Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs is a rather famous little children's book that I had never heard of before reading it about it on various blogs recently; Jenny's review at Shelf Love is the one that finally made me decide to read it.

It took me a pleasant hour to get through the whole thing. Although I'm not the sort of person who tries to guess "who done it" when reading a mystery novel, I did guess who the title character is about halfway through--but that certainly didn't spoil my enjoyment of the rest.

The story is about an anonymous benefactor (Daddy-Long-Legs) who pays to put an orphan girl (Jerusha, later nicknamed Judy) through college with the expressed aim of educating her to become a writer. The only thing she has to do in return is write him a letter every month. So the book consists entirely of Judy's letters to her anonymous benefactor, and she speaks her mind in a way that charms both the reader and the recipient of the letters.

There are so many clever little turns of phrase in this book that it's difficult to pick only a few and offer them up as favorites; you'll find your own favorites if you read the book, which you should.

On a personal level, I quite enjoyed what Judy says about coming from an orphanage to a place (college) where everyone else has a more privileged background:
"...when the girls talk about things that I never heard of, I just keep still and look them up in the encyclopedia."
I've done this all my life. In fact, I had to do it in the very next line, when she mentions Maurice Maeterlinck--I didn't know that he won the Nobel prize the year before this book was first published, in 1912.

On a less personal level, I enjoyed Judy's indignation at not being among the intended (privileged) audience for some of the remarks she is subjected to while at college:
We had a bishop this morning, and what do you think he said?
'The most beneficent promise made us in the Bible is this, "The poor ye have always with you." They were put here in order to keep us charitable.'
The poor, please observe, being a sort of useful domestic animal.
The day after I read about Judy's indignation, I read this piece on what it is to be privileged over at Whatever.

Another of my favorite things that Judy says has to do with reading, of course:
"I think that the most necessary quality for any person to have is imagination. It makes people able to put themselves in other people's places. It makes them kind and sympathetic and understanding. It ought to be cultivated in children."

I was not as charmed as others have been with the illustrations to this book, but perhaps I'd have appreciated them more if I'd read it at a younger age.

My most favorite thing is Judy's summary of the litany of woes she faced one day:
"Did you ever hear of such a discouraging series of events? It isn't the big troubles in life that require character. Anybody can rise to a crisis and face a crushing tragedy with courage, but to meet the petty hazards of the day with a laugh--I really think that requires spirit.

Isn't that the truth? How many of you have you been able to meet the "petty hazards of the day" with a laugh recently?


Harriet M. Welsch said...

Daddy Long Legs was a childhood favorite. I read my mother's copy (which I think was actually *her* mother's copy) over and over again. But even as a small child, I didn't have to look up Maeterlinck because I'd already encountered him in another favorite book: Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes, where the main characters are in a production of The Blue Bird. It's funny, but I have absolutely zero memory of the pictures. But I do remember being fascinated by the whole idea of an epistolary novel. I liked writing letters (as anyone who knew me in college will confirm). I went on to seek out other books like that. The only other one I remember reading off the top of my head was C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters.

kittiesx3 said...

I loved this book as a child; I need to reread it as an adult.

And Harriet, I love The Screwtape Letters.

FreshHell said...

I've never heard of this before. I'll have to find it.

FreshHell said...

P.S. I just ordered this thru paperbackswap.

Karen said...

How young a small child are we talking about here? Five years old? Eight years old? Three years old? When should I be hunting for a copy of this book for my boy-o?

M. Denise C. said...

This was definitely one of my favorites to read and reread when I was young.

However, I need to reread but glad you found it.

Jeanne said...

Harriet, An 18th-C lover will tell ya you can't beat Richardson's Pamela followed closely by Fielding's Shamela. There's also The Color Purple, World War Z (which I liked and did a mini-review of when I started this blog), and the art-book series Griffin and Sabine--I liked the first couple of those.

Elizabeth, the other bloggers who reread it said it held up well.

FreshHell, glad you found it! Dusty will be old enough for it soon, too.

Karen, I'd say the intended age range, at least these days, is 12-21. Jerusha is in college when she writes the letters.

