Book corner

A book lover's guide to building a brilliant children's library

No 42 Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster (1912)

It is the summer holidays. It is time for some fun. Quiet fun, otherwise your parents may put a boot heavily on your neck. It is time, in short, for Daddy-Long-Legs.

But first things first. Daddy-Long-Legs (by American author Jean Webster) is the story of teenage orphan Jerusha Abbott who leaves the children's home in which she has grown up and goes to a women's college when a mysterious benefactor offers to sponsor her. His only condition is that she write him letters about her new life and lessons ("Latin: Second Punic War. Hannibal and his forces pitched camp at Lake Trasimenus last night and a battle took place at the fourth watch this morning. Geometry: finished cylinders; now doing cones") and it is these which form the bulk of the book – once she has overcome certain technical difficulties. "Dear Kind-Trustee-Who-Sends-Orphans-To-College … I must take care to be very respectful. But how can one be very respectful to a person who wishes to be called John Smith? Why couldn't you have picked out a name with a little personality? I might as well write letters to Dear Hitching-Post or Dear Clothes-Prop." Having seen his gangly form in silhouette she eventually settles on Daddy-Long-Legs as an appropriate monicker.

Jerusha also quickly restyles herself "Judy", having always hated the name picked out for her by the matron of the children's home – although as she points out, "It really is too bad, isn't it, to have to give yourself the only pet name you ever had?" – and throws herself into college life. After the limited experiences offered by the orphanage, her naturally curious and ebullient temperament is at last given free reign and she is eager to embrace any assignment or friendship that comes her way. She even gets to grips with last week's Book Corner book, Jane Eyre: "Mr Rochester talks about the metal welkin when he means the sky; and as for the mad woman who laughs like a hyena … it's melodrama of the purest, but just the same you read and read and read."

It is a simple story – even the twist at the end involving the identity of the mysterious benefactor can be seen coming from more or less the first page – but Judy's exuberance carries it along at such a pace that the reader barely notices, much less cares. As a heroine, her irrepressible optimism and imagination make her a cross between Anne of Green Gables and the early Katy Carr (pre-spinal fracture in What Katy Did, of course – before she learned to curb those disturbing high spirits). The whole book slips down as deliciously as an ice-cream on a hot summer's day – both of which would be its ideal accompaniment. Enjoy.

Contributor

Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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