Letter from England: Arrows -- All Pointing Upward

One of your authors who crosses the Atlantic with great success is Betsy Byars. I confess myself among her most ardent fans. The Cartoonist (Viking) has just arrived here; along with The Pinballs (Harper) it seems to me to show subtle but interesting changes going on in Mrs. Byars's work, and these are what I want to talk about in this "Letter."

Betsy Byars has very attractive gifts. She tells her stories with admirable economy of plot; her humor is rich, generously lavished, persuasively child-right; she can take a tired theme (like how to cope with the school bully) and refresh it. Best of all, for my taste, is the way, page after page, she will tell you how her characters felt and thought and behaved in universally experi­enced circumstances, and one thinks yes, yes, that's just how it was — and how it still is. Her perceptions are acutely accurate.

The changes in her work are coming from her strengthening confidence about her attitudes to childhood and what fiction can and should offer child readers. From the beginning she did not accept tired views about either. John Rowe Townsend has already pointed out how Tom in The Midnight Fox (Viking), "though he bears that most masculine of names...is a splen­didly un-hearty hero," who breaks the conventional stereotype about boyhood adventures on a farm by experiencing "the perception of beauty in, and feeling for, a wild creature"' — perceptions which give that lovely but too loosely structured book its deeply moving quality.

Mrs. Byars has gone on since then challenging not only chil­dren as readers but also the commonplace assumptions about them. Take, for example, one of these assumptions which The Cartoonist upsets. Children, we are all too often told, must have happy endings to their stories: That's what they prefer and need. But in The Cartoonist no one wins — certainly not Alfie — and the ending, for Alfie and for the reader, is far from a clear-cut, optimistic one. And that all-too-true outcome is made quite explicit by Alfie and for the reader:

Alfie waited. He shut his eyes. He felt as if he were getting a cold.
His eyes burned with tears.
"So don't feel you've won,"...[his sister Alma] said. "Did you hear me, Alfie? Don' t feel like you've won!"
I don' t, Alfie said, so softly the words didn't actually leave his mouth. He cleared his throat. He spoke for the first time in twenty­ four hours. "I don't," he said.

Plainly, Betsy Byars believes that children of seven or eight and older are not only able, but willing, to take on and make their own, without psychological damage — on the contrary, in fact — harsh truths about life which we all, children and adults, often wish were otherwise. And, quite properly in my view, she accepts the responsibility as an author for offering children such truths communicated in a form they can connect with.

She does not offer them Tractarian polemics or too overtly pointed moral lessons. Her didacticism always results from the natural direction of her fiction, not the other way round. It is stories that matter first to her, and the stories present the world. Though, it must be said, Mrs. Byars's weak spot is the way she has sometimes made her meaning too plain. She is such a neat­-and-tidy craftswoman that she is led to close the circle of her meaning neatly, too, leaving the reader insufficient room to maneuver. One would love to see her allowing a little more ambiguity into her work, a little more space for the child to make the meaning with her.

But that is a technical problem for her, not a result of any idea that children cannot manage ambiguity and profundity. Just the opposite. On the back of one of her book jackets she is quoted as saying:

Children today are the sharpest, most intelligent and keen-witted young people the world has seen. I am always aware that not only must I not write down to them, but rather it is a matter of writing slightly above my own head so I will be on their level.

Betsy Byars is not here talking about language — diction and syntax and image; her language is skillfully modulated to suit the range of most child readers. Nor is she talking about experiences that lie beyond the usual run of childhood life; all her books are utterly tied in their events to what is possible and even usual for children. Rather she is talking about perceptions, about frankly acknowledging that things are the way they are, however unpleasant that might be.

Before The Pinballs these perceptions, the ones she had brought into her books, tended to be about matters which could quite naturally have a happily optimistic outcome without loss of credibility. Mouse Fawley, for example, could face the bully and survive to go on his way more confident and rejoicing. But it could not be long before an author of Mrs. Byars's nature felt she had to tackle matters less optimistically resolvable. That change was signaled in After the Goat Man (Viking), and she came to grips with it in The Pinballs.

