Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Bibi Belford

Posted on: March 23, 2016

BibiBelfordBibi Belford graduated with a B.A. in English and her masters in Bilingual Literacy. She worked as a playground supervisor for children of migrant workers and later as a literacy coach and reading interventionist for an elementary school in Illinois, before she retired and turned to writing middle grade novels. She’s also a mom of four grown children.

As a teacher and a mother, there was always something to do instead of write. When Belford finally got the time to write, she drew on those experiences to fill her fiction. Her students would always tell her that they couldn’t find any books they liked. Belford observed too that finding a book with a Hispanic protagonist tend to prove difficult. And so she wrote a story about Sandro Zapote, “whose father is an undocumented engineer working odd jobs while waiting for paperwork. His little sister has a heart ailment, and because his mom was born in the United States, she can take her back to Mexico for treatment.”

Find out more in my interview below and also check out my review tomorrow of her first novel Canned and Crushed. Save the date: March 24!

ALLISON: If you were to write the story of your childhood, what would be the highlights?

BIBI: My childhood was very strict, but because of the era, very free at the same time. After breakfast in the summer, we took off with our neighborhood buddies and roamed wherever we wanted to. During the school year, we rushed home, changed our clothes and disappeared for hours. We played baseball in the open fields, rode bikes on dirt roads with potholes, and invented all kinds of mysterious adventures that involved spying and treasure. We built our own ramps and sledding hills. We climbed trees and made forts with leftover lumber. When the six o’clock whistle blew, we hightailed it home for dinner.

BIBI: My father was a college professor and my mom stayed home with the kids, but she had a teaching degree. We were not allowed to say we were bored or they put us to work.

In today’s terms my family would have been considered low socioeconomic. I had two pairs of shoes. This year’s school shoes and last year’s school shoes. We drank powdered orange juice, called Tang and ate Spam. We helped pick fruits and vegetables and “put them up” which is nice way to say we ate our own canned produce because it was cheaper than canned goods from the grocery store. We didn’t own a TV until I was nine and most gifts I got for were used, but lovingly reconditioned by my mom or dad. One year they gave my brothers and me a huge chalkboard by painting the wall of the basement black. I made the mistake of saying I might want to be a doctor someday and that year I received a kid-sized microscope for my birthday. Weird!

ALLISON: Middle school is a time of transition from being a child to becoming an adult. How easy or difficult was that change for you?

BIBI: Well, here’s where having strict parents was not helpful. When other girls were wearing mini-skirts and listening to the Beatles, I wasn’t allowed to look or act like everyone else. I was very irresponsible and lost things frequently, so they made me carry a briefcase to school to stay organized. And my parents refused to let me quit playing a musical instrument, even though I begged them everyday. So, if you can imagine a very short, middle school girl with glasses, riding a bike to school everyday with a briefcase in the basket on the right and a clarinet in the basket on the left, you will get a good idea of the super nerd I was, back when being a nerd was not popular! Worst of all, I wore an undershirt instead of a you-know-what and at that time the Beatles big hit song was Ba-Ba-Ba-Barbara Ann. I won’t put in the details of the cruel song that kids sang when I rode by on my bike.

ALLISON: Why did you become a teacher? What is your biggest challenge in getting kids to read?

BIBI: I took a job working in a nursing home when I was in high school so I could get experience for my career as a doctor or a nurse. We were called candy-stripers. I quit after one week.

I realized I would never become a nurse or a doctor, so I decided I wanted to be a writer. I loved writing stories and my friends and I even had a little writing club. I graduated early from high school and my English teacher wrote a letter to the college I planned to attend, exempting me from basic college English, so I was able to start right out in the advanced level classes in January. I was in way over my head, but loved my professor and worked hard. The following year, I enrolled in journalism classes, but when I wrote an article that was published in the newspaper about the price gouging of the local grocery store compared to the stores downtown, the store manager called me and made me feel so bad, I knew I couldn’t be a newspaper reporter.

So…. that left me to fall back on the other thing I was good at. Teaching kids. In California, teachers had to have an academic major, so I got an English major and a fifth-year masters in Education. I also spoke Spanish, so I did my student teaching in bilingual classrooms and worked on migrant playgrounds while I lived there. I believe I’ve taught over 1,000 kids to read. The biggest challenge is finding the student’s strength and teaching them using that strength. So many times when a student is considered a struggling reader, they start to struggle with self-esteem. Building up both the self-esteem and the reading proficiency can be challenging.

ALLISON: You’re now in your sixties. What has been your favorite age—childhood, adolescence, young adult, middle age, senior? Why?

BIBI: Whew. That’s a loaded question. If I created people, I think I would do it backwards. Start them out old, and then as they learn and mature, give them more time to enjoy life by having them grow younger. I love the wisdom I have about life, but hate the wrinkles and the arthritis that goes along with it. I would definitely not go back to those middle school days, but my college days opened up whole new worlds. I learned to surf and mountain climb. I babysat for some famous people and became a nanny. Being a mother of four kids ranks right up there with the best years of my life.

ALLISON: What is it like to be retired but essentially starting a new career?

