Interview with Betsy Bird

Today on the Mixed-Up Files, we are thrilled to have with us, Betsy Bird! Betsy, a NYPL children’s librarian, is best known for her lively blog, A Fuse #8 Production, which has gathered the praise and attention of authors, editors, agents, and other industry professionals, for its wit and detailed commentary on children’s literature.             


Here’s a little more about Betsy:             

Elizabeth (Betsy) Bird is a children’s librarian at the main branch of New York Public Library (a.k.a. the one with the big stone lions out front). In 2006 she started  A Fuse #8 Production, which was picked up by School Library Journal in 2008, where it is housed today. She currently reviews for The New York Times, Kirkus, and TimeOut Kids New York, as well as on her own blog. She has also written articles for School Library Journal and Horn Book Magazine. Bird is the author of the ALA Editions title Children’s Literature Gems: Choosing and Using Them in Your Library Career, and has sold two picture books to Greenwillow. The first, Giant Dance Party (illustrations by Brandon Dorman), is out in Fall 2011. Ms. Bird is also writing a non-fiction adult title for Candlewick with two of her favorite bloggers, Peter Sieruta (Collecting Children’s Books) and Jules Danielson (Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast), about the true hidden histories behind your favorite children’s books.             

Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Betsy! We’re delighted to have you here!              

One of my favorite features on Fuse #8 was the top 100 chapter books poll you did earlier this year. Not only did you tabulate the results from your followers, but you provided an in-depth history behind each book that made the list. Could you tell us a little about this gargantuan project? How long did it take? Were there any surprises along the way?             

Sure thing! It was, as you say, gargantuan. In 2009 my husband had an idea. One of his favorite comic book blog (Comics Should Be Good) had established a poll to determine the best comic book runs in history. It sounded like a great little notion, and Matt told me it would make sense to follow the guidelines of the blog to establish a poll of my own. So in 2009 I conducted the Top 100 Picture Books Poll. Each person participating would send me their Top 10 Picture Books, with their #1 choice getting 10 points, their #2 getting 9, and so on. Then I’d tabulate the points and post the results. The amount of work for the picture book poll wasn’t too bad. At night I’d tabulate results for the month of the polling, in my spare time. At the end of the month I received a HUGE amount of submissions, but I got them all done. Then when I posted the results I thought it would be fun to provide background information on the books. It was fun, but exhausting.             

I apparently didn’t learn my lesson, though, since I conducted the Top 100 Chapter Book Poll this year. I got a lot MORE submissions this time, and I also received a lot of submissions from classes of children. That was unexpected. Unfortunately, a lot of the time these weren’t classes where the kids carefully selected their choices, but rather classes where kids just happened to put down all the names of their favorite series. I therefore had to establish the rule that child votes only counted if two adults voted for the same book. Some people didn’t like that last minute rule, and I can’t blame them since I should have thought of the possibility of class votes from the start. Still and all, the poll was a huge success, though I would have liked more diversity. I’m now trying to figure out how to top it for 2011.             

What were the biggest or most important things you discovered about people’s passions when it came to middle grade?             

Maybe that it’s the book that made a difference in your life when you were ten that will always trump the new fabulous middle grade novel that’s winning the awards today. Our sense of nostalgia (for lack of a better word) is strong. I saw a few lists where space was left for a new book here and there, but most of the top spots belonged squarely to the classics. In some ways, the lists I received were a combination of books adored when people were little, the canon of classic literature, and current favorites.             

Switching gears a little bit, you were on the Newbery Committee in 2007. First of all, wow! What an honor! So what I’d like to know – what was the process like? How many books did you read? And how on earth did you all come to a consensus?             

Newbery Medal ImageWell, of course I can’t talk about the discussions that went on inside the room. That information is forever unknown to the world. But I can answer the technical details. The process is fascinating. I was brought on as a mid-year replacement for a member who was removed due to the fact that she was thanked in a dedication. She had been assured that the book in question wouldn’t be out in 2006, but that was changed and she was left in the cold. Don’t worry, she was on the next year’s committee instead.             

So I came on very late (June) and had to read as many books as humanly possible. Each month my committee submitted a list of the books that we thought were particularly good and our committee chair would calculate the results and email them to everyone, so that we got a sense of what was particularly swell. In October and November we sent in our lists of top titles and each person was assigned a title to present to the group. Of course, once we arrived in Seattle to meet for the final discussion, every single book we had even considered discussing was sent to us in a huge trunk from ALA. We handled every book in that trunk, I remember. Then we talked up our top books. Then the votes came.             

