The twenty-first Betsy Byars’ book has just been published. In this country she is one of the most admired and loved of all American writers for children; and acclaimed (in their different ways) by critics and children for the unique blend of humour and understanding with which she depicts the traumas and travails of contemporary childhood.
Betsy Byars did not always want to be a writer. ‘At school I had absolutely no interest in writing. I liked the outdoor life; I thought writers must have the most boring life in the world, sitting and typing all day by themselves. Now that’s just what I do; but I have never been bored. I have been frustrated, disappointed, happy and flat; but I have never been bored.’
Her writing now feeds off observation and memory, not least memories of her own childhood. Her father worked for a cotton mill. The family moved around, sometimes to the city, part of the time in the country. ‘So we had the best of both worlds.’ She and her older sister went to school in a cotton mill village. At the time children had to ‘make the grade’ to move on to the next year. Some didn’t and huge adolescents found themselves stuck in second grade until they could leave at fourteen.
‘We had two of those in my school. The Fletcher brothers. Everyone was terrified of them. One day my sister and I were coming out of school and she looked back and thought she saw a Fletcher brother behind her. She stumbled all the way down the stairs and split her head open. We thought that was so much more fortunate than if it had been one of the Fletcher brothers. She was lucky; she had gotten off easy.’ The Fletcher brothers combined to become Marv Hammerman, the bully who is Mouse Fawley’s Eighteenth Emergency, the only one he and his friend Ezzie’s joint imaginations cannot find a solution for.
Many of Betsy Byars’ characters live rich fantasy lives inside their heads. As she talks about one of her own childhood pleasures you feel that’s another thing they might share. ‘I could already read quite well when I started school. I admired my older sister very much – she was a good reader so I suppose I wanted to be like her. I loved books with chapters – if a book didn’t have chapters it had no value for me at all. One of my favourites was an English author, Margaret Pedlar. She wrote romances – they were “hard reads”, about 400 pages. In the first five pages someone fell in love with this spunky English girl; then for 395 pages they were kept apart. The girl was always riding horses in the desert, the horse would run away with her and she would have to be rescued. There were over forty books, with international settings and titles like Flames of Passion. My sister and I loved them all. I have a collection of them now, I look for them at junk sales.’
At college in Charlotte, North Carolina (where she was born), ‘it was assumed I would be a mathematician like my sister. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents who were working to put me through college but I just couldn’t make it. It was a great relief to change and major in English for my last two years.’
Straight from College she married Ed who had a University post teaching Engineering. ‘We had two daughters almost straight away and a very happy young faculty social life.’ Then Ed decided to take his PhD. ‘We went to Illinois where I knew nobody. We lived in a barracks apartment. Everyone else was taking courses, working, doing something. I was there by myself with my kids.’ That was the turning point. `I had always thought maybe I would try writing some day. Now was the ideal opportunity. It was a case of “I know I can write something but I don’t know what it is going to be!” So I tried everything: magazine articles, mystery stories (I loved reading mysteries so I thought that might be it, but it didn’t work out). The last thing I would have chosen would have been realistic children’s fiction – that appealed to me less than anything.’
But she did try children’s books and five were published. They are not available here. ‘And there’s no reason why they should be. I think one of the happiest days of my life was when they told me The Dancing Camel was going out of print.’ That was her second book. The first was Clementine. ‘I put a lot of my own personality into that. It was totally rejected by everybody. They all said it was terrible so I thought I’d better not do that again. I’d better hide myself. The next four books are personality-less – anyone could have written them.’ Then the worm turned. `I decided I was going to do what I wanted to do.’ So she wrote The Midnight Fox.
‘We were living in West Virginia and we had a cabin up in the mountains. I had seen a fox. It was really something special for me. That sparked the book. It was the first book in which I had used my own children at all. I used a lot of personal things they were doing and things from my own childhood. It seemed to work.’ She had discovered the magic formula, one which has gone on working ever since even though her children are now grown up.
The Cybil War, published last year, is about Simon, his double-dealing ‘friend’ Tony and their rivalry for the approval of the delightful Cybil Ackerman. ‘When my son, who is an engineer now, read it, he said, “That’s me. Did you mean it to be me? And did you mean Tony to be James? Mom, how do you think it feels to see my whole life smeared across the pages of children’s books?”‘ But it seems he doesn’t really mind. What about his sisters? ‘I didn’t write about girls for a long time because my daughters kept saying, “Don’t put me in anything, don’t write about me. What are you writing now?” My son couldn’t have cared less.’
The important thing was having the children around. ‘There’s a big gap between adults and kids. We forget totally what it is like to be ten. My kids were very communicative. When they came home from school and told me what had happened or what they were worried about it would make me remember things that had happened to me and how I’d felt. I’m sure I would not have written what I’ve written if I had not had kids. There would have been no way.’
Another influence on the books is place. ‘The bulk of my books were written in West Virginia. It’s a hard territory, the land dominates everything, it produces very strong individuals, That life shaped those books.’ Recently she and her husband sold the family house and moved to South Carolina. ‘It’s totally different, much more relaxed. We go to the beach.’ And so do the characters in her latest book, The Animal, the Vegetable and John D Jones. Deanie and Clara are looking forward to their summer with their father, until they find they have to share the beach house with dad’s girlfriend and her son John D who isn’t exactly ecstatic either. ‘I had always noticed how tough it is for kids. Being thrown together just because their parents get on, having to find something in common.’