Being fostered, even in the best of homes, is never any real fun, and the children are rarely without emotional problems. Tackling such a difficult theme produced, to my mind, Mrs. Byars's most satisfying book to date. It is as if the difficulties facing her put her on her authorial mettle. The structuring is tight and more subtly handled than in any of her previous books, the humor has a sharper edge, the characters of the three children are more finely drawn, and dialogue carries the burden of the plot. There is no ducking the awful truth about the kids' backgrounds and parents, who are not blamed nor excused in any explicit way; they are just there, seen as the kids see them.

Yet in order to resolve the story on an optimistic note, Mrs. Byars allows herself to use the hospital scenes and the gift of the puppy in a way which, though affective, is nevertheless sentimental and over-flushed. One cannot blame her for doing so; the pressure on children's writers to conform to the common beliefs about what children's stories must be like is strong, and, in tackling a theme laden with controversial problems, a happy outcome must have seemed necessary.

Perhaps, however, the success of The Pinballs gave Mrs. Byars confidence to push on in the directions her belief about childhood led her. Certainly in The Cartoonist she does not make the same mistake as in The Pinballs. The resolution is uncompromised. She also takes further than she has ever taken before another crucial feature of her work: her use of memory. The Cartoonist is largely composed of memories. As Alfie sits in his attic fastness, he recalls his recent life, sorting out himself and his predicament by playing and replaying these scenes in his imagination.

Of course, every narrative writer is forced to tell us what has gone on before the story began so that we can understand the protagonist's circumstances. But relating that in the form of memories recalled by a protagonist has particular effects on the reader's response. And they are effects children are conventionally thought not to enjoy. Telling an incident as it happens, even though it is seen through the protagonist's eyes, tends to draw the reader in, makes him feel involved, centers his attention on the event itself. Telling it as a memory recalled by a character tends to distance the reader, causing him to feel less immediately involved and focusing his attention on what the incident means in the character's life and in the book as a whole. In other words, Betsy Byars is mainly concerned about leading her readers into a contemplative reading of her story, rather than providing them with entertaining excitements, sensational thrills.

In all her work, Mrs. Byars has used memory in this particular, structurally important way. Frequently, she will get a scene going in the book's present. Then, just before the climax she has prepared you for, she will hold you back by causing the protagonist to remember an incident from his past or an anecdote someone has told him or an association sparked off by the present event. The effect is to increase the suspense — we want  to know the climax of the scene, and she is keeping us in anticipation — but also to increase the significance of the memory, which, because it is connected to an important moment  in the story, adds point both to itself and to the scene as a whole.

She does this, for example, in The Pinballs when Harvey's father takes Harvey out to supper. The first section of the chapter leads up to the moment when father and son leave for the restaurant and is told in the present. Then comes a gap in the page, and the next sequence occurs after the supper. Harvey remembers the supper events while Carlie stands waiting to hear how the evening went and where they ate. But what happens during the supper is a crucial moment in the book's story, a hinge point for Harvey as a character and for the meaning of the tale. By that simple and subtle shift in the narrative, all those things I have mentioned are brought into play: greater suspense, distancing of the reader from the action so that he focuses on character and meaning, and added emotional strength.

On the surface, Mrs. Byars offers children an appealing text, seemingly easy to lift from the page and make their own. A text full of fun and interest: Her subjects are all child-attractive — bullies, animals, physical danger, fears universally known. But she composes her stories so that once absorbed by the surface attractions, her readers are led to contemplate the deeper issues of her tale without their feeling any strain in doing so. Indeed, they wish to do so. The challenge is hidden, but the responsiveness of her readers shows that it is eagerly accepted. ln her Newbery Medal acceptance speech, Betsy Byars describes how her own children, when they read early drafts of her books, will draw down-pointing arrows in the margins against passages they find dull or unsuccessful. I'm quite sure that if asked to do that in the margins of her published books, the vast majority of her growing number of young English readers would draw a great many arrows. But they would all be pointing upward.

From the December 1978 Horn Book Magazine.

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