- Virginia Johnson
When Betsy Cromer was a young girl, someday being a famous author never crossed her mind. To her way of thinking, book writers led dull lives, shut away in some quiet room without company, just typing and typing. There was no way she wanted to live that kind of life. Yet years later, Betsy has written dozens of books. Unlike the authors she imagined, Betsy's ability to understand and work with people was absolutely essential to making her books a success.
When she was growing up, what Betsy really loved were animals. And, as they were living in the North Carolina countryside, the Cromer family had plenty of them. Betsy had a pet goat named Buttsy that would rock her back and forth in a hammock. To get ready for her future as a wild animal keeper, she and her best friend set up a zoo with all kinds of creatures from around the woods and ponds near their home. Lots of kids came to visit. Blood-sucking leeches were one of the most popular exhibits. They were easy to catch. Betsy and her friend would collect them just by wading barefoot in pond.
Going to middle school and high school, Betsy discovered another kind wildlife--boys! She and her friends spent hours trying to get just the right look for class. Then they'd plot how to just casually bump into their latest crushes in the halls between classes.
After high school, Betsy went to college, first at Furman University and then at nearby Queens College. She figured she'd major in mathematics like her big sister. When she started calculus though, she figured out that she'd figured wrong. No matter how hard she tried, she just couldn't understand it. So Betsy switched over to majoring in English.
Staying at Home and Staying Sane
She met her soon-to-be husband while she was still in college. Professor Ed Byars was an intriguing man with a passion for old airplanes. Today, Betsy confesses that she was only too happy that she did not have to enter the job market fresh out of college. Instead she become a housewife. She traveled with her husband as he taught engineering at colleges around the country. Betsy enjoyed raising her four young children, but she was bored and lonely, too. Most of the other professors' wives were either going to school or working somewhere.
With a cranky old typewriter installed in her kitchen, Betsy dealt with her boredom by sending out little articles and filler pieces to magazines. As her kids grew into readers, she tried her hand at children's books. It took seven years before she was able to make a sale in that market. Her first books, Clementine and The Dancing Camel, didn't do very well.
A Turning Point
Ever-determined Betsy went back to school. She took a course in children's literature at West Virginia University. Her new work showed a new realism. With strong and believable characters and situations, Betsy was ready to start on a successful career as a children's writer.
In Summer of the Swans, 14-year-old Sara resents just about everyone and everything: her loud-mouthed aunt, the boring summer days, her beautiful older sister, and her mentally-challenged little brother, Charlie. The only bright spot seems to be the swans, who mysteriously choose to make the nearby lake their summer retreat. When Charlie disappears from his bed late at night, Sara is frantic. Sara finds herself stripped of her assumptions--a friend proves to be unreliable, and an old enemy becomes her strongest supporter.
When The Summer of the Swans was first published, Betsy was very proud of the book. But no one seemed to notice it. She was about to give up writing and go back to school for a degree in special education when she received THE PHONE CALL. The Summer of the Swans had won the top prize in American children's literature: the Newbery Medal.
Suddenly, her mailbox wasn't big enough to hold all the letters: requests to visit schools, requests for interviews, invitations to speak, tapes, and questionnaires. With the 1971 Newbery behind it, The Summer of the Swans started to get much better reviews.
Piecing Together Stories
Betsy Byars is a firm believer in writers' scrapbooks. Bits and pieces of writers' own lives and stories they encounter make up these scrapbooks. For example, Betsy had seen a cat with a golden earring before she wrote Rama. She had also been intrigued by the photos of gypsy caravans that used to crisscross the West Virginia Hills.
Likewise, the feuds between brothers and their bossy big sister in her award-winning The Night Swimmers (American Book Award, 1981) had as their basis the diaries she and her own children kept where the declared war on their siblings in no uncertain terms.
As she looked back on those fretful years, she remembered how terribly important and horrible those close relationships could be. At her first try, Night Swimmers was supposed to be an easy-going mystery about three poor kids who, while sneaking into a neighbor's swimming pool late at night, happen to see something mysterious going on in the shadows.
But as she thought about it, Betsy realized that the important part of the story was not the mystery. What mattered was the way these kids related to each other. So, Night Swimmers, instead of just becoming another quick mystery that might be easily be forgotten, was turned into a meaningful story, destined to be long remembered.
Betsy has written over 60 books. Some are funny. Some are serious. Most have a bit of each blended in. A few, such as Little Horse and The Golly Sisters Go West, are for younger readers, while the Bingo Brown series takes an often light-hearted look at the pitfalls of fifth grade and beyond.
The more of Betsy's books you read, the better you will get to know her. Click here for a complete list of her books that are owned by the Central Rappahannock Regional Library.
Catching Up with Betsy
What's Betsy Byars up to these days? The rambunctious girl child who claims to have ridden on the First Skateboard in the History of the World (see her excellent and funny biography, The Moon and I for more details) lives with her husband in South Carolina. They have an airplane hangar where most people would have a garage. She and Ed often taxi out of their driveway and take to the heavens.
In the woods, a few miles away from her real house, she has a log cabin where she can go and sit and write all by herself. Well, mostly all by herself. She often has Ed and her dog and a blacksnake named Moon to keep her company.
Would you like to write to Betsy? She doesn't have email. But readers can contact her at this address:
401 Rudder Ridge
Seneca, SC 29678
Read More about Betsy Byars on the Web:
Betsy Byars: Techniques and Themes
This article from the professional journal, The Alan Review, provides insights into Betsy's methods.