It doesn’t take long for a book-loving blog-hopper to discover Betsy Bird’s A Fuse #8 Production. It is so consistently good — full of personality and life and enthusiasm for children’s books — that many of us return on a regular basis. Heck, she’s practically a Cult Figure, though without the flowing robes or talk of alien spaceships riding behind Comet Hale-Bopp.
I thought it might be fun to hang out with Betsy for a little bit. Hopefully you’ll think so, too. Hey, here she comes now . . .
Betsy, thanks for stopping by. Can I get you anything? A drink, some Ritz crackers, a cheese log?
A cheese log? Seriously? Man, I haven’t seen a good cheese log since the Blizzard of ’08. I will have some M & M’s if you have them, though.
Sorry, I’ve only got the brown M & M’s, which I save for emergencies. My cheese log memories are not blizzard-related like yours. Mine are associated with my mother’s famous Monday Bowling Nights. With seven kids, she deserved one night out, and that’s all she got. She’d return home with her bowling partner and neighbor, Mrs. Kleinberg, and they’d drink Gallo wine, smoke cigarettes, and chat. I’d crawl under the coffee table, eavesdrop, and ponder the mysterious appeal of a nutty port wine cheese log.
For me, cheese logs are entirely mythical. The kinds of things that “other people’s families” ate. A log o’ cheese seemed so weird to me as a kid. But enough about cylindrical cow by-products! Let’s get this interview ah-goin’.
Betsy, you are a librarian, blogger, bon vivant, and soon-to-be-published author. So let’s start with that last part first. I understand that you recently sold two manuscripts. Congratulations, that’s really exciting. Have you been dreaming of this for a long time?
Many, many thanks! I have indeed been dreaming of this, but sort of in a lazy “that’s something I should do when I’m a grown-up” way. Then this illustrator comes along, asks if I’ll write a book if he illustrates it, and voila! I become the luckiest librarian in the Western Hemisphere. I cannot account for the Eastern Hemisphere at this time.
I loved your “happy dance.” Understated, dignified, professional.
I try. You should see my slightly more complicated “Dance of Joy”. It involves ferrets.
The mind reels. So, tell us a little bit about the stories.
Ah. Well, when said illustrator (I’m waiting for his name to be officially released before I “out him”, so to speak) contacted me he only had one idea. To wit: “Giants leaping.” Awesome. So book #1 is Giant Dance Party. A small girl teaches a troop of gigantic, gangly, clumsy giants to dance. Hilarity ensues. Book #2 is still in the works, but it involves giants in New York. I can say that much.
Come on, don’t make me beg. Tell us the name of the illustrator. Or at least give us a hint. Does it rhyme with “Maurice Sendak?”
You got me. It’s Four Piece Svensack, the great Swedish performance artist of 33rd and Broadway. Okay, here’s a real hint though. My illustrator is blond. Ha! Didn’t see that coming, did you?
That narrows it down, thanks. So that was the trigger for you, just two words, giants leaping? Did s/he show you an illustration? Did you talk about it? Or did the ideas just instantly flow?
The illustrator did send a sketch or two, now that you mention it. But only after I said something equivalent to, “That’s a frickin’ AWESOME idea!” Then I wept. We talked a lot about it, sometimes over email and sometimes over the phone. It was nice. I hear that in most cases an author doesn’t get to interact with their illustrator like this, but it’s much more fun if it’s a joint effort, I think.
That’s correct, writers and illustrators rarely have much contact. And I suspect something may be lost in that great divide. I don’t think it’s an accident that so many great books come from one person, the multi-talented writer/illustrator. At least in those cases, there’s back-and-forth (even if it’s only inside one mind), rather than the publishing standard of writer finishes, illustrator takes over, and never the twain shall meet. Anyway, I can’t wait to see your book. When should I start camping out in front of my local independent bookstore?
No idea. I mean, some idea. It’s won’t be 2010, I’m pretty sure. Being a cynical sally I assume 2013. My illustrator is a happy, sweet, wonderfully optimistic sort and says 2010. Probably 2011 or 2012.
