MANKATO — With an elbow propped casually on the podium and her brow turned up in slight suggestion, Meg Cabot — the witty and wry best-selling author of “Princess Diaries” — picked up a copy of Maud Hart Lovelace’s “Betsy and Joe” and cautioned thus:
“There aren’t any young children in the room are there?”
After a burst of laughter from the large crowd of mostly middle-age and pre-teen women, Cabot read one of the most beloved — and steamiest — scenes from one of Lovelace’s enduring Betsy-Tacy books.
Some in the crowd had spent the weekend in Mankato celebrating the Betsy-Tacy Convention and already knew the words by heart. They whispered in synch with Cabot, who read the scene in which Joe and Betsy share their first kiss in Willard’s Emporium, the same place they first met several years — and several books — earlier.
After the kiss, the scene continues with Betsy reflecting she’d enjoyed the moment more than anticipated. She’d never been interested in kissing “this boy or that boy, especially when it didn’t mean a thing.” But with Joe, who clearly was the right boy, “it did mean a thing.”
Here, Cabot paused for emphasis, looked up from the book and leveled with her audience.
“Truer words were never spoken,” she said. “Who can’t relate to that?”
Delivering the keynote address and culminating event of the Betsy-Tacy Convention, Cabot paid tribute to the books that had such an impact on her own voice as a writer. She chose to read the scene of Betsy’s first kiss because, even 100 years after it was written, it remains an example of Lovelace’s ability to connect with audiences across eras and generations. And it remains an example of what Cabot hopes to attain in her own writing.
Cabot said she was 30 years old before a friend introduced her to the Betsy-Tacy books. When she began reading them, she found three young girls — Betsy, Tacy, Tib — who were full of quirk and spirit and strength.
“Even though they were written 100 years ago, they still seem so timely” Cabot said.
During her hour-long talk, Cabot talked about taking comfort in Betsy’s own struggle to find her voice as an author. She talked about taking solace in the way material concerns would often interrupt Betsy’s higher aims.
She spoke about lasting friendships and youthful affections. She spoke about the evolution to womanhood and the warmth of childhood. She said slipping into a Betsy book is like “slipping into a favorite pair of well-worn slippers” and she said she recommends the books to friends, young and old.
The now-40-something author said she was thrilled to be invited.
“When I was packing to come to Mankato, I got all my Betsy-Tacy books together” said Cabot, a wide grin forming as she sets to deliver the punchline. “I kept thinking, ‘I’ll have to get Maud to sign these.’”
Lovelace, by the way, was buried in Mankato’s Glenwood Cemetery in 1980 — yet, her legacy lives as strong as ever.
HarperCollins recently decided to reprint two of the Betsy-Tacy books because of public demand — and Cabot was chosen to write the foreword. Hundreds turned out from all corners of the country to participate in the weekend Betsy-Tacy Convention, which was organized by a national fan club to benefit the local Betsy-Tacy Society.
There were even a few Lovelace fans among the dozens of 11-year-old girls that attended Cabot’s address to get an autograph and picture.
“I like Betsy-Tacy the best because they are my grandma’s favorite,” said 8-year-old Emma Olson, her beaming grandmother within earshot. “She read them when she was even littler than me.”