It’s been an incredible tough few months not being able to excitedly jump on a train or plane (like Betsy here on the left!) every month to go and see my kids over in Germany. I was just about getting use to them moving over there back last August when this pandemic struck in March here in the UK. So whilst I’ve cautiously booked a trip next month i’m still getting through the days. Still there have been some special moments – sending typewritten letters to each other, telephone calls, silly postcards, fun little parcels, skype calls and I’m now recording a book on cd I hope to finish next week to send accross to them. It’s a Betsy Byars novel Craacker Jackson, and I’ve loved recording it so much it’s made me realize just how fortunate I was to discover this fantastic author back when I was 12. If 16 is the perfect age to read Catcher in the Rye, then 12 must be the perfect age to read Betsy!
I was lucky enough to not just have a bookshop at my school, but also to have my parents put in fen pounds every term onto my account there – easily enough for a choose your own adventure book and a Garfield comic which was pretty much all I got. Still, once in a while I’d try something different. I think I just thought this Betsy Byars book Cracker Jackson had a cool cover with a kid on a bike, and I thought the author had a cool name too. Those days it didn’t take much to impress me. The book itself blew me away, I’d never read anything like that before – it was not just that it was funny and story was believable and exciting, but the way she wrote! Wow, it blew me away. I’d never read anyone writing about people like me, kids whose parents were divorced, who felt like a loser and had a kind of odd family, and who felt always slightly out of the loop with the cool kids but who worried about being cool and funny a little too much. Her dialogue is spot on, and even now reading it for the first time in 30 years it feels as fresh and real as ever.
My school bookshop didn’t have any other Betsy Byars books, for all I know I got the only copy. But over the next couple of years I got a few more – at libraries and birthday and Christmas presents – The burning questions of Bingo Brown. The TV Kid. The Computer Nut. The cool thing is that no matter what the subject was about – you knew it was going to a fantastic read because it was a Betsy Byars book. I remember ripping open The Computer Nut on Christmas day “Oh cool, a Betsy Byars book!” and I always experienced that same adrenaline rush opening the book and reading the first few paragraphs.
We never read anything like Betsy at school in my pre-teen years. We read things like Day of the Triffids and Animal Farm, which whilst enjoyable to a degree never really got my heart racing. I was always suspicious of anything we had to read at school for it meant you’d not only have to read it out loud in turns in class, but write some essay about it too. Betsy was someone I could read – or even better persuade my mum to read to me – and it was like reading about people I might know and hang out with.
I was just doing a bit of research for this blog, and I found out Betsy died in Feb at the age of 91. I had no idea she was still around and writing books. She seemed a tad eccentric, living in a cabin on an airstrip so she could just fly off on her plane whenever she felt like it. I guess that’s cool, even if it sounds a little crazy! Anyway, she was a very rare writer, not many can actually write for the pre-teen market with such style and wit. Literary critics say she is one of the best children’s writers of all time. So, go and check out her books now, read them now or give ’em to your kids. Let’s keep her books in print, for recording this book for my kids now I tell you the books haven’t dated at all – those themes of vulnerability and confusion on the cusp of teenage life will never fade no matter what the world looks like these days, and kids today need her as much as I did back at the end of the last Century 😉