Soon you’ll be joining the fraternal organization of children’s authors and illustrators. We’re a semi-secret society, loosely modeled after the Freemasons. I’m sorry, but I can’t show you the secret handshake until the first book hits stores. Homeland security, you understand.
Understood. We librarians have our own super secret handshake anyway. It involves being double jointed (which all real librarians are anyway). And now I can be a part of the super secret children’s-librarians-turned-authors club. As it happens, my children’s room here at NYPL has had two authors before me. Marcia Brown wrote Stone Soup while working in my room, and Claire Huchet Bishop wrote The Five Chinese Brothers. So, y’know. There’s a precedent.
It makes sense that a dedicated children’s librarian would become a talented author. What’s next, “Dancing with the Stars?”
Absolutely! I mean, the first book’s all about dancing giants, right? I’m envisioning a Giant Dance Party song, a dance craze (that would involve a lot of galumphing), a music video, the works.
Where did you grow up? What brought you to the Big Apple?
I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where the tourist board’s slogan is “Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo!”
There is, really? I thought it was like a gag.
Nuh-uh. No gag. I’ve since made friends from Eureka and Kokomo. If I can get a pal from Walla Walla I have it made. Anywho, I was raised there, went to college in Richmond, Indiana (“Fight, fight, inner light, kill, Quakers, kill!”), lived in Portland, Oregon for a time, moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota and then my husband got into Columbia University’s screenwriting program. We’ve been here ever since, but we’re probably headed for L.A. next.
You seem to have one of the busiest, most popular blogs in the kidlitosphere. How did that all begin for you?
Ironically, with a School Library Journal article (ironic, I mean, since they now host my blog). I can’t remember what it was called, but the piece discussed children’s literary blogs, and it sounded fun. I’d already been writing reviews on Amazon.com for a lark. It wasn’t much more of a step to just start writing them on my blog as well. Then I added news. Then I started reporting on publisher events here in NYC. And then SLJ decided to buy me up so I sold out to the man and have been very happy ever since.
It’s clear from Fuse #8 that you a voracious reader, print and new media. What makes a good blog, do you think?
Personality, for one.
Personality?! Oh, rats!
Regular updates for another. If a blog can give me something I’ll find nowhere else, that’s a lure. Plus, I’m a sucker for a catchy name.
Like, um, James Preller’s Blog? How’s that for catchy?
It’s got a beat and I can dance to it. Gold, kid! Authorial blogs are sort of exempt from the whole “Catchy Name” requirement, y’know. If you start calling your site “Tin Can Phone” or something, how’s anyone going to know it’s you?
You recently published the results of a reader’s poll, asking folks to name their top ten picture books of all time. You compiled those lists to create a master list of “Top 100 Picture Books.” In what way did the results surprise you?
Ooh. Excellent question. I think I was very surprised that people didn’t send in the books they solely loved when they themselves were small children. It was a nice mix of books from the canon, books people liked now (and that their kids like right now), and books from their youth. And who could have predicted two top slots for Mo Willems? Surprising to say the least. I was also surprised that Dr. Seuss didn’t do better than he did. The man was clearly too prolific. His books split the vote over and over again.
Split the vote? You are bringing up bad memories of Ralph Nader and the 2000 election. For me, when Go, Dog. Go! wasn’t included, that pretty much made the whole list meaningless in my eyes. But still fun!
Go, Dog. Go! will have it’s day. I didn’t allow Easy Readers on my Picture Book Poll. At some point I’ll do an Easy Reader poll as well. Then you can see how the book stacks up against the likes of Frog and Toad and The Cat in the Hat.
I don’t really get the need for that distinction — but it’s your poll! Reading the results, I was happy to be reminded of old classics (never expected Millions of Cats to rank so high), or discover recent titles that I’d missed. Were you disappointed that any specific titles that didn’t make it?
Oh sure. The list is totally lacking in diversity. I think we figured out that only two of the creators were people of color. A little weird, actually. And there were certainly titles I would have considered shoo-ins. The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss for one.The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordecai Gerstein for another. There’s no predicting what showed up. Except for the Top 10, of course. Those were a little easier to predict.
