Shelf Improvement is a semi-monthly column highlighting three books guaranteed to improve both your library and your life. From literary fiction, young adult, and humor, to spirituality, autobiography, and more, no genre is off limits. The only requirement of the selections featured here is they must be transformative and page-turning. If you’re hoping to build a better bookshelf, Shelf Improvement can help you on your odyssey. This week’s topic is fierce fictional friendships.
Betsy-Tacy, by Maud Hart Lovelace
The idyllic Midwestern town of Mankato, Minnesota, hosts the Betsy-Tacy Society, an alliance of diehard fans dedicated to preserving the writings of Maud Hart Lovelace, particularly her feverishly beloved Betsy-Tacy series. This is no regional fan club. Instead, it’s an international community of readers who know there is something deeply magical and unparalleled about these books.
This society hosts an annual convention, preserves landmarks of Lovelace’s childhood that appear in her semi-autobiographical writings, and maintains a website, gift shop, and blog. Briefly in the 1980s, the Betsy-Tacy books went out of print, and a small but successful revolution ensued. (Rest assured, no publisher will ever make that mistake again.) All said, if this response sounds a bit over the top for what began as an oral collection of bedtime stories for Lovelace’s daughter, then perhaps you better read (or re-read) these books, starting with the first.
Betsy-Tacy is nothing short of mesmerizing. Though written from the perspective of a 5-year-old girl, there’s no age limit on this treasure. It’s full of childhood wonder, rich descriptions of flora and fauna, dry wit about sibling rivalry, and—because Lovelace knows young children are complex enough to handle it—even a chapter on the death of a baby and the mystical way in which two young girls process grief. These are strangely powerful tales about making a playhouse from a piano box, climbing “Big Hill,” and summer picnics on china plates; tales so startlingly simple they become almost a spiritual experience once read. That’s because Lovelace knows how to distill the essence of life—how to exalt minuscule pleasures—under the guise of a book for little girls.
Above all, Betsy-Tacy is an exemplary example of early American children’s literature (similar in style to the Little House series, yet more dreamlike and ethereal), as well as one of the finest books I’ve ever read on deep and lasting friendship. Everyone should know this collection, or at least its first installment. Men and boys included.
A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini
A book that spans three decades in war-torn Afghanistan, from Soviet capture to post-9/11 reconstruction, A Thousand Splendid Suns lays open the direst of human experiences in a way that’s somehow infused with spellbinding beauty, cultural richness, and unyielding hope.
This staggering masterpiece tells the story of Mariam, an illegitimate child who lives on the outskirts of Herat with her spiteful mother and longs to be taken in by her wealthy father. On her fifteenth birthday she escapes to see him, only to find her father wants nothing to do with her and to learn her escape has driven her mother to suicide. Mariam is sent away to Kabul, where an arranged marriage awaits her with a shoemaker named Rasheed. Their emotionless coupling produces no offspring, and soon enough Mariam finds herself in a demeaning, abusive relationship.
The novel also tells the story of Laila, a young Kabul girl who has high hopes for her future and a heart only for her childhood friend, Tariq. But it’s not long before war tears Laila away from both her family and true love. After a devastating rocket blast, she is brought home and nursed back to health by Rasheed, who has plucked her from the shrapnel not out of compassion, but to make her his second wife in hopes of having a son. The ensuing saga that unfolds between Rasheed’s two wives—who eventually become devout and eternal friends—is both breathtaking and heartbreaking.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is remarkable and page-turning for multiple reasons, not the least of which is its ability to relay a complicated political history in a lyrical way. Moreover, the book, like the Afghani women it chronicles, is indomitable at heart, its plot prevailing, even glistening, in the face of despair. But most stunning is Hosseini’s incredible ability to reveal the importance and power of friendship and how a single relationship can allow you to overcome unfathomable adversity.
The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton
When it was first published in 1967, The Outsiders was a groundbreaking addition to the new world of generally tame young adult fiction. Considered controversial then (and sometimes now) for its portrayal of gang violence, teen use of tobacco and alcohol, and uncensored family dysfunction, The Outsiders has risen above its challengers to earn a spot on many high school curricula as required reading. S.E. Hinton’s classic (which she began writing when she was only fifteen) tells the painful and poignant story of Ponyboy Curtis, a sensitive, brooding “Greaser” trying to make his way in a divided western town where the socialites and hoods frequently resort to bloodshed.
Ponyboy’s story begins harmlessly enough—with a walk home alone from the movie theater. But soon he’s jumped by a gang of “Socs,” rescued by his brothers, and subsequently launched into the forefront of an epic eye-for-an-eye turf war in which he must rely on his closest circle of wayward buddies. This beautifully written book is both rough and tender, written in an earnest first-person narrative that is at turns innocent and wise, but always gripping and poetic. Ponyboy’s story is important for its insight into adolescent struggles and the young male mind, but what shines as bright as gold throughout is the unbreakable bonds of friendship Pony and his lost friends cling to.
Many know this selection through its 1983 Francis Ford Coppola movie adaptation only, starring up-and-coming Brat Packers including Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Emilio Esteves, Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, and Ralph Macchio, among others. But as successful as the movie adaptation is and was, fans will be doing themselves a disservice not to read Hinton’s youthful masterpiece. It can be read in a day, but it’ll stay with you for a lifetime.