Children's books looked 'incredibly easy' - until she tried to write one

WHEN my daughter was in second grade,'' says Betsy Byars, author of 22 books for children and grandmother of three, ''she took me to school for 'Show and Tell' on the advice of her teacher, who wanted the children to see what a Real Author looked like.

''I went on between a pair of guppies and a bird's nest, and I hope you don't think I'm immodest if I say I was the best,'' she said recently at a lecture sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The prolific, award-winning writer continued her story in her native North Carolina drawl: ''I'd only published maybe three books at that point, and I certainly didn't feel like a real author. I never saw my books in bookstores, and although they were in our local library, I'd donated the copies, so that didn't count.''

Twenty years later, now at work on her 23rd novel (''I'm on page 46''), she claims she still doesn't feel like a Real Author. But she has certainly picked up the trappings - a prestigious Newbery Award for ''Summer of the Swans,'' countless other small and large awards for many other works, libraries that automatically stock whatever she writes, and 200-plus letters each week from children appreciating what one member of the audience called ''your thin books - they love them for book reports!''

Packed between close covers are stories of ordinary children - some whiny, some wisecracking, all lovable - in extraordinary situations. One of them takes his crabby grandmother down a river on a raft he's built to escape the Indians in pioneer days; another watches his inebriated uncle drown while trying to cross a partly frozen river. Then there's the 14-year-old who moans about her too-big feet and the dates she doesn't get; she dyes her tennis shoes a most unfortunate color (''They didn't tell me you couldn't dye orange tennis shoes blue!'') - and then rescues her mentally retarded brother, who is lost in the woods.

The children's dilemmas in Mrs. Byars's books are exacerbated by her habit of removing the adults responsible for them, to allow her characters greater freedom. ''Other authors have used the gimmick of getting rid of the parents,'' she told her audience, ''but none of them have done it with the zest I have. I've sent them down turquoise mines, had them running from the FBI, and made them into country-western singers. In 'The Pinballs' (her multi-award winner featuring three foster children), I got rid of six parents in one book. That's got to be some kind of record,'' she says with obvious glee.

As a very present parent herself (she has three girls and a boy), she says the first two children, along with her husband's PhD, drove her to writing. A ''social'' girl from Charlotte who received ''not one hint of encouragement about writing'' through her youth, she married Edward Byars right out of college ''and started having kids right away. It's not popular to write about nowadays, but I've always been very home-oriented.''

They had what she calls ''a very satisfying life'' at Clemson University in South Carolina, full of family and friends, and she claims she would never have started writing if they had stayed there. But after the first two children were born, the family did a stint in Illinois, where her husband took his graduate degree in engineering while she ''went crazy. I didn't know anyone; I had two little kids; I had to do something.''

She started writing at the kitchen table - ''Erma Bombeck-type stuff'' for The Saturday Evening Post, Look, TV Guide, ''and those grocery store magazines.''

Then her children brought home books, ''and they looked incredibly easy, so I thought I'd write one,'' she said in an interview. In a recent move, she says, she ran across ''just boxes full of those initial manuscripts - and they were just pitiful. If you knew how long it would take and how hard you would work before you start to publish, you wouldn't go through this,'' she is convinced.

At first, however, she did not mind the rejections. ''I'd think, 'So they rejected that, wait until they see this one!' and send them out again.'' Then she went through a period of thinking that the manuscripts coming back with pink slips ''were as good as or better than anything being published. That's the point where most writers quit, and it's the very time when they should forge ahead,'' she thinks. Her first book, which she says went out of print ''after my mother bought up all the extra copies,'' received nine rejections before she got a contract. But it wasn't until ''The Midnight Fox'' (her favorite book) that she feels she knew what she was doing.

''I made the mistake that everyone makes of thinking I had to do it my own way. I didn't want to read any other children's literature or pay attention to how other authors did it.'' The results, she thinks, were books that ''anyone could have written - the characters were character-less.''

Mrs. Byars finally took a course in children's literature, and her professor told her, ''In good children's books, the main character changes.''

''That made instant sense to me,'' she says, and she started writing in ''scenes where the character says, 'Now I see that' or 'I finally discovered that. . . .' ''

She has also discovered that children like books that are fast paced, so a good half of her books take place within two or three days.

Still, she says, the crucial element for a good children's book is ''an idea - once you get the right idea, you're home free.'' She says she has gotten to the point where she is so desperate for ideas, she'll take anything. ''I was at a friend's house and, as we were leaving, the friend told me she hated to go out because as soon as she left, kids from the neighborhood would sneak over and swim in her pool. And I thought, 'Of course, the Night Swimmers.' '' She ran home, put a sheet of paper in her typewriter, typed out '' 'The Night Swimmers' by Betsy Byars,'' and thought, ''Great - all I need is 35,000 more words, and I'm all set.''

Still, on about Page 70 she drew an absolute blank. ''On every one of my books I've hit a blank, and I do not sit waiting for the muse to strike when these things come,'' she said. ''I go to the library, take down book after book, and read the first lines from chapters. One might say, 'The phone rang,' and I'll think, 'That's it! I'll get the phone to ring!' ''

The library muse failed on ''The Night Swimmers,'' so Mrs. Byars pulled her other trick. ''I invented a new character. That's why you'll find a completely new human being on Page 70 of 'The Night Swimmers,' '' she explains.

She gets her people, she says, by ''going through life like a pickpocket - I do a lot of creative stealing. Once I was in Chester, S.C., buying something to eat at the market there - my husband is a glider, and we were down there with the plane - when a pair of ancient twins walked into the store, dressed identically. I'd never seen anything like it before, and I followed them around the store, pretending to buy Handiwipes and canned vegetables, just to get a look.'' The elderly twins emerged in ''The Pinballs'' - two of the ''parents'' she got rid of with such zest.

But it's her own children and their friends that give her books their wholly believable flavor, she thinks. ''They were always very communicative and would tell me, 'Guess what happened? . . . Then she did that.' '' But her daughters became wary once their mother's books made it into the school libraries, lest their lives be exposed to all their classmates. ''Maybe that's why I wrote about boys for so long,'' she told the Smithsonian audience. ''My son's friends couldn't read, so he didn't care.''

Not completely true. She wrote her son into the one love story she's written, ''The Cybil War,'' a fact he figured out and confronted her with, saying, ''How'd you like to have your life smeared all over the paper like that?''

Now, she says, she tells her children - all of whom live within visiting distance of their South Carolina home (''We're back at Clemson'') - that the ''statute of limitations is up on their childhoods, and I'm free to choose from times in their lives.''

She still has her ear open, however, for speech patterns peculiar to the under-15 set. ''I wouldn't use Valley Girl talk, because I think that's just a fad, but there are a few universals that seem to crop up. Nowadays a lot of children say, 'he goes' instead of 'he said,' so I've used that,'' she says.

And her newest book - all 46 pages, so far - reflects the same topicality that has made her 22 others relevant to the children in her vast audience. ''It's called 'The Computer Kid,' and it's a complete comedy,'' she says.

It's the kind of story that makes her a Real Author.

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