On the Same Page with Betsy Bird

Betsy Bird is the New York Public Library's Youth Materials Specialist. Her domain covers Manhattan, Bronx, and Brooklyn. She oversees 84 library branches, a territory that encompasses 1.1 million children. In addition, for the School Library Journal, Betsy writes a well-known and popular blog, officially called, "A Fuse #8 Production," or fusenumber8@gmail.com; and reviews children's literature for The New York Times and Kirkus. I met Betsy and learned about her work at the Highlights Foundation workshop, "Books that Rise Above," last October.

Proof of the Pudding

In addition to Betsy's fiction book, Giant Dance Party, she has written a definitive guide, Children's Literature Gems: Choosing and Using Them in Your Library Career. Due to Betsy's extensive knowledge, she is one of the most important "go-to" authorities for the finest children's books. Gems includes several lists of recommended titles, including a list that contains 100 children's books that should be included in every library's collection. And in a style that is Betsy's alone, this list wouldn't be complete without what she calls her "Snarky Annotations." In her commentary, it was gratifying to read that, like Patti Lee Gauch, Betsy has a healthy appreciation for "schlock," such as the Choose Your Own Adventure novels and comic books, as well as for great children's literature. My sentiments, exactly.

Herein is proof of how much children love the books Betsy recommends. On a recent family visit, I brought along Zombie Makers: True Stories of Nature's Undead, by Rebecca L. Johnson, to give to their sons, ages 8 and 15. Some titillating details from Betsy's review of Zombie Makers, which can be found by looking up the second review of Zombie Makers on Amazon.com, " . . . zombies are real. Not in the corpse-walker sense, necessarily, but in nature there are plenty of creatures willing to make others into their mindless slaves." In the review, she went on to give examples from the book, which are indeed harrowing, in the best sense of the word.

After school the next day, while the eight-year-old was busy, the 15-year-old took one look at Zombie Makers, sat down on the couch and began devouring it. I was sitting nearby reading my own book, but soon gave up. He got so excited that he kept stopping me to read each page and show me the pictures. Needless to say, I was delighted that he enjoyed the book so much. That night I saw the book peeking out from underneath the couch. Sure enough, the next day after school he made sure his
brother wasn't around, pulled the book out, and continued to pour over it. At the workshop, Betsy described Zombie Makers as gross, just the kind of information kids love. She even called Old Yeller a zombie book because, and this is an exact quote, "rabies is a zombie disease." Alas, Zombie Makers wasn't the first book Betsy discussed. Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story about Brain Science, by John Fleishman, was. About Phineas Gage, Betsy said in her review that appears second-in-line on Amazon.com, "By and large, nonfiction titles are the hardest ones to sell to kids . . . if you hold  . . . an item that contains actual FACTS . . . usually you're up a crik. Not in the case of Phineas Gage. This book is so chock full of blood, splattered brains, busted skulls, and other goopy beginnings . . ." Well, you can see where this is headed.

The Core Curriculum

During her talk, Betsy stressed that the current future of school curriculum is in nonfiction, in order to prepare students for college and the workplace. Of course, fiction will always have its place, Best explained in a December 4, 2012 article from The Uncommon Corps blog: "No one officially connected to the Core Standards is suggesting in print or otherwise that novels are dead, that literature shouldn't be taught. But, literary nonfiction is also literature." Thus, Betsy made the point that we as children's writers need to write more nonfiction. Period.

Fine, but what does that mean for children's authors beyond researching and writing about a topic? And what is the Core Curriculum, anyway? Since I taught second grade from the Virginia State Standards, I understand from the ground-up how the standards are applied in the classroom. While writing this post, I pretended I was a non-teacher children's writer and looked up the websites that Betsy recommended (below), which, as she said, give excellent explanations on how the Common Core State Standards, CCSS, came about, what they are designed to do, and generally what they are. I think understanding this information is important for both fiction and nonfiction children's writers. However, the general explanations didn't help me understand what I, as a non-teacher children's writer, can put into my works to buttress the CCSS's. I would delve into this now, but feel that this subject is worth more study and reflection so that I can offer you first-hand information from my personal resources that hopefully you can use; thus, a matter worthy of a later post(s).

Betsy's annotated suggestions of recommended CCSS websites:
Betsy's 2012 children's nonfiction titles that she really likes: Chuck Close: Face Book by Chuck Close; A Black Hole is Not a Hole, by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano; Zombie Makers: True Stories of Nature's Undead, by Rebecca L. Johnson; The Great Molasses Flood, by Deborah Kops; How Many Jelly Beans? by Andrea Menotti; Wisdom: The Midway Albatross, by Darcy Pattison; and It Jes' Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw, by Don Tate.

Betsy's take-away: Betsy's blog readers, "authors, editors, book sellers, agents and moms . . . seem . . .  enthralled by the meticulous scrutiny of plots and story lines that her reviews deliver, usually with a biting wit." A quote from Dirk Smillie's article on Forbes blog, The Double Life of Betsy Bird. My take-away: I have added this very special go-to source to my old stand-by's, for some of the best advice on children's literature out there.

If you would like to read past posts in this series, please visit:

Part One: Two Ways to Hook and Keep Your Reader
Part Two: Nouns Need to be Concrete and Appear More than Once
Part Three: Tent Pole Structure
Part Four: Leonard Marcus: Maurice Sendak, Storyteller and Artist
Part Five: Leonard Marcus: Let the Wild Rumpus Start
Part Six: Behind the Scenes with Deborah Heiligman
Part Seven: Deborah Heiligman's Casual Scream

Biography of Betsy Bird
Biography of Betsy Bird at Goodreads
An interview with Betsy Bird
The Double Life of Betsy Bird, by Dirk Smillie, on Forbes Blog

Grand Finale in September: Concluding Thoughts with Patti Lee Gauch
                                                 A list of some of the presenters' favorite books

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 40 articles for children and adults, six short stories for children, and is in the final editing stages of her first book, a mystery story for 7-9 year olds. Publishing credits include seven biosketches for the library journal, Biography Today, which include Troy Aikman, Stephen King, and William Shatner; Pockets; Hopscotch; and true stories told to her by police officers about children in distress receiving teddy bears, which she fictionalized for her column, "Teddy Bear Corner," for the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office Crime Prevention Newsletter, Dayton, Ohio.  Follow Linda on Facebook.


Kathleen Moulton said...

I've homeschooled my kids (now ages 11-30) and have been privileged to integrate non-fiction into the curriculum for many years.

Thanks for the suggested list of non-fiction books. I will be checking them out!

Linda Wilson said...

Excellent, Kathleen. There are so many significant nonfiction books out there.

Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, how cool to meet Betsy. That's one of the amazing benefits of attending conferences! And, knowing she thinks children's nonfiction is needed is motivating. Thanks for sharing.

Linda Wilson said...

Thanks, Karen. Yes, I loved the titles she suggested. All that brilliance under one roof was dazzling. As you can see, I'm still super excited about it, and the workshop was last October!

Anne Duguid Knol said...

Thanks so much for sharing this, Linda. Bookmarking and sharing to keep it on hand as I need time to digest all the info from your article and links. Looking forward to hearing about the results from your own research.

Linda Wilson said...

Great, Annie. I hope it helps. Thanks for writing.

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