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Betsy Byars

About Betsy Byars

An Interview with Betsy Byars

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Betsy Byars began her writing career rather late in life. "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. My father wanted me to be a mathematician." So Byars set out to become mathematician, but when she couldn't grasp calculus in college, she turned to English. Even then, writing was not on her immediate horizon.

First, she married and started a family. The writing career didn't emerge until she was 28, a mother of two children, and living in a small place she called the barracks apartment, in Urbana, Illinois. She and her husband, Ed, had moved there in 1956 so he could attend graduate school at the University of Illinois. She was bored, had no friends, and so turned to writing to fill her time. Byars started writing articles for The Saturday Evening Post, Look,and other magazines. As her family grew and her children started to read, she began to write books for young people and, fortunately for her readers, discovered that there was more to being a writer than sitting in front of a typewriter.

"Making up stories and characters is so interesting that I'm never bored. Each book has been a different writing experience. It takes me about a year to write a book, but I spend another year thinking about it, polishing it, and making improvements. I always put something of myself into my books -- something that happened to me. Once a wanderer came by my house and showed me how to brush my teeth with a cherry twig; that went in The House of WingsThe Summer of the Swans.

Since that time, Byars has written more than 45 books for young readers and has won numerous awards, including The American Book Award, which she received in 1981 for The Night Swimmers. The humor, compassion, and insight Byars brings to each of her books won her a large audience of admirers both in the United States and abroad. Six of her novels were presented on national television, and her books are translated into nine languages. Six of Byars' novels have been named ALA Notable Books, and in 1971, The Summer of the Swans -- a story about a 14-year-old girl and her mentally retarded brother -- won the Newbery Award as the most distinguished contribution to literature for children in the year of its publication.

Byars was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, on August 7, 1928. Unlike many of the characters in her books, Byars grew up in a normal, loving family. Her father was an engineer and worked as a bookkeeper in a cotton mill. He was stern and hardworking and had a strong sense of humor. Her mother was a lively woman who loved acting and music. Byars's sister, Nancy, two years older, was sometimes an inspiration and sometimes an evil nemesis.

Byars's personal experiences and observations, and those of her children, are the sources of much of her fiction. As a child, she lived part of the time in the country and part of the time in the city, so she had a variety of experiences. She has vivid memories of her school years and of teachers, friends, and bullies. Many of them show up in her fiction.

Byars has always been adventurous and never allows a few setbacks to prevent her from doing things she wants to experience, like petting a blacksnake and flying planes. The snake was named Moon and became the subject of her 1991 autobiography, The Moon and I. Moon bit her the first time she tried to touch the snake (she just wanted to know what a snake felt like), but she kept trying until Moon became used to her. She approached flying with the same persistence and nerve. Her husband has had a lifelong passion for gliders and airplanes, and Byars had always assisted him as crew chief. In 1983, Byars decided to take flying lessons. "My thought was that flying, like writing, couldn't possibly be as hard as everyone said it was. Like writing, it turned out to be harder." Still, she persisted and got her pilot's license. "I am as proud of that as of anything in my writing career," she says.

Betsy Byars and her husband live on an air strip in South Carolina, and have traveled widely throughout the United States in pursuit of their interest in gliding and antique airplanes. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren.

copyright © 2000 by Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved. Find Books by Betsy Byars

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