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This article by Carol Otis Hurst first appeared in the October 1996 Issue of Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Newsletter.
For our author study this quarter, let's take the wonderfully prolific author Betsy Byars. Talking with her, you instantly become aware of her candor, accessibility and ability to laugh at herself. The second best way to get to know this warm and funny lady is through her memoir The Moon and I (Messner, 1992 ISBN 0688137040. Paperback). Here we get glimpses of her childhood, (Don't miss the chapter about Miss Harriet, her first grade teacher. It will make you laugh, remember and cry.) and her current life, but the book is so much more than an autobiography. Mostly it's about her overwhelming curiosity and passion for knowing. Her obsession about the snake, Moon, leads her to one of the most hilarious passages I've read in any book. She talks about writing and her unconventional methods of doing so in such a way that kids and teachers who are convinced that writing must be a lock-step process may have some second thoughts. This is one of the few autobiographies that most kids will want to hear read aloud.
Betsy Byars was born in 1928 in Charlotte, North Carolina and some of her books are set in that area. She didn't start writing until her children were teenagers. Her first book, Clementine, was rejected by many publishers before it was accepted. Her husband was a college professor, now retired. His passion for flying, especially glider-flying, is a hobby that Betsy shares. Although she has her pilot's license, she usually serves as ground crew for her husband's glider flights. She takes her writing seriously and most days she drives to a log cabin about twenty minutes drive from her house and spends the day there reading, thinking and writing. It is there that most of her books have been created.
Now that we know a little more about the woman, let's look at her work. Byars has the ability to construct believable, often loveable characters who face some of life's greatest hurdles. Her humor is visible everywhere as is her empathy with the difficulties faced by many children. She writes for many ages and her easy to read books are wonderful fare. There are the Golly sisters, Rose and May-May, whose exploits in the old west are covered in The Golly Sisters Go West (HarperCollins, 1989 ISBN 0064441326. Paperback) The Golly Sisters Ride Again (HarperCollins, 1994 ISBN 0060215631. Paperback. Hardcover.) and Hooray for the Golly Sisters! (HarperCollins, 1990 ISBN 0064441563. Paperback). Betsy Byars' latest addition to the easy to read genre is My Brother, Ant (Viking, 1996 ISBN 0670866644. Hardcover. Paperback). Ant is Anthony, the younger brother of the narrator and their relationship is explored in these short chapters.
She's created some great series books: those about the Bean family, Herculeah Jones, Bingo Brown and the Blossoms, of course. She talks in The Moon and I about how important the names of the characters in her books are to her writing (She thinks of her villains as "Bubba" as she writes) and she's given us some wonderful names: Mousi, Meat, Ant, the Golly's, Bingo, and Mud, to name a few. After children have read that chapter in The Moon and I, they may want to look carefully at her name choices in writing. Byars delights in creating outrageous supporting characters or even main characters and encourages us to celebrate differences and eccentricities among us.
Her more serious novels retain some of that sense of humor and are accessible to most kids from 4th grade up. My personal favorite is The Pinballs (Bantam, 1988 ISBN 0064401987. Paperback) with those foster kids: Carlie, Harvey and Thomas J. tossed about by society and their parents like pinballs in a machine. By the time they get to the Mason home with foster parents who really seem to care, it's almost too late to heal all those wounds. However, Byars manages to convey the message in several of her books that you don't need to carry the burden of past hurts forever and it's never more evident than in Pinballs.
Other Byars' works too good to miss are: After the Goat Man (Viking, 1974 ISBN 0140315330. Paperback) in which some kids help an old man fight the taking of his land for a superhighway; Cracker Jackson (Viking, 1985 ISBN 014031881X. Paperback) in which a young boy's attempt to halt a man's abuse of his wife only exacerbates the situation; Good-Bye, Chicken Little (HarperCollins, 1979 ISBN 0064402916. Paperback) in which Jimmie Little is overwhelmed by the fears and responsibilities of life; The Midnight Fox (Viking, 1968 ISBN 0140314504. Paperback), the author's own personal favorite, in which the black fox that is trapped on his aunt and uncle's farm becomes the focus for a young boy's transformation and The Night Swimmers (Delacorte, 1980 ISBN 0440458579. Paperback) another book about responsibility thrust upon a child too young to handle it.
Most recently we have created a featured book article on Betsy Byars' novel Keeper of the Doves with activities, related books and links.
Byars has written so many books and on such a variety of subjects that upper elementary grade students should have no trouble finding the one that pleases.
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