Newbery voting probably changes a little each year, but in our case there was a definite 20 point spread that had to be maintained. When we voted we gave our #1 choice 5 points, our #2 choice, 4 and our #3 choice 3. Then the results were tabulated and the book with a 20 point spread between itself and the other books became the winner. Other books that did exceedingly well became the Honors.             

Some people claim that in recent years, the Newbery choices are out of touch, with books that don’t really speak to young people. What’s your take on that? Do you see the Newberys and the popular books starting to converge?             

Oh, that’s a debate that’s raged since the Newbery began. First off, there’s nothing in the Newbery criteria that says that books have to be “popular”. Not a factor. The criteria says that the awards go to the best writing, bar none. So there’s that. Then there’s the argument that the Newbery has “lost its way” so to speak. I find this a hilarious statement since it assumes that all child readers like exactly the same books.             

Let’s examine some of the recent winners. Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz is sometimes considered one of these books that don’t speak to young people. That’s the theory anyway, and I reckon it comes from adults who didn’t want to read it themselves. However the book has been amazingly popular in my library, in part because it’s found a great deal of life with kids trying out for plays and needing to give monologues in auditions. My aunt’s forensic team in California won some huge awards because they used the speeches in this book. On top of that if a kid has to do something on a medieval village it’s the funniest, drollest, most amusing book you’ll ever find on the subject.             

Now let’s look at The Graveyard Book, a title that supposedly was more kid friendly. I can tell you honestly that I have never had a kid ask for that book. Never. It’s by Neil Gaiman, and I’ve had plenty of children ask for his other title Coraline. But The Graveyard Book is, surprisingly enough (and unlike Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!), a bit of a shelf sitter. It gets assigned in school, so kids check it out for that reason, but so is that old Newbery winner Secret of the Andes, for crying out loud.             

So really, you see this argument crop up periodically every couple of years and folks always think it’s new. Anita Silvey, author of the last Has the Newbery Lost Its Way article wrote a very similar piece about the Caldecott back in 1986 called Could Randolph Caldecott Win the Caldecott? So you see, it’s all relative.             

And now, what about those actual readers! What are some of the books do you think might make their top favorites list? What kinds of books are young people asking for when they come to your library?             

Well, I can only really speak to New York kids, but recently I’ve been getting the usual requests for Diary of a Wimpy Kid and any books at all that might be in any way similar to it. The kids really vary in their tastes, though. For example, I know one 10-year-old who grabs anything at all that was written by Walter Dean Myers while another just read Bink & Gollie and can’t get enough of it. Kids are gaining a real appreciation of humor these days, though I had one young man come in and ask for biographies. I handed him the new Charles Schulz bio and he nearly exploded with joy. So it really depends on the kid.             

On thing they do ask for and that NOBODY has, are books about professional wrestlers. There are none, as far as I can determine and I have children who ask me for them all the time. Mexican wrestlers, professional wrestlers, you name it. Nuthin’.             

We know that books like the Percy Jackson series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and The 39 Clues are enormously popular, and that young people tend to keep returning to what they already know. Are they also willing to try something different and new? As a librarian, do you ever find yourself balancing the need between giving kids what’s popular, with what you might think are “good for them?” (and hey, maybe they might be the same books!)             

Dressing up for the job.

Well, yeah. It’s part and parcel with the job. Generally speaking, I don’t like to have all that much junky fiction in my collection at all. But my definition of junky probably differs from that of a lot of people. For example, I turn up my nose at the latest iCarly novelization but I’m perfectly a-okay with any Dav Pilkey book you want to mention.             

Kids are willing to try something new, but only if you can sell them on it. That’s why booktalking is such an art. You have to be able to pick out those elements of the book that gets the kid interested, but leave ’em wanting more. You can’t give anything away. It’s tough to do, and sometimes I’m shocked when I go back and see which of the books I booktalked the kids took, and which ones they abandoned. It’s never what I expect.             

I’ll definitely hand a kid something popular, but I’ll work in my own subversive books as well. So the little girl who asks me for “princess books” will get the usual crew, but I’ll also sneak in The Paper Bag Princess or Not All Princesses Dress in Pink, and find she’s just as content with those. There are ways to work with a kids’ whims to give ’em what they want AND quality. But sometimes you have to be sneaky.             

Do middle grade kids who are good readers, go on to become teenagers who are good readers? What do you think helps kids to stick with reading through all the social and academic demands of their teen years?             

I wish they did, but as many a study proves, it’s those tween years where you really lose a fair amount of readers. With that in mind it’s a wonder the YA industry does as well as it does. Sticking with reading requires the intervention of parents and teachers, much of the time. Libraries have tried to combat it by creating teen spaces where teens who wouldn’t normally read like to hang out. But parents who take the family to the library and teachers that take class trips there also help out a lot. There’s also some evidence to suggest that those kids who plug in and never were readers are drawn to ereader and other electronic books. You may lure in a whole new kind of readership in the future thanks to the changes in technology. Is that a good thing? Depends on how you look at it, I think.             

