As I ready this article for publication, I am sitting in the coffee shop where I first met Heather Vogel Frederick, now a much-admired author of some of my favorite books. I still enjoy getting caught up in a series, accepting the likeable and not-so-likeable characters as my new-found circle of friends, anticipating the treat of staying with the book as I open the pages of the second and third and fourth volumes in the series. Not so different than any reader who enjoys series, I think.
Heather has engaged her characters in a mother-daughter book club that feels completely natural. Discussing the classic books is a believable part of the story about these five girls, their mothers, their families, their boyfriends in the later books, and the drama that springs up around them.
In my ongoing look at why series books fascinate us far into adulthood, and especially those we loved as children (and re-read today), Heather’s series is a must-discuss because it is a mirror and a doorway.
Q: When you first wrote The Mother-Daughter Book Club, did you have a series of books in mind?
A. Not at all! I thought I was just writing one book.
Q. As a mother of two, now-grown sons, what brought you to write a book about a book club for mothers and daughters?
A. Ironic, isn’t it?! The book was actually my then-editor Alyssa Eisner Henkin’s idea. She recalled that I spent my middle school and early high school years in Concord, Massachusetts, where Louisa May Alcott lived when she wrote Little Women. “You could set a story there,” she said, “and have a fictional mother-daughter book club read Little Women.” Total catnip—how could I resist? When I was growing up and dreaming of being a writer, Louisa was one of my heroes. I used to ride my bike frequently past Orchard House, the historical home where she lived and wrote, and I saved up my babysitting money for the entrance fee so I could take the tour at least once a summer. I loved looking at all the artifacts familiar to fans of Little Women, and hearing stories about the Alcott sisters, and seeing the desk where Louisa sat when she wrote. So really, when my editor dangled the bait, there was no way this fish wasn’t going to bite.
Q. At what point in your writing plans was the decision made to extend The Mother-Daughter Book Club to a series?
A. Not until after the first book was published. It was warmly received, and I was asked if I’d be interested in writing a sequel. I don’t recall at what point we realized that we had a full-fledged series on our hands.
Q. Did you know right away which books you would feature?
A. As I said, Little Women was Alyssa’s bright idea. With the exception of the Betsy-Tacy books (more on this in a moment), the rest of the books I chose were childhood and teen favorites of mine, and yes, I knew almost right away which ones I’d feature. I loved being able to introduce these classic books to a whole new generation of readers.
Q. Of all the books you chose, Daddy-Long-legs is perhaps the most forgotten of the books. Because of your Mother-Daughter Book Club book, Dear Pen Pal, Chapter & Verse Book Clubs chose it as our annual “classic” for discussion. Book club members had a lot to say about this book. Why did you select it?
A. I have loved this book since I first discovered it as an adolescent. It has everything—an underdog heroine, humor, romance, mystery. Plus it’s as fresh and lively as the day it was first published over a hundred years ago. I’m always surprised that more people don’t know about it.
Q. For Book 5, Home for the Holidays, you featured the Betsy-Tacy books, which delighted legions of active fans who read and re-read these books, which were originally published in the ‘40s and ‘50s. How did you come to choose them over any other popular series?
A. There’s a funny story behind this. I was on a book tour for Pies & Prejudice in the Midwest, and it seemed as if everywhere I went, women would sidle up to me and implore me to think about featuring the Betsy-Tacy books. I’d never heard of them! Somehow, Maud Hart Lovelace’s classic series never managed to make it onto my radar screen as an adolescent, which still boggles my mind. How could I possibly have missed a series of ten fabulous books? At any rate, after about the fourth or fifth such encounter (including one with you, I might add!), the message got through, and I realized that I needed to check this series out. A bookseller in St. Louis actually pressed the first two titles into my hands, after extracting a promise that I would read them on the plane home. I did, and I was immediately hooked. The legions of Betsy-Tacy fans were right—the series was perfect for my fictional book club.
Q. Were you prepared to meet the enthusiastic fans when you spoke at the Betsy-Tacy Convention in the summer of 2012?
A. It was quite overwhelming, and I mean that in the best possible way. I was tremendously touched by the number of attendees, including quite a few mothers and daughters, who’d learned about the Betsy-Tacy books through reading my series, and who came to the convention both to celebrate all things Betsy-Tacy, and to meet me. It was humbling—and incredibly fun. Those Maud Hart Lovelace fans really know how to have a good time!
Q. Why do you feel so many adults continue to be fascinated by books they read as children?
A. Interesting question. There’s something special about the books we fall in love with when we’re young. We carry them with us in our hearts for the rest of our lives. I remember once years ago I was at the gym, and there was this huge fellow with a shaved head and tattoos working out next to me. He looked quite intimidating, and I imagined he probably worked as a bouncer at a biker bar or some such. At any rate, we eventually struck up a conversation, and he asked me what I did for a living. When I told him that I wrote children’s books, his face lit up. “Frog and Toad!” he cried. “I loved Frog and Toad!”
Maybe re-reading or thinking about these books serves as a bridge back, at least for a moment, to who we were when we were young. Books stir deep emotions, and children read with their hearts, losing themselves completely in a story, falling into a fictional world and living it right alongside the characters. It’s a heady feeling, and no wonder we want to step back in time and experience it again. Perhaps re-reading our childhood favorites offers a key to that door.
I recently re-read Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Velvet Room, a book I loved as a tween, and experienced a flash of déjà vu, I guess you’d call it. For a brief moment, I could practically reach out and touch the me-who-was-10-or-12 as she was reading that story for the first time. I almost was her, to the point that the hair on the back of my neck stood up. The memory was so vivid! It was uncanny. And also exhilarating.
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For your reading enchantment, be sure to read each of the Mother-Daughter Book Club books and share them with readers ages 8 to 14 (and their mothers). They’re ideal for a book club discussion (a book within a series featuring avid readers and reluctant readers as book club members).
The Mother-Daughter Book Club, featuring Little Women, Simon & Schuster, 2007
Much Ado about Anne, featuring Anne of Green Gables, Simon & Schuster, 2008
Dear Pen Pal, featuring Daddy-Long-legs, Simon & Schuster, 2009
Pies & Prejudice, featuring Pride and Prejudice, Simon & Schuster, 2010
Home for the Holidays, featuring the Betsy-Tacy books, Simon & Schuster, 2011
Wish You Were Eyre, featuring Jane Eyre, Simon & Schuster, 2012
Heather has another series, too, about spies who are … mice. It’s great fun and irresistible.
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Stay tuned. We have another article in our Anatomy of a Series next week, featuring Kurtis Scaletta’s Topps League books about a minor league baseball batboy.