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Posts Tagged ‘Betsy Byars

MoonandIBetsy Byars writes her memoir, The Moon and I, as she might one of her novels. She starts with a potential problem, that of glancing up to see a snake overhead. Throughout the rest of the chapters, she intersperses interesting tidbits about her life. And then Byars ends her memoir with a fun resolution regarding snakes.

This post isn’t so much of a review of her memoir but, as with similar books, a summary of some of the highlights which I learned about Betsy Byars. For example, she doesn’t like to have any watch her write—even a snake. But she does like to have distractions. 🙂

Her main narrative is about her subsequent adventures with the snake, whom she named Moon, while the subplot so to speak contains flashbacks about her life. Case in point, chapter two talks about how growing up, Byars wanted to work in a zoo. She intended to take care of the baby animals whose mothers had rejected them. For this reason, Byars and her best friend played “Zoo” a lot. This meant setting up zoos in the backyard and then begging people to come and view the exhibits. It also meant there were always on the alert for new acquisitions. One day, the two girls came across some eggs and brought them home. When her egg hatched into a snake, Byars wanted to keep the snake but her mom demanded she release it. And so now as an adult, well, she kind of wants to keep that overhanging blacksnake for a pet.

Soon enough, Byars discovered as Mark Twain once pointed out, “Everyone is a moon and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.” With this twist you can see that Byars is still busy creating an exciting narrative memoir. First though, Byars informs readers that character names are important to her and that she used the name Bubba every time she had a dislikeable character. This is because as a child, a boy named Bubba was the neighborhood bully. Once he even tricked her into touching a mummy hand.

Next, Byars tells us that she loves to type title pages. And so even before she has figured out how her memoir will transpire, when all she has are the characters and the setting, she types a title page: The Moon and I. For Byars, there is no single moment in her life that brings her more satisfaction than a title page. It’s a door about to be opened. But even with having the title, she still doesn’t know how to develop The Moon and I and so she begins to research.

In doing so, she read many charming and not-so charming stories about snakes. She also decides to try and touch Moon. As part of her becoming an authority on her topic, which all authors must do. And in the course of getting to know Moon, Byars discovers his dark side. Moon bites her!

Black_Snake_On_Alert_600The elements of a story are: plot, characters, setting, and scraps. “Plenty of good scraps are important in making a book as in the making of a quilt,” Byars writes. And now that Moon had bit her, she has her first scrap. 🙂

Her next scrap occurs when, after reading plenty of how-to books, Byars sets out to capture Moon. Along the way, a third scrap develops when Byars found a dead blacksnake in the middle of the road. She stopped her car, picked up the snake by the tail, stuffed it into a paper bag, and then threw the bag in the backseat. When driving home, the bag moved. So there went that snake. And Byars returns to her original objective of trying to capture Moon.

Here, Byars shares about how she isn’t a particularly patient person. Which is why she has developed strategies for dealing with the blank page. The first thing is that she goes to the library and reads the first sentence of each book. As soon as one inspires her, Byars goes home to write. When she finds herself stuck again, she pretends to be the reader. She glances back over her pages and starts wondering: “What does the reader think is going to happen? What have I led the reader to expect will happen?” Byars finds that the answers will always come if she waits. But waiting is hard!

This is a lesson she learned in grade one. Her sister had attended school ahead of her. Her teacher’s name was Miss Harriet. This teacher allowed kids to paint, build stores, and other stuff. She also read to the students a book called The Adventures of Mabel. When Byars finally got ready for first grade, she determined that Miss Harriet would be her teacher. Even when her name got called for another class, Byars felt so strongly about having Miss Harriet as her teacher that she snuck off to her class. When the principal finally found her, Byars still got to stay. And she discovered that a good book is always worth a wait.

Her next scrap happens when an eleven-year-old boy knocks on her door. He asks Byars if she would like to buy a snake. And so into her life came Satellite. But Byars still loved Moon.