M. Denice C., I don't know how I missed this one, except that it's a very slim book and since children were only allowed to take out ten books at a time from my public library, I checked out the biggest, fattest books I could find each week.

bermudaonion said...

That is so true and I really do admire people who can laugh at the little things. I've known several people like that, and, unfortunately, I'm not one of them. Great review!

Memory said...

Oh, how I enjoyed this book! I read it earlier this year, and just loved Judy's outlook on life.

Jodie said...

It's a really good book. I think I liked the letters where she'd get angry the best, she was a spitfire. Thanks for quoting that line about 'the poor', it made me giggle. Oh and I followed the link to Jon Scalzi's post from Facebook yesterday and it was a good reminder of everything I have to and don't have to negotiate .

Petty hazards make me growl rather than laugh generally (stepping in puddles, keys lost when I have just put them down), should work on that, but put me in an unmoving queue or an airport situation and my chipper British spirit comes to the front. And if it's a customer service situation I'm very much a 'Thank you sooooo much' *much larger smile than usual* woman. I probably look deranged, but I am trying to be nice.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

I'm pretty sure I read Daddy Long Legs around age 8 or 9. It was around the time I was reading the "What Katy Did" books. It's funny you mentioned this book this week because I just (within the last week or so) read something about a musical based on it and wondered if it was too old-fashioned for that. I was too young back them for the epistolary novels you mentioned, but I've read (and enjoyed) all but World War Z. I own all three of the Griffin and Sabine series. I've been thinking I should show them to AJ, who loves the "Jolly Postman" series, epistolary novels for the preschool set.

Jeanne said...

Kathy, you would definitely admire this character.

Memory, I'm glad we can read other peoples' childhood favorites now!

Jodie, yes, the letters where she got angry were some of the best; I just didn't want to have to explain too much of the context for them.
I think I liked the line about spirit because Judy is quite American, and we don't often think of ourselves as having a national equivalent to the "chipper British spirit" that the rest of the world admires so much.

Harriet, a musical?!! I think it could make a great musical!

Amanda said...

I just read this yesterday (it was the only thing my sick-brain could handle) and was very underwhelmed by it. I couldn't stand Judy (she seemed shallow and frivolous to me) and the story didn't really pick up for me until about 2/3rds through. It's one I read quickly and will probably forget just as quick.

Jeanne said...

Amanda, I liked the way Judy was honest about how she had the freedom to be a little frivolous about clothes for the first time. Perhaps it's because I was raised by an Imelda Marcos wanna-be.

Amanda said...

It wasn't that she herself was frivilous about clothes. I dont' care if she was interested in fashion - she has every right to be. It's the fact that she's decided every woman must necessarily be interested in clothes, that it's an inborn trait in women, that if you're a woman you MUST take an interest, that bothers me.

Jeanne said...

Amanda, the part that I didn't attribute to her ignorance of the world outside the orphanage, I dismissed as an attitude of her time, but now that you're getting me to think about it more, it is awfully dismissive.

I know of some wonderful marriages formed on an unequal basis, when the woman was a student of the man, but sometimes that kind of meeting predicts an inequality in the entire relationship.

There is a kind of "pat the little woman on the head" attitude in this book if you're looking for it.

Amanda said...

Funny thing is - I WASN'T looking for it. I actually expected to really love this book. This book was the reason my friend Karen (from Books & Chocolate) began blogging in the first place, and I've looked forward to it for over a year. But that's what I ended up seeing. It probably didn't help that I had a difficult time with her age. She was meant to be in her late teens/early 20s, but sounded about 11 or 12 years old the entire book. I couldn't tell if it was meant to be children's lit or adult lit.

Jeanne said...

Amanda, She did sound younger than college students do today. I thought partly it was how sheltered she was at the orphanage, and partly that kids grow up faster, at least in some ways, now.

It was introduced to me as a children's book. Don't your kids prefer stories in which the protagonist is a little older than they are?

Jenny said...

I do like all the bloggy love for Daddy-Long-Legs. It was one of my favorites when I was a kid, and the picture Judy draws of the calf on the farm looks exactly like my puppy. :p

Jeanne said...

Jenny, I did think of your puppy when I looked at the picture of the gawky calf!