There’s also that critical difference between “favorite” books and “important” books. Charlotte Zolotow’s William’s Doll was a landmark book, I think, as was, in a different way, something like Emily Arnold McCully’s Mirette on the High Wire. Top 100? No idea. But among the Top 100 most influential books, I’d think so. These lists get complicated.
Well, there will always be beloved books that are considered “important”, and titles that are “important” but people don’t gravitate naturally towards. As a reader poll, my list is limited to the individual preferences of my readers. It’s completely subjective. Which is fine, but it’s not the be all and end all of lists.
You did a lot of research on each book. I think that’s a big part of Fuse #8’s success –- you put a ton of effort into it. How many hours a week do you put into the blog?
Hours a week? Oo-de-lally. Hmm. Well, we’re going to pretend that the poll was the exception rather than the rule. On average, though, I’d say I spend a good 14 hours a week on the blog. Two hours a night or so. That’s just a rough estimate.
You’ve met a lot of authors over the years. What have been some of the highlights?
Having tea with Ursula LeGuin was quite the thrill. And getting to speak at The Eric Carle Museum where I later had dinner with Jane Yolen, Jeanne Birdsall, and others. My contact with Mo Willems and Jon Scieszka is flattering. And getting to sit at the Newbery Award winning table two years in a row (first for Susan Patron who mentioned me in her speech, and the second time for Laura Amy Schlitz). Those are some of them, certainly.
Is it true that one of the items on your Bucket List is to sing Karaoke with Ed Young?
Absolutely. If by “Bucket List” you mean “Thing That Will Never Occur in This or Any Other Lifetime”.
Who are you still dying to meet?
The Golden Fleece is, and shall evermore be the aforementioned Sendak. Of course if I met him I’d just flap my gums for a while and be destroyed by his single withering glance. But it might still be worth it.
Blogs are a growing force in children’s literature: influential, timely, free. Is that a good thing –- and why?
I see it as a good thing on the whole. With the decline of newspaper book review sections and the shift to online resources, blogs are becoming a new voice in the marketplace. They will never replace professional reviews, of course, but if a purchasing librarian or parent trusts a blogger’s voice and title selection then they’re going to be more inclined to get their book suggestions from that source. And as long as the bloggers keep their opinions sharp and their heads on straight, the relationship will be beneficial for all.
Your answer suggests there might be a downside.
Well, there’s always the danger of getting too darn cozy with the publishing types. Or reviewing stuff just to make people happy, and not because it’s actually any good. Like I say, you have to trust your blogger. If you suspect they might be compromised (I suddenly have a flash from a movie where someone yells over a phone, “The librarian blogger is compromised! I repeat…!”) then find another. There are plenty of fish in the sea.
With great power comes great responsibility. How do you choose what to review?
It’s tough. I receive boxes of books from publishers, titles from individual authors and illustrators, and additional books from people who want Amazon.com reviews (that’s a whole different market right there). What I tend to do is to put them on my bookshelves in the order of publication date. January books first, February second, etc. I organize them within each month in the order I would like to read them. Then I read through them in this pattern: current month title, past months’ titles, future month title. These I put on the old To Be Reviewed shelf where they wait. Now my reviewing is a different pattern. I prefer to review a picture book, then a novel, then a graphic novel or poetry book or non-fiction title. Because of the sheer amount of non-fiction out there, however, I usually will alternate between a non-fiction book and a graphic novel, then another non-fiction book and a book of poetry. Deciding which book to review next usually depends on how well a book has stayed with me. If I read your book two months ago but can’t remember the plot or the characters, it’s not going to get reviewed. But if it really gripped me in some way (or was memorably awful) it’s getting a review at some point.
If kids like it, is it a good book?
Sometimes. Kids also like eating snot and watching Barney television shows, so I dunno if you should necessarily consider them to be the number one arbitrators of taste. But taking a kid’s opinion on any book is important. Just so long as you remember that there are different kinds of kids with different tastes out there.
