Brief Description: Orphan’s mysterious benefactor sends her to college
Historical Era: 20th Century
Date Range: 1901
Original Publication: 1912
Suitable for Grades: 7th and up
Target Audience: Teen
Overstaying her welcome at the John Grier Asylum at age eighteen, aspiring writer Jerusha Abbott earns her keep by toiling morning to night at chores and babysitting the younger orphans. Her luck changes when an anonymous Trustee offers to send her to a women’s college, on the condition that she regularly reports on her educational progress. She nicknames her benefactor Daddy-Long-Legs by virtue of the tall, long shadow she glimpsed as he left the Asylum. Once at college she is embarrassed by her humble roots, but she quickly makes friends with the privileged girls and changes her name to Judy, a “sweeter” name.
Thus begins a four year one-sided epistolary relationship, as her “Daddy” ignores her inquiries and communicates mostly through his secretary, who orchestrates her summer plans despite her wishes. In addition to dutifully reporting her progress in school, the imperfect, self-deprecating Judy charmingly describes her new friends, how she spends her allowance, and her summer adventures. Though she longs to learn more about her Trustee, she fails to entice him to reveal himself, nor to attend her graduation, in which he plays such a major part.
Through her letters, Judy is always quick to demonstrate her gratitude. She becomes a published author even before she finishes school, and begins to repay her debt to her “Daddy”, over his objection. She learns to appreciate her impoverished background because it offers a unique perspective on life and teaches her not to take nice things for granted. She strives to live in the present and appreciate each moment. And we read, in a satisfying final letter, the heretofore frustrated Judy finally does learn the identity of her Daddy Long Legs.
First published in 1912 as a serial, Daddy-Long-Legs reflects Webster’s interest in orphanages and other social welfare causes. Though not strictly historical fiction, Jean Webster presumably based Judy Abbott’s college experiences on her own time at Vassar College, from which she graduated in 1901. In her letters, Judy expresses her independent spirit and her views on women’s rights to vote and be educated. A quick and easy read, this entertaining novel is adorably illustrated by the author with hand-drawn stick figures.