One of the missives of From the Mixed-Up Files was to fill in a gap we felt existed in the kidlit blogging community, and to put middle grade literature on the map. Your blog also focuses primarily on younger children’s books – specifically picture books and middle grade. What drew you to these age groups? Is there something special that appeals to you about middle grade over say young adult fiction?             

It’s funny you should ask that. When I was a fresh-faced lass straight out of my Minnesotan library school, I headed to New York City for my first job in youth services. They handed me the world’s most gorgeous library in Greenwich Village and on my first day there the head of the library said to me, “Well, do you want to be a children’s librarian or a teen librarian?” BAM! Just like that I had to make a decision. And I suddenly realized that while I have nothing but respect for the YA world (and it is exceedingly hip right now) I’m a children’s librarian at heart. Get ’em while they’re young, that’s what I say.             

To be frank, I feel like teen lit is a limited world. In children’s books you can go a whole range of reading levels and styles. There are fantastic pictures in both the picture books and the graphic novels. Children’s books in middle grade have to walk a line that I find fascinating, and I guess I eventually decided that my blog was going to follow my job. Also, it’s much easier to review books if you cut yourself off at age 13 and up. The sheer wealth of YA is overwhelming. If I had to consider reviewing those books as well as those 0-12, I think I’d be crushed beneath the weight.             

Additional thought: Middle grade rocks. So honestly, there’s no contest.             

Well, there’s definitely no contest here. 😉             

And now I can’t help asking about a recent party you attended with Neil Gaiman and Daniel Handler. So those stereotypes of librarians with the buns, shushing people…are they just that, stereotypes? Do you librarians lead glamorous lives?           

Betsy shares a merry-go-round with Lemony Snicket

  Boy, I love the stereotype so it’s hard for me to put it down. But at least here in New York we librarians have the chance to be very glamorous indeed. We have Kidlit Drink Nights with folks like Robert Forbes in the Forbes Gallery (as happened just last month). We do sometimes get invited to parties with sword swallowers and mermaids, like the Cynthia von Buhler party you alluded to.              

In my own children’s room I get to hobnob with the authors and illustrators that waltz through my door, and I get to hold Children’s Literary Salons that cover all the hot topics. There’s a librarian social group in Brooklyn called Desk Set that’s so hip they got featured in the Style section of the New York Times once. Heck, librarians even get to appear on the cover of School Library Journal holding drinks . . . and then get yelled at later for breaking the stereotype. So, yeah. It’s possible to lead a glamorous life as a librarian. Just so long as you remember that the next day you’re going to be doing storytime again with a 5% chance of having your shoes vomited on by a four-year-old.             

On that note, we’ll end our interview here. Betsy, thanks so much for being with us today!           

Sheela Chari is wondering how to get her hands on a good lion costume. Her debut middle grade novel, VANISHED, will be published by Disney*Hyperion, August 2011.         


  1. Oh, we’ve already a couple of YA novels on the subject (“Prizefighter in Mi Casa”, etc.) but “Lucha Libre” is a new one on me. 2005 was right before I started as a librarian and it looks as though my library system never bought it. Hm. Looks as though we should correct that. In any case, one book in all this time is a startling lack. Thanks for the tip!

  2. In a 2009 interview, Garza says he’s also working on a YA novela:

  3. Books about wrestlers… Check out Xavier Garza’s book, Lucha Libre:

  4. I bookmarked this interview so I could come back to it, and I’m so glad I did! Really interesting stuff about the Newbery. I loved the peek into Betsy’s world… a great reminder of how much I love libraries and librarians who care! Thanks.

  5. Love, love, love this, Betsy and Sheela! I’ve been reading Betsy’s blog for a looong time and enjoy it very much. Thanks for all you do for children’s lit – and for love. 🙂 I’ve always said that if I wasn’t a writer, I’d be a children’s librarian.

  6. What a great interview! Thank you Sheela and Betsy! I loved the insight into the Newbery process as well as the book selection process for both librarians and kids. Also love to hear about the parties! Fun!!

  7. I’ve been a long-time fan of Betsy’s blog, and I was so happy we could host her on our blog. I think librarians are also like a window for us writers, into the world of readers, especially younger readers. Thanks to everyone who stopped by. Thanks again, Betsy, for being here with us!

  8. Great interview. Thanks.

  9. Wow! What an incredible and informative interview!! Thank you both for sharing this.