Betsy Bird is one of the most beloved children’s librarians, dare we say, of all time. This holiday season, she joins with Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat for a picture book about a clever Santa scheme. In The Great Santa Stakeout, Freddy Melcher is a St. Nick uberfan, and he’s determined to get a photo with the jolly old elf.
Our holiday wish (though it’s a bit early) was that Bird would visit Nashville sometime soon. We must’ve been good this year, because she’s coming for the Southern Festival of Books. Here she chats about the joys—and confrontations—of a children’s book event.
What is the mark of a really great book event?
Sheer unmitigated enthusiasm from all sides. The best book events I’ve ever seen are the ones where the staff putting on the event are engaged and excited, the authors and illustrators being featured are active and interested, and the attendees who have come are just generally in a hazy state of joy. It’s that combination of elements that yields magic. We’ve all seen bored authors, droopy readers and disinterested staff. It makes us appreciate all the more the people who absolutely love this business and everything it entails.
What is most challenging to discuss with readers about a book or the writing process?
You’ll hear authors kvetch when they get the “where do you get your ideas?” question, but I don’t believe it’s because the question is overdone. It’s more that authors often have no idea what the true answer is. Writing is, by definition, strange. I’m going to sit down, create words that represent pictures that appear in my brain and put them onto a page in an order that not only makes sense but, ideally, will reach into YOUR brain and elicit some kind of a response. Humans are keen on tangibles, and nothing is more intangible than writing. Trying to say as much to an earnest 8-year-old, however, requires a great deal of verbal wrangling.
When visiting a city for a book event, do you have any rituals, either for yourself or to get to know the city?
I don’t, but I think I should. What a good idea. You know what I’d like to do? I’d like to visit a children’s librarian in every city. Nobody knows the ins, outs, oddities, peculiarities and specificities of a city like a librarian that works with kids. Someday, when I am rich and bored with oodles of time on my hands, I want to become a roving reporter that visits cities in the news and interviews the children’s librarians there. Until then, maybe I should start with these book events.
“Nobody knows the ins, outs, oddities, peculiarities and specificities of a city like a librarian that works with kids.”
If you could sit in the audience for an event with any author, living or dead, who would you like to see read from and discuss their book?
Oh! That’s easy. I’m going to cheat and say four authors. I would like to sit in the audience and watch a three-way conversation between Shel Silverstein, James Marshall and Trina Schart Hyman. I would like this conversation to be moderated by Maurice Sendak, who would periodically yell at the panel to stay on topic or derail everything with his own anecdotes and stories.
Has a reader ever asked a question or made a comment at an event that made you see your work in a new light?
That’s the wonderful thing about kids. You think you know your book? You don’t know ANYTHING, bub! Not until you’ve faced down a 4-year-old that has told you, in no uncertain terms, that your picture book is little more than a bald-faced lie. A cupcake has clearly been portrayed on the cover, indicating that there are more cupcakes inside the book. But are there more cupcakes inside the book. There are NOT! I ask you, madam author, how do you sleep at night?
Children’s librarianship has a lot of skills and characteristics in common with the work that Santa and his elves do—getting to know kids, connecting with them on things they want and need, etc. If Santa asked you to assist him as an elf in his workshop or on his delivery route, how would you stack up?
I would be a living nightmare. You are correct that there are some correlations between Santa’s elves and children’s librarians. However, when we produce miracles, they are often unforeseen. If a child walks into my library and asks for a book, and that book is not there, I am trained to find the child, as fast as I am able, magnificent, wonderful, compelling alternatives to the missing item. Now imagine me as an elf. A child has politely asked me for a children’s book that I think is less than stellar. Come Christmas morning, they gleefully rip open their presents to find . . . a huge pile of (in my opinion) preferable readalikes. AUGH! That poor kid. I’d be so busy trying to find the right book for the right reader that I’d probably spend 20 minutes on one child while the list of others just grew and grew. I don’t think I’m cut out to be an elf quite yet.