Okay, Lightning Round: Five favorite movies?
The Brave Little Toaster
I have “Happy-Go-Lucky” on my Netflix cue. Love Mike Leigh. Okay: Five favorite places in New York City?
Bank Street Bookstore
Books of Wonder
The Jefferson Market Library branch
My library (whoop!)
Five favorite children’s books?
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz
Ultra-Violet Catastrophe by Margaret Mahy
Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge
The Mysterious Tadpole by Steven Kellogg
The Mysterious Tadpole? I’m surprised. Why that title?
Well, I’ve a weakness for it. And I should clarify that I’m talking about the original. Not the subsequent reillustrated monstrosity they’ve started selling recently. The original had everything. Mystery. A friendship between a magical creature and an everyday child. A satisfying conclusion. Plus it has a moment (in the original) when you get to see an American Indian single-handedly taking down an evil pirate ship. Where else are you going to see that in a picture book, I ask you?
You are on a rooftop in the city, peaceful under the stars. There’s a song playing and a drink in your hand. What’s the song? What’s the drink?
Ah. That would be a glass of Pims (the mysterious British summer drink that never lists its ingredients on the bottle) and the song would be “This Is the Life” by Amy MacDonald.
Here’s two girls sweetly covering Amy MacDonald’s tune . . . just for Betsy.
Almost forgot: Where’d you get the name, A Fuse #8 Production?
Fuse #8? Hasn’t a thing in the entire world to do with children’s literature. Here’s the scoop. When I graduated from college I was given my grandmother’s dilapidated 1989 Buick Century. The paint job had long since peeled away thanks to a permanent parking in the lot next to her nursing home, but I didn’t care. It was my first wheels. So I park on the street one day in good old Richmond, Indiana and after I take the key out of the car the automatic locks start leaping up and down and up and down. Convinced that my car is possessed (she was christened Linda Blair from there on in) I eventually discovered that the lock situation was killing my battery.
So I’ve just graduated, I’m broke, and I take it into the shop for repairs. The repair guy takes one look at it, opens the glove compartment, and removes Fuse #8. I am told that if I just take that fuse out, it won’t kill itself and he doesn’t charge me a cent. Mind you, Fuse #8 controls the horn, the radio, and the automatic windows, but it’s not like I care. That man was a saint. Fast forward a couple of years and my husband’s looking for a good name for his new film production company. He really wants to call it A Widow Be Damned Production since he’s having rights-related difficulties with Erskine Caldwell’s widow. I counter with A Fuse #8 Production. It’s got everything! A number. A weird word. My suggestion is summarily rejected but I vowed from there on in that I would name SOMETHING A Fuse #8 Production someday. And so I did. Since then I’ve wanted to name something Tin Can Phone, but nothing appropriate has presented itself yet.
Thanks, Betsy. You’ve been wonderful. Good luck with your writing. And thanks, especially, for the great job you do at Fuse #8 — it’s always an entertaining, informative read. As a parting gift, please accept this John Deere “Select Series X300 Tractor,” featuring Edge Xtra Deck, Twin Touch Pedals, V-Twin Engines, and Cast-Iron Front Axles. It comes with a four-year warranty, or 300 hours, whichever comes first.
Awesome! I’ve had this John Deere Striping Kit that fits 48″ & 54″ Decks for the X300 and X500 kicking around my tiny New York apartment for about a year or so. Finally some way to make use of it! Cheers and thanks so much for having me here on your blog. It’s been a hoot.
If you enjoyed this interview with Betsy, you might like interviews with other stars of the kidlitosphere, the bloggers behind Literate Lives (Bill and Karen) and The Happy Nappy Bookseller (Doret).
For author/illustrator interviews:
There’s Matthew Cordell, Karen Roosa, Ellen Miles, Daniel Mahoney, Jack Rightmyer, and R.W. Alley.
And if you want to read an interview where I’m the interviewee, go here. It’s non-stop fun and wall-to-wall action.
There’s William Steig, Arnold Lobel, Raymond Chander, Bernard Waber, and James Marshall.
Thanks, and come again!