This latest is one of Betsy Byars’ three-character books. ‘I seem to write one character books and three-character books. If it’s one child facing a problem – like The Eighteenth Emergency, The Cartoonist or The TV Kid – he has to face it by himself. But if I can pick how many I want I take three. After you’ve been doing it for a long time – and I’ve written far more than the 21 that got published – you learn what works and what doesn’t: two doesn’t work, four doesn’t work. I know what works for me. The story has to take place in a very short time, one, two, three days. After that I don’t know whether I lose interest or I lose control or what it is; but I want the story to take place quickly. I want to get rid of the parents as quickly as I can. I want the kids to be on their own. I like to take ordinary – people and throw them in a crisis.’
What comes out of all that is an amazing balance of seriousness and humour. Betsy Byars’ stories are funny, but the result of the laughter is to enrich the readers’ understanding of the characters and their situation, to add another dimension to the story. ‘I have always wanted to write just a funny book – but if I try to be funny I never am. If I’m writing seriously the funny bits come almost incidentally. I can’t explain it, it just happens.’ The humour is off-beat, arising often from the deadly accurate, deadpan awareness or wild freewheeling associations and fantasies that children specialise in. ‘I’ve always loved odd things. I go through life storing them up consciously and unconsciously for future use.’ A friend of her daughter, seeing two cobwebs on the ceiling, climbed on the piano stool and did an impression of Tarzan swinging. ‘Only a child would make that association. An adult would see the cobwebs and think, “that ceiling is dirty.”‘ She used that happening obliquely. In The Eighteenth Emergency Mouse is lying on his back. Seeing some cobwebs, he draws an arrow on the wall and writes ‘Unsafe for Swinging’. ‘That incident opened up all of Mouse’s personality to me.’
That exemplifies the way Betsy Byars writes – exploring the characters and what they will do. ‘It takes me a long time to do a first draft. I don’t know where I’m going when I start out. I come to halts and just have to pause and wait. It doesn’t always work out as I planned it. When I started The Night Swimmers about some kids who swim secretly in someone’s pool at night, I thought “this is my chance to write a mystery. They will see something. Just at that time I came across a diary my’ daughter had kept. (We were moving and cleaning out. I’d never have read it when she was little.) And it was all about how much she hated her sister. It hit home to me how much brothers and sisters can hate each other – I’m not talking about a little sibling rivalry – this was just hate. So I wrote about that instead.’
‘Once I get a first draft and I know it’s a book, it’s just total pleasure adding to it. I don’t do any sequels so there’s always the feeling that this is the only time I’m ever going to write about these people. I want everyone to know everything I want them to know. They are all very real to me. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if one of them came up and said “I’m Ezzie, I was in your book.” I see them perfectly, so clearly. That’s why I don’t describe them.’
With all the humour, Betsy Byars’ characters find themselves facing some big issues: death, their own and others, bullying, emotional deprivation, fear, conflict and powerful emotions. ‘Kids have always been willing to have books that faced up to tough things. For a long time adults wanted them to have nice books in which just the loveliest possible world was shown. I find kids like the exciting parts.’
And they read them in the knowledge that in Betsy Byars’ stories everything comes out more or less right at the end. ‘I hope they always will. I think it’s important there should be something positive at the end. When I’d finished After the Goat Man my son read the manuscript. He said, “Where’s the rest of it?” I said “That’s all there is!” He said “If I’d thought it was going to end like that I wouldn’t have wasted my time.” “Hand it back here,” I said. “Maybe there is a little more to do. You can’t let children feel cheated.’
Betsy Byars’ books are published in hardback by The Bodley Head. The following are currently available:
The Animal, the Vegetable and John D Jones 0 370 30914 6, £3.95
The Cybil War 0 370 30426 8, £3.75
The Night Swimmers 0 370 30317 2, £3.75 Puffin, 0 14 03.1409 1, £1.00 (Autumn 1982)
Goodbye, Chicken Little 0 370 30212 5, £3.25 Puffin, 0 14 03.1392 X, 90p
The Cartoonist 0 370 30104 8, £3.75 Puffin, 0 14 03.1182 3, 90p
The Pinballs 0 370 30040 8, £3.75 Puffin, 0 14 03.1121 1, 85p
‘The TV Kid 0 370 11018 8, £2.75 Puffin, 0 14 03.1065 7, 90p
After the Goat Man 0 370 10951 1, £3.75
The Eighteenth Emergency 0 370 10924 4, £3.75 Puffin, 0 14 03.0863 6, 85p
The Midnight Fox Puffin 0 14 03.0844 X, 95p
The House of Wings Puffin, 0 14 03.0887 3, reissue Spring 1983
The Summer of the Swans Hippo, 0 590 72001 5, 65p (Newbery Medal winner, 1971)
The Two Thousand Pound Goldfish Bodley Head, 0 370 30945 6, £3.95, Autumn 1982