Prolific children’s author Betsy Byars, winner of the Newbery Medal and National Book Award, among many other distinctions, died on February 26 in Seneca, S.C. She was 91.
Byars was born on August 7, 1928 in Charlotte, N.C. to George Guy and Nan Cromer. In her essay for Something About the Author, Byars recalled a childhood that included living in the country for a few lean years and keeping animals when her father found work at a cotton mill office, and then living in the city of Charlotte, which was her home from fourth grade until she finished college.
As years passed, she often thought of her vivid early experiences and her deeply felt childhood concerns, which would later find their way into her books. Growing up, Byars said, “I had no intention of becoming a writer… but I had one thing in common with every other writer I’ve ever met. I loved books.” Her earliest memory involves her frustration with her father who playfully would change some of the words when he read The Three Bears to her.
After attending Furman University, Byars graduated from Queens College in Charlotte with a B.A. in English in 1950. By then she had already met her future husband, Edward Ford Byars, who was teaching engineering at Clemson College. The pair were married on June 24, 1950, three weeks after her college graduation.
The Byarses began their family by welcoming two daughters during a five-year teaching stint at Clemson, then headed to the University of Illinois in 1955 so that Ed could earn his Ph.D. and further his academic career. Once they settled into the barracks-style housing complex at the university, Byars said she found herself “alone and at loose ends,” a circumstance that compelled her to buy a typewriter and begin writing.
With a new hobby that became increasingly important to her, Byars wrote steadily and sold her first short article to the Saturday Evening Post. She eventually published more articles and started some longer works, too. The family had grown to include a third daughter by the time the family moved back to Clemson in 1957.
Byars said in her autobiography that she no longer needed writing to fill her time, but she was determined to continue because she had come to love it. She joked that “in my spare time I had a fourth child, a son” in 1958.
At last, in 1962, after receiving rejections from nine publishers, her first children’s book, Clementine, was published by Houghton Mifflin. Though she’d officially become an author, Byars wrote in SAAS that “the first book that turned out the way I envisioned it was The Midnight Fox” (Viking, 1968). She called that title her favorite, and a turning point in her career that proved a confidence booster.
Byars’s books were often lauded for their blend of humor, empathy, and realistic detail. One example, the 1970 novel The Summer of the Swans, features Charlie, a mentally challenged boy who becomes lost seeking out the swans on a lake hear his home, while his older sister frantically searches for him. The story was inspired by the author’s experience as a volunteer tutor for children with learning difficulties in 1968 when her family was living in West Virginia. The book was awarded the 1971 Newbery Medal, something that Byars said “literally changed my life overnight.... For the first time in my life I started feeling like an author.”
Byars published her work steadily for decades, earning many honors and state book awards as well as the 1981 National Book Award for The Night Swimmers, a tale of siblings who “get to the point where they hate each other,” sparked by the author’s childhood memories of her sister and reading of her daughter’s fifth-grade diary, found many years after its creation.
In all, Byars produced more than 65 books including a popular series about the Blossom family, Bingo Brown, and Herculeah Jones. In her later years, she collaborated with her daughters Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers on several animal-focused short-story collections including My Dog, My Hero (Viking, 2002) and Dog Diaries: Secret Writings of the WOOF Society (Holt, 2007).
Byars remained an avid reader all her life, according to her family obituary, “devouring four to five books a week.” Byars also enjoyed knitting, sewing, and silk screening. Additionally, she shared her husband’s love of flying and earned her own pilot’s license in 1985.
Regina Hayes, former longtime publisher and then editor-at-large at Viking Children's Books, where Byars published many titles, told PW, “She was quite a lady and I really admired her.” Hayes also offered two amusing memories in tribute. “On addressing an audience of authors, [Byars] told them: When you receive an editorial letter, just skip over all the flattering words at the beginning and look for the word ‘however.’ She was right on target. On another occasion, [Byars] was one of several panelists invited for ‘a conversation.’ When they arrived, they discovered they were each supposed to give a short introductory speech before the ‘conversation’ began. The other panelists were quite flustered, but Betsy simply pulled out remarks she had prepared and said, ‘It’s always a good idea to have a speech in your pocket!’ ”