Now you see it… In praise of Betsy Byars

Betsy Byars in 1971

So many children’s novels are about time, and the impermanence of things, the way that an entire world can slip away as we grow away from childhood toward maturity. How often do adults in children’s fiction seem to be calling from the far bank of a swift river, never to be crossed again? I’ve seen critics attribute the abundance of time-slips in the Sixties to expressions of wartime trauma, and a similar schism seems to have opened up this year: days blurring, months stretching, deadlines sprawling ever onward. For some, it seems, this has been a time of return to childhood reading, or for children to suddenly adopt some of the soberness of adult life. Given time to reflect on time, it can seem a flimsy and unreliable concept to just about anyone.

               I found myself thinking about this, reading Betsy Byars this week, her Newbery medal-winner The Summer of the Swans (1970) and less well-known The House of Wings (1972). Born in 1928, Byars is one of the defining authors of post-war children’s fiction and it feels a little like her death, in February of 2020, has been overlooked. Popular and prolific, her novels shaped the modern, real-world, child-centred genre that American writers particularly excel at. “When you write about what you know,” she once said, “you are writing with authority. The two words go together – author – authority, and what that means is that when you write with authority, you give your reader the feeling, ‘This author knows what he, or she, is talking about’” ( Her memoir, The Moon and Me (1991), describes how she would wait to write about a subject until she had experienced it first-hand. When she describes birds in House of Wings, her powers of observation are evident – not just for how they behave, but for how humans respond to them:

Ted CoConis illustration for The Summer of the Swans

The owl made a faint hissing sound, like steam escaping. Then he swooped down into the tub and pounced on the grasshopper with both feet. His talons curled around the grasshopper, and he put it in his mouth.

               The owl’s mouth seemed enormous when he opened it and Sammy stood silently watching him eat. When the owl finished he flew back to the shower pipe and turned his head to Sammy.

               Sammy was standing there with his mouth hanging open. He was thinking that this house had everything – geese, a parrot in the kitchen, a crane, and an owl in the bathroom.

               Then suddenly Sammy noticed how intently the owl was staring at him. He took a step backward. He said quickly, ‘That was the only one I could find.’ He backed out into the hall and went quietly down the stairs.

Like the owl, Byars does not blink, and she encourages us to watch closely as well. Perfectly balanced with this clear prose are things unsaid, or said indirectly. Sammy first discovers the owl the night that he arrives, when he is woken by the voice of his mother, urging her husband to shut the bird in the closet. ‘Sammy could hear his father’s feet on the floor. Then his mother snapped angrily, “Now it’s loose again and it’s going to be bothering us all night. You know how owls are.”’

There’s something funny in that moment, or perhaps it’s just the reader taking pleasure in wildness in an unexpected place, but when his mom says, ‘You know how owls are,’ we have to wonder – does she? Perhaps she does: it’s a hint from Byars that Sammy’s grandfather has been letting things like this happen for a long time, but we only get that hint. Things have emphatically run to wild extremes in the ten years since Sammy’s grandmother died. All Sammy and his grandfather really talk about are birds, watching and caring for them and wishing they could defy death: Sammy’s grandmother goes unmentioned, but the significance of her not being there can be read throughout.

Ted CoConis illustration for The Summer of the Swans

I remember her novels seeming terribly grown up when I was a boy. For a long time, I felt I had to save The TV Kid (1976) and The Cartoonist (1978), each of them character studies really, for when I’d outgrown fantasies and comedies and wild schemes. Then one day, I found I’d passed them. Only a couple of years ago, when I finally read The Eighteenth Emergency and The Midnight Fox (both still in print here in the UK) did I recognise the scale of her power.

You think you know the story of Fox, and maybe you do – the story of a child’s connection with a lone wild creature feels inextricable from the fabric of children’s literature. In recent years, Sara Pennypacker’s Pax (2016), even Anthony McGowan’s Truth of Things sequence (2013-19), have retold it with a similar lack of romance or ornate language, but Byars’ book impressed me for the little surprises along the way, talking wryly about human interaction with one another as much as the eponymous fox. The Emergency is harder to pigeonhole. It’s funny, but its conclusion has a bitter honesty to it that is still a little startling. Byars unerringly captures real dialogue on the page, not just between individuals, but the reckoning within a character as they reconcile themselves to difficult truths.

Ted CoConis illustration for The Summer of the Swans

               A Byars novel is brief (even a slowcoach like me can finish it in a couple of hours) and strictly speaking, they narrate only a fingernail paring of time: a girl’s younger brother goes missing overnight, looking for swans, but is found next day; a boy is abandoned at his grandfather’s house out in the country, and the two get to know one another as they rescue a wounded crane. Now and then, her characters stop and feel time hanging on them, waiting to spring forward. Sara in Summer of the Swans is entering adolescence, and pictures herself poised on a flight of steps that will take her up to the sky. Sammy, in House of Wings, has felt the world spin slower and faster, but it stops altogether when he’s trying to catch a frog, like a Bash­ō haiku. Tom is haunted by ‘the high, clear bark of the midnight fox’, so much he returns to that moment at the start and finish of telling his story. Small details flicker almost too momentarily for the young protagonists to catch, or perhaps it’s their ephemerality they have to notice: when they do, their whole perspective on the world shifts.

               Byars encourages us to notice the freighted meaning of the smallest detail, in the shortest space of time. She is one of those children’s writers I wish were published for adult readers now: perhaps child characters, however closely observed, will always be critically disregarded, as if having outgrown that point of view we no longer need to understand it. At one point in House of Wings, Sammy goes indoors for cornmeal for the crane, and coming out, feels instantly that something is changed. There is a frantic feeling to him trying to find what he has missed – what could he possibly have missed – in such a short space of time: ‘He was prepared to shake the answer out of his grandfather if necessary’. If children’s literature has moments of insight offered by writers like Byars, we shouldn’t miss out on it, whatever our age. It won’t even take very long for us to catch up, but we have to keep watch carefully when we do.

Ted CoConis illustration for The Summer of the Swans

You can order The Midnight Fox from Waterstones here, and The Eighteenth Emergency here, or of course ask your local independent!

I’m ducking back under the ivy, sweeping the linoleum clean, huffing the dust off the radiators and attempting a return to this impossible old library. Hopefully more reviews in the new year, so long as they’re of use!

In the meantime, very best wishes to any library-user, bookshop-browser, blurb-ogler, picturebook-leafer and to everyone who makes books too. Let’s make 2022 as good as it can be, and for the rest of the time, lose ourselves in a good story.