Being Betsy Bird

Melinda here.  So last time I got all political and the country’s getting all political so I thought you might like a break from political (and me) and enjoy yet another wonderful, wonderful guest blogger!  Hmm, why did I miss this event?  I believe I was trying to broker peace in the Middle East and help Bono pick out some new shades, his were getting kinda old.  Yeah, let’s go with that.  My good friend and active CMAer (see how I seamlessly integrated that?) Michal Richardson, she who shares a name very similar to my maiden name, graciously offered to recap the writers’ workshop with the famous Betsy Bird. Michal helps to create educational games by day, but can often be found folk dancing or elbow-deep in calligraphic ink.  She hopes to one day perform a song on her ukulele from atop a unicycle.  And I hope to see her do it!  Take it away Michal!

That’s a guitar but you get the point

No one I know (or at least, no one I keep in touch with anymore) has ever truly called off that enduring love affair with children’s literature.  But few enthusiasts for the genre could ever hope to rival the unbridled zealotry of Betsy Bird.  At a recent meeting of the writers’ group, in her gloriously geeky and effortlessly witty way, Ms. Bird demonstrated how to take children’s book appreciation to a whole new level.

As the Youth Materials Collections Specialist for the New York Public Library (or some sort of Grand High Children’s Librarian, as far as I can figure), Bird performed her job to perfection.  I came away with a long list of books to read, and a newfound yen for scouring for them online and placing them on hold for pickup at my local branch.  I’ve never felt quite so warm and fuzzy about the NYPL.

Bird outlined emerging trends she’s noticed in various subgenres of children’s literature.  I drew little stars in my notebook next to books given a particularly enthralling pitch – and the stars kept coming.  We learned that hopeful imitators of wizarding-universe fantasy and diary-style novels continue to thrive (as I circled my star next to The Strange Case of Origami Yoda), along with a sudden fascination with books about foster children.  Bird waxed eloquently and longingly about the perfect name of Sarah Pennypacker, author of the foster children-focused novel Summer of the Gypsy Moths (and according to the NYPL website, my copy has just arrived).

Do or do not make origami Yoda.      There is no try.

How anyone named Betsy Bird could covet other names is beyond me.  Then again, I’ve been recording her name as “BB” or “BBird.”  I’ve browsed a few Sesame Street archival scripts in my time, and I keep misreading my own notes so as to attribute Ms. Bird’s lines to a certain 8-foot canary.

Ms. Bird instructed us to be wary of young adult publishers’ predilection for post-vampires, post-zombies, angel-focused fiction – and a post-Hunger Games fervor for dystopic, steampunk-inspired literature.  We were warned to steer clear of celebrity picture books, including Jay Leno’s morbidly intriguing-sounding train wreck If Roast Beef Could Fly.  (I’ll spare you the distressing visuals; you can seek those out yourself.)

Aspiring authors also received a bit of practical advice:  the world always needs more alphabet and counting books, more books about trains, and more books about death.  (Has anyone notified Jay Leno?)  And Bird advised us to get an agent, a SCBWI membership, and the 2013 edition of the Children’s Books Writers & Illustrators Market.  We even learned that the Authors’ Guild can score you health insurance.

But frankly, the most abiding lesson I gleaned from this event was the unnerving but unmistakable wish to simply be Betsy Bird.

Betsy Bird – children’s book guru

For starters, she’s got the best job in the world.  Apparently some librarians’ jobs involve more than agitated shushing and exhorting of teenagers to put their skateboards away:  Bird gets to preview children’s books, and decide their fates on the shelves of the NYPL.

And with the boundless and contagious joy she takes in delineating all her favorite angles on a book well done – and a similar enthusiasm for analyzing why some books simply don’t work – you can see how she landed the job.  She’s damned good at it.

Nowhere did this come across more comprehensively than in the category of picture books.  Bird instilled in me an uncanny desire to read Chloe and the Lion (a meta-aware book in which the lion eats the illustrator), and a preemptive adoration for I Want My Hat Back, which she compared to the work of Edward Gorey.  Sign me up.

When I got home to secure my copy of I Want My Hat Back, I discovered a review on the NYPL site written by none other than Ms. Bird.  As it turns out, in addition to her busy life as a librarian, writer, and blogger, Bird has managed to churn out thousands of book reviews across her own blog (http://blog.schoollibraryjournal.com/afuse8production/) and numerous other sites.  When does this woman sleep?

Betsy Bird has extensive thoughts about children’s books, and is only too happy to share them.  Her views take into account issues I’d never have considered unless I became a children’s librarian myself:  how a book plays to a group of kids when read aloud, for instance.  Bird’s instinct is to analyze the cover, the aesthetic choices of the illustrations, the size of the book and the feel of the pages, the meter usage and the word choices, to hone in on the book’s read-aloud value.  Basically, she thinks like a children’s librarian – one with a singular devotion to her craft.

Bird’s hundreds of thousands of words worth of thoughts on these matters add up to more than an endearingly geeky quirk.  Her reverence for children’s books reminds us of why we take an interest in how they evolve, and why we ever began adoring them in the first place:  these books introduced us to letters and phonemes and words, and to connecting words with telling stories.

Children’s books helped to raise us, and without them (unless you were the type to pick up War and Peace as a tot – which, despite my parents’ best efforts, I was not) we might never have come to love reading, and subsequently arrived at all the modes of storytelling we employ in our lives as media-makers.

So go ahead and revel in I Want My Hat Back.  The New York Public Library has 92 copies.  Someone has made sure of that.

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2 Comments

  1. Wow! That is a hard post to live up to. Not that I won’t try. Thanks for the write up, Melinda. Rest assured that I will do my darndest to be worthy of it. Perhaps I will go join a monastery or something.

    Cheers!

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