BIBI: At first I felt very isolated and unmotivated. I missed all my teacher friends and wondered if I made the right decision, but the rough draft was due to my editor in January, so that kept me going. I decided to volunteer at a school in Chicago two mornings a week and Fridays at my old school and that has been wonderful. It keeps me in touch with kids, allows me to share my expertise, and gives some structure to the week. I’m not great with the whole marketing, publicity thing, but I’m learning and that also keeps me busy.

ALLISON: What advice would you offer to other aspiring mature authors?

BIBI: The biggest thing people say to me is, “I’m writing a …” and I say, “Is it finished?” They always say, “No.” Until you finish the story, you can’t evaluate whether your character has completed an arc. You can’t edit or revise. Don’t get hung up on carving out the perfect writing schedule or space. Know your target audience. Then just sit down and write. Get a routine. I eat pistachio nuts and write outside when I can. I always read some inspirational material, either from a devotional, a writing magazine or one of my favorite writing books.

ALLISON: You write for middle-grade students. Any thoughts of writing for other ages? Why or why not?

BIBI: I originally thought I wanted to write for the YA market. I pitched a story about two girls from completely different backgrounds who both have self-injury issues and meet in therapy. However, it wasn’t edgy enough and I had not done my research on the market expectations. The girls were a little young for the YA market, but their problems were a little too mature for the middle-grade market. So, when the agents and editors I was pitching asked if I had anything else, I quickly summarized Canned and Crushed, even though it wasn’t half done. Now that I’ve been reading middle-grade and writing middle-grade, I really love that age and the range it offers.

ALLISON: What experiences did you draw to write Canned or Crushed?

BIBI: Most of the events in Canned and Crushed either really happened to me as a teacher, or are a combination of things that really happened. I really did have a student who spit down the stairwell from the third floor. I really did have a student whose father collected road kill. One of my neighbor’s sons was hospitalized for Kawasaki Disease. And one of my students had no insurance and missed two weeks of school because she went to Mexico for eye surgery and stayed with her grandparents. Of course, some experiences come from my children’s lives, but what happens in the family, stays in the family.

ALLISON: Both your current novel and your upcoming novel fall into the category of multicultural literature? What drew you to this type of literature?

BIBI: I actually wrote Canned and Crushed for one of my former students. I was walking in the fourth grade hallway and he came up to hug me. He had worked really hard for three years, learning to read in my reading program. I asked him what he was reading now that he was in fourth grade and he told me he couldn’t find anything he liked to read. I asked him what he wanted to read, and he said, you know, books with kids like me. I asked him if he would read a book if I wrote it, and he said yes. That’s when I started writing Canned and Crushed and one year later, I was able to read the chapters of Canned and Crushed to his fifth grade sheltered/bilingual class before it was published. He was pretty excited. And he did read it!

I think kids want to read about real people with real problems. When they relate to a character, they just might be able to triumph over life’s problems like the character, and be their own hero. I want to write books about characters whose stories just have to be told.

The second book, Crossing the Line, deals with prejudice, and how we all must “cross the line” to stand in the gap when groups are marginalized. My husband and I were biking along the lake shore and stopped to read a dedication plague to a boy named Eugene Williams. When we got home I started researching and my heart broke when I realized his death was the inciting event in the worst race riots in Chicago. And yet, here we are today and what have we learned? Chicago is a very segregated city with a lot of racial prejudice.

I wanted to write a book showing how friendships can bring about change. A group of fifth graders just finished reading the first draft for their literature circle book and they gave me their annotated copies. They all identified the theme as “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” And many of them added, “We have the same problems they had in 1919.” I’m working on a companion book to Canned and Crushed right now, and it’s about a little girl learning to deal with her new diagnosis of diabetes and worrying she won’t be able to do the things she loves to do. One of my favorite girls at school had this problem and her mom told me that there’s a very high incidence of diabetes in Latinos, which I didn’t know.

ALLISON: What else do you like to do besides write?

BIBI: I would love to say something really grand, like scuba dive or rescue rhinoceroses, but I guess I’m a little boring. Read at the beach. Watch movies and eat popcorn. Sew for my granddaughter Hazel, the princess! Facetime with my grandkids: Hazel and Hank. Bike along the lakefront in Chicago. Go out to eat with Groupons. There’s sooooo many restaurants in Chicago.

4 Responses to "Interview with Bibi Belford"

As I told you by e-mail, Allison, I enjoyed your account of your interview with Bibi Bedford. I imagine that the interview encouraged you in your ongoing interest in writing.

This interview reminded me of the reason I like to talk with authors! It also made me realize that perhaps part of the process of becoming a writer is finding one’s style. Here are a couple of clips that stood out to me.

“The following year, I enrolled in journalism classes, but when I wrote an article that was published in the newspaper about the price gouging of the local grocery store compared to the stores downtown, the store manager called me and made me feel so bad, I knew I couldn’t be a newspaper reporter.” That would be me too!

“I originally thought I wanted to write for the YA market. I pitched a story about two girls from completely different backgrounds who both have self-injury issues and meet in therapy. However, it wasn’t edgy enough and I had not done my research on the market expectations. The girls were a little young for the YA market, but their problems were a little too mature for the middle-grade market….” Time and time again, I have been discovering with my submissions whom my writing is not suited for and who most appreciates it.

Great job Allison. Good questions and great answers. Her childhood kind of reminds me of mine in some ways.

Have a fabulous day. ☺

Mine too. Does that show our age? 🙂

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