Joining Random House’s Looking Glass Library imprint this season is Jean Webster’s classic novel Daddy-Long-Legs, written in 1912 and beloved by generations of girls. Baby-sitters Club author Ann M. Martin said she was thrilled to be asked to supply an introduction for the new volume. “When I was growing up I loved stories about plucky girls who face challenges head-on,” Martin told Bookshelf. “That was why I liked Daddy-Long-Legs so much, and probably also why I fell in love with Understood Betsy (although Betsy wasn’t plucky at the beginning of the book) and The Secret Garden. I’m thrilled that Random House is bringing Judy Abbott back so that another generation of girls can be inspired by her spirit, her determination, and her wonderful sense of humor.”
Martin’s introduction is written completely in letters, was Daddy-Long-Legs; we reproduce it here in its entirety.
I’ve been wondering: Why are we fascinated with orphans? Think of all the famous orphans you’ve read about, from Huckleberry Finn to Harry Potter, from Tarzan to the three horribly unfortunate Baudelaire children. And don’t forget Pippi Longstocking, Dorothy Gale, Heidi, and Little Orphan Annie. We even like reading about orphaned animals—Flag in The Yearling and the baby raccoon in Rascal.
Orphans are compelling characters. Since they have no parents to watch out for them, they tend to lead rather adventurous lives, and we sympathize with them because of the hurdles they face and because many of them need to find their way through life without the security of family and home.
We’re fascinated with orphanages, too. There are kookily dreary ones, such as Little Orphan Annie’s—which, on stage and in the movies, is run by the desperate and downtrodden Miss Hannigan, who wants nothing more than to smite her ruffian charges with a bad case of the flu. There are shockingly brutal workhouses, such as the one to which poor Oliver Twist is sent. And then there’s the John Grier Home, which you’ll discover in just a few minutes when you begin to read Daddy-Long-Legs and where you’ll first meet Jerusha Abbott. The John Grier Home is neither kooky nor brutal. Instead, it’s mind-numbingly boring, and Jerusha, who has lived there for all of her seventeen years, desperately wants to leave it and go to college, a prospect that seems nearly impossible.
But more about this later.
I’ve just finished reading Daddy-Long-Legs, so I’m probably a good person to tell you what the story is about. The fact that Jerusha has lived in an orphanage her whole life is only the beginning of her tale. Right off the bat, her dream comes true and she gets to leave the orphanage and go to college. (Trust me, I’m not giving anything away. You’ll find this out in the first six pages.) Jerusha learns that an anonymous benefactor (that’s a rich person who wants to do something nice for someone, but in secret) has offered to pay her tuition at a fancy college, as long as Jerusha writes letters to him about her daily life and her progress at school. This secret benefactor, whom Jerusha decides to call Daddy-Long-Legs, wants to give her a good education and the chance to become a writer.
So the rest of the story (after those first six pages) is told in Jerusha’s letters to Daddy-Long-Legs, from the day she moves into Fergussen Hall at her college to the day, four years later, when she has graduated and something wonderfully unexpected happens.
Aren’t you curious to find out what that is?
Now that you know a bit about the story, I think I should tell you something about the author, especially since I’ve spent a lot of time researching her and it would be a shame not to share what I’ve learned.
Jean Webster was born Alice Jane Chandler Webster in 1876. She died in 1916 when she was just thirty-nine years old. She was the great-niece of Samuel Clemens—who wrote under the name Mark Twain and was the author of Huckleberry Finn.
As most authors do, Webster used details from her own life in her writing, and she incorporated into her stories themes that were important to her. Like Jerusha, who changes her name (to Judy) once she’s at college, Alice Jane changed her name (to Jean) while she was away at school because she found herself rooming with another girl named Alice. Webster’s years at Vassar College were the basis for Judy’s college experience. And Webster, who was passionate about social activism—especially about supporting a woman’s right to vote and about improving conditions in orphanages and arranging for adoptions of orphans—incorporated these themes into Daddy-Long-Legs, its sequel, Dear Enemy, and many of her other works.
This is one of my favorite things about being a writer: You get to write about things that are important to you.
To be continued.
Just one last note before you begin your reading adventure. I should mention that, in case you haven’t figured this out already, Daddy-Long-Legs was first published a really long time ago—in 1912, to be exact—so you may find that it’s a teensy bit old-fashioned. But I don’t think that will be a problem. First of all, Judy Abbott is a very funny narrator and her letters will make you laugh. Second, although an orphan girl growing up in the early 1900s may not be a thing like you, I think you’ll be able to relate to many of her experiences and adventures, whether leaving home for the first time (even if her home isn’t a traditional one), making new friends, falling in love, or trying to become a published writer.
Yours, with love and writer’s cramp (as Judy signs one of her letters to Daddy-Long-Legs),
Reprinted with the permission of Random House Children's Books.
Daddy-Long-Legs. Jean Webster. Random House/Looking Glass Library, $10.99 ISBN 978-0-375-86828-3