One of her favorite things about being a writer is that she is own her boss. It’s also one of the worst. Because she alone has to force herself to write. One way she does this is to say, “Betsy, there is a writer in Kansas who is working on the exact same book as you are working on. A snake appeared on her front porch….” She’ll also reminder herself of an upcoming trip, issuing the warning that the book will still need to get done when she returns. And so the first chapter gets done, then the second, and the third, until the book is done.

Then the bigger issue becomes letting go. With The Moon and I, the difficulty with writing the end was that her two snakes were in a state of hibernation. As I noted at the start, Byars soon came up with a fun solution. One that even inspired a new title….

I have deliberately not shared that solution. Or many of the many other escapades Byars shares about her life. Or the various insights into writing she provides. Those are yours to find in the The Moon and I.

It didn’t surprise me to read that Betsy Byars has received more letters about The Pinballs than about any of her other books. Of all her books that I have read, The Pinballs is one of my favorites. I love the three main characters. The plot is perfectly balanced. Even the writing style immediately impressed me. The Pinballs is a classic for many sound reasons.

More than anything, the characters are distinct and memorable. Meet Carlie. Byars tells us she is as hard to crack as a coconut. Carlie also never says anything polite. And yet despite her negative attitude, which includes being suspicious of everyone, I like Carlie. Partly I feel sympathy for her. One paragraph particularly stands out in Byars description of Carlie, “For some reason insults didn’t hurt her. People could insult her all day long, and she would insult them right back. But let somebody say something polite or nice to her—it made her feel terrible.” Partly I like her because, over time, Carlie lets down her defenses. She begins to have normal conversations with others, even to the point of being concerned when one of the foster kids emotionally shuts down.

That would be Harvey. He has two broken legs. He got them when he was run over by his father’s new Grand Am. Of course, Harvey prefers that others think that instead he got injured while playing football. Then everyone would sign his cast and girls would even kiss his cast and leave their lipstick prints. What keeps Harvey going, despite the tragedies in his life, is the belief that his mom will one day return for him. She left three years ago for a commune in Virginia, where she went to find herself and reconnect with nature. Oddly, given Carlie’s attitude that foster kids are pinballs who have no control over their lives, it’s Harvey whom the foster parents feel needs the most support. And they feel Carlie is the one who is most likely to be able to give that support, which Harvey desperately needs when he finally accepts that his mother doesn’t care about her family.

The third character is Thomas J. His story and personality are also unique. Byars writes that Thomas J didn’t know to whom he belonged. When he was only two years old, someone left him in front of the Benson farmhouse like an unwanted puppy. The Bensons were the oldest living twins in the state and he had stayed with them for six years, until at age eighty-eight they broke their hips. Thomas J had lived with the Benson twins so long that when he moves into his new foster home, he about everything because that’s the only way the Bensons could hear him. Even when he learns to speak quietly, Thomas J still barely talks to anyone. Communicating how he feels is something that Thomas J never learned to do, a fact which weighs on him most when he visits the Benson twins in the hospital and aches to tell them that he loves them.

When an author stacks as much against their characters as Byars does in The Pinballs, two approaches are common. One is to weigh down the characters with such misery that their lives are devoid of happiness. I dislike this approach because, when I read fiction, I want my books to reassure me that life has hope. Byars avoids this by providing the foster kids with foster parents who empathize with their situations. A memorable example is that of Mr. Mason’s conversation with Thomas J, when Mr. Mason shares that he took five years to tell his own wife that he loved her. Byars also avoids this approach by infusing humor and warmth into her story. The second approach is to give the antagonists a change of heart, allowing the characters to live well-adjusted lives. While this is a valid solution, it can also feel unrealistic. In The Pinballs, besides the three foster kids being given a safe place to live, the most important change instead occurs within each of them.

