good story.

As BWAJ begins, Betsy is spending the summer at Murmuring Lake. She has enjoyed the first two years of high school but longs to be a siren like her older sister Julia. She also has regrets about not having done her best work on the school essay contest. Her freshman year she was too busy socializing to prepare for it, and her sophomore year the contest coincided with her breakup with Phil Brandish. But this year will be different. “I’m going to make my junior year just perfect,” Betsy writes in her journal. “As for boys,” she concludes, “I think I’ll go with Joe Willard!” Oh, Betsy, don’t you know you shouldn’t jinx yourself this way? Only big sister Julia can make these definitive statements and follow through on them - although she is heading off to the U for her freshman year and outside the friendly confines of Deep Valley perhaps even Julia will lose some of her charisma and potency.

For me, BWAJ is one of my favorites, partly because it was the last BT book I read. My childhood library, housed in a lovely yellow building in Newton, MA owned copies of every book except Winona’s Pony Cart and BWAJ, even Emily of Deep Valley and Carney's House Party (I knew more about Vassar than my high school friend who went there). I found Winona in a small library in Chappaqua, NY where my grandmother lived (I also found Cousins by Evan Commager in that library, which I loved and recommend to anyone who can find it). But in the days before online card catalogues, there wasn’t much way to investigate interlibrary loan. One day, several years after I had read the rest of the books, my mother and I went back to the branch of the Boston Public Library where I had got my first library card. Unerringly, I found my way to the L books and there was a beautiful hardcover with dust jacket copy of BWAJ just waiting for me. The children’s librarian, whose name was Judy Lieberman, was delighted for me to find a book that meant so much to me, and in later years teased me that I checked it out so much she should just give it to me. I started reading it in the car driving home, and my mother and sister read it the minute I was done (some things never change - when my sister finished the new Sarah Dessen this weekend, she handed it to me without a word).

So perhaps my long wait for this book is one of the reasons I am so fond of it. Moreover, while we will come to aspects of the book that may cause concern, it is also full of the things we love about Deep Valley: the parties, the dating, the characters we love, the clothes we admire, the teachers we dislike, the assignments we meant to get to, the fudge, but best of all the way the Rays rally around each other in times of crisis.
Leaving aside sororities for the moment, if you could wake up tomorrow as part of the Crowd in the fall of 1908, wouldn’t it be hard to turn your back on that opportunity?  

[From time to time avid Betsy-Tacy fans conduct a group read of the beloved books by Maud Hart Lovelace - let me know if you would like to join us online.]  

The BWAJ images are copyrighted to HarperCollins.