Before I conclude this review, I want to mention the writing style. I read a lot of young adult books, where emotional pathos is the norm. While that is part of their appeal to me, I also found myself struck by how little emotional pathos exists within The Pinballs. We find out how insecure Carlie is not through introspection but through learning that she’s developed a certain way of smiling to hide her crooked teeth. We discover how troubled Harvey is not through introspection either, but by the multiple lists he keeps, which Carlie keeps trying to see. With Thomas J, Byars does provide some introspection. This is how we learn that Thomas J remains curious about that morning when the twins first discovered him in their yard. However, even here, Byars mostly uses fleshed-out flashbacks filled with revealing dialog. In The Pinballs, Byars tackles topics often covered only in young adult books, but with such a controlled style that the result is a book appropriate to younger readers too.

The first day I read The Pinballs, I loved it. The feeling never changes, no matter how times I reread it. If you haven’t yet discovered Byars, start with The Pinballs and then move on to any of her other numerous books.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

Duffey_Myers_AdultsThe Writing Sisters (Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers) have been writing for children for over twenty years, publishing more than thirty-five books with a variety of companies: Viking, Simon & Schuster, Random House, Clarion, HarperCollins, Henry Holt. They write primarily chapter books, and have published both individually and together with their mother, Newbery winner Betsy Byars. They graciously accepted my request to write about life growing up as the daughters of Betsy Byars.

Growing up the Daughters of Betsy Byars
Guest Post by Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers

ChildhoodGrowing up with a mother who was a writer shaped us. From our early days we listened to our mother tell us stories. Even when she read a book, the story often came out of her mouth differently. She could not resist adding, embellishing, pumping it up. Later millions of other children would hear her stories as she went on to win many awards for her 60+ children’s books.
More importantly we came from a family of storytellers. The stories we heard growing up did not always start with “Once upon a time.” They started with, “You will not believe what happened to me….” or “Guess what I did yesterday….” From when we were little girls, we heard the cadence of stories, the pause before the punch line, the sense of timing. And the oral tradition of telling stories was the beginning of a writing life.

Our grandfather was a wonderful storyteller and so were a number of other relatives. And there were plenty of writers in the family too, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents–writing books and articles, fiction and non-fiction. There was lots of variety in what they wrote.

But unquestionably, our mother was the greatest influence. Mom loved books and we also love to read. Our mother, writer and reader that she is, always made a great effort to put books into our hands. Our first library was the book mobile, a truck packed with books that came through our neighborhood once a week. The most memorable library growing up in West Virginia was in the basement of the fire station.

myers-byars-duffey-jpg1When it came to writing, we literally learned at our mother’s feet. She read to us as children and, as soon as we could read on our own, we read her manuscripts. We also learned early on what it takes to be a writer–hours and hours of writing and rewriting, years of persistence in spite of rejection. We went in to writing with our eyes open.

When you feel called to write it can seem like an impossible dream. Seeing our mother write gave us a realistic idea about what it takes to be a writer. She would write for hours every day at a desk in the corner of her bedroom. We shared the joys and pains of writing even as children. She is still our inspiration.

We have written independently and together for over twenty years collaborating on four books with our mother. It is nice to be able to share the writing, along with the pain of rejection and the joys of success.

When our mother decided to retire, we formed the Writing Sisters, specifically to show the power of God’s word to change lives. Our writing has shifted from children’s books to adult and from general publishing to Christian. Although change is a challenge, it has brought new life into our careers and our writing.

The Shepherd's Song - cover image copyOur first book for adults, The Shepherd’s Song was released in March by Howard Books.

On Friday I’ll write a review of The Pinballs, which Byars says she’s received more letters about than other book. Save the dates: September 19! I’ve also put a request in at my library for her autobiography, The Moon and I, and plan to report on it later this month too.

If you enjoy children’s literature, you should know something about Betsy Byars. Author of over sixty books for young people, her books have been translated into nineteen languages and she gets thousands of letters from readers from all over the world including the United States. Due to the popularity of her books with children, she has been listed as one of the Educational Paperback Association’s top 100 authors. She has also won many awards. Among them are the Newbery Medal in 1971 for her novel The Summer of the Swans, the American Book Award in 1981 for The Night Swimmers, and The Edgar (for the best mystery for young people) in 1992 for Wanted. In 1987, The Catholic Library Association also bestowed the Regina Medal to Byars for the body of her work.


BetsyByarsIn Questions, Byars writes, “I was born in the same year as bubble gum and Mickey Mouse, 1928, a very good year for all three of us.” Her dad was a cotton mill executive, with a stern and hardworking personality, along with a strong sense of humor. Her mother was a homemaker, who loved acting and music. Byars had an older sister who according to ClassZone was sometimes an inspiration and sometimes an evil nemesis. Byars grew up during the Depression.

Byars attended public schools in North Carolina, where her favorite subject was reading. In Questions, Byars writes, “It wasn’t like a subject. It was a pleasure. I still read all the time–usually a book a day.” Her favorite book was a book called The Adventures of Mabel. Mabel was everything Byars wanted to be: pretty, adventuresome, and a good horseback rider. Mabel could also communicate with animals.

In 1950, she set out to be mathematician liker her sister but couldn’t grasp calculus and so instead graduated from Queens College with a bachelor’s degree in English. After graduating, Byars met her husband, a student in engineering. They had three daughters and a son. In 1956, the family moved to Illinois so her husband could pursue further graduate work.

“In all of my school years, . . . not one single teacher ever said to me, ‘Perhaps you should consider becoming a writer,'” Byars recalls. “Anyway, I didn’t want to be a writer. Writing seemed boring. You sat in a room all day by yourself and typed. If I was going to be a writer at all, I was going to be a foreign correspondent like Claudette Colbert in Arise My Love. I would wear smashing hats, wisecrack with the guys, and have a byline known round the world.”

–Betsy Byars, Class Zone

At age twenty-eight, Byars had young children and no friends and lived in a small place she called the barracks apartment. With her husband preoccupied at graduate school, Byars began writing short articles for magazines to fill her time. ClassZone reveals that as her children began to read, Betsy Byars also began to write books for young readers and soon discovered firsthand that it was exciting and stimulating to create her own stories and characters.


Betsy Byars’s first children’s book was published in 1962, after it had been rejected nine times. Since then, Byars has won multiple awards included the esteemed Newbery and has received glowing reviews for her many novels and picture books. Byars’s books also appear on numerous state reading lists.

When explaining where she gets her ideas, Byars writes in Questions that since her books are mostly realistic fiction, her personal experiences are the sources of much of her fiction as well as things she reads in the newspaper, sees on television, and observes happening to her children and even her pets. “I sometimes think my books are like scrapbooks of my life because almost every incident brings back a memory.”

When Byars started writing, she was living in a small apartment with her husband and two little daughters, and wrote on the kitchen table. She’d keep her typewriter beside her place, push it aside to eat and then pull it back in front of her to write. Now she has a studio and a computer.

In Questions, Byars shares that it takes about a year to write a novel–six months to get the rough draft down on paper and another six months to revise it. After that, it takes her publisher about a year to get the book in print, and so from the time she gets an idea to the time it’s a book, it’s about two years.

Today Byars lives in South Carolina on an airstrip. Both her husband and Byars are pilots. The bottom floor of their house is a hangar, so they can just taxi out and take off, almost from their front yard. Their four children are adults now. The couple have a Scotty dog named Ace, a cat named Bibbs, and some unnamed fish.

For me the best moment comes when I get the first copy of the book. After I send in the galley proof sheets of the book, that’s the last time I see it. Sometimes I see the illustrations and sometimes I don’t. I know the publication date is sometimes in the spring or in the fall, so one day in the spring or in the fall, I go to my mailbox and I have a package. Because I’m not a terribly cool person, I tear it open, and there’s my book! It’s like a feat of magic! It’s like I got an idea that morning while I was brushing my teeth and–presto–here’s the book. It’s a lovely moment, and I hope some of you who become writers will have the same magical moment.

–Betsy Byars, Questions


Tomorrow Byar’s daughters, Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers, will share a guest post about growing up with Betsy Byars as a mom and on Friday I’ll write a review of The Pinballs, which Byars says she’s received more letters about than other book. Save the dates: September 18-19! I’ve also put a request in at my library for her autobiography, The Moon and I, and plan to report on it later this month too.

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