Librarian Interview – Betsy Bird

BetsyPS4I suspect that even if you have only been writing for children for a short while, if you live in the US (and maybe elsewhere) you will know the name Betsy Bird, who was the Youth Materials Selections Specialist of New York Public Library for many years. I got to know Betsy first through her blog and then in person as the host of many wonderful NYPL literary salons.

[JM] Title and location of your library.

[BB] Well, as of August 1st I will be the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system.

[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work if at all?

[BB] Let me see.  I’ve lived in the following places:

  • Kalamazoo, MI
  • Richmond, IN
  • London, England
  • Portland, OR
  • Minneapolis, MN
  • New York, NY
  • And now Evanston, IL

Have my travels influenced my work?  But of course!  There’s the entirely practical matter of finding a job in one place vs. another.  But there’s also the fact that you have a much better and well-rounded sense of people and their needs as patrons when you’ve experienced life in different areas of the country.  Not that I’ve lived everywhere, but at least I’ve been in different areas for significant amounts of time.

[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as a librarian.

[BB] Well, to be perfectly honest I fought tooth and claw not to become one.  As a child I was the kiddo who would alphabetize the family books, make a catalog for the VHS tapes, and started a subject heading list for my National Geographics.  Still, I thought librarianship was all ladies in buns going “shh”.  I tried to be a photographer and got a Fine Arts degree in college . . . but still hedged my bets and got an English degree at the same time.   When at long last I thought I realized that as a photographer I stink, I went to library school with the intention of becoming an archivist.  It was only when my husband pointed out to me that I had placed my coffee cup on top of my book about preserving books that I realized that perhaps this wasn’t the life for me.  A chance children’s literature class taken to fulfill a credit was the moment that changed everything.  I realized that without noticing,  I’d been reading children’s books for pleasure for years.  End of story.

[JM] What does your library or home office look like? 

[BB] Well, at the moment it looks like this:

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With aspirations of someday looking like this:

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Which it does not.  But maybe someday!

[JM] Do you have a favorite form of social media and if so, why?

[BB] My blog, (http://blogs.slj.com/afuse8production/), really.  It’s the whole reason anything nice has ever happened to me.  I love my little blog and fully intend to keep it up and running for as long as I may type.

[JM] First job ever?

[BB] Ever ever?  Aside from babysitting?  Well the first one where I had to interview would have to be working at a movie theater in Kalamazoo, MI.  I served popcorn and got to watch tons of mediocre films for free.  Which, in 1995, wasn’t too bad a deal.

[JM] Cats or dogs? 

[BB] Nope.  Not so much as a newt in my home.

[JM] Current favorite reads in your family?

[BB] My four-year-old daughter is currently nursing a true love for Bad Kitty.  She has been inspired to write her own Bad Kitty books as well, the title of which tends to be “Bad Kitty’s First Day of Goodness”.  She has written this book several times.  She is also very much into Little Nemo comics, which involves reading teeny tiny type.  

My son is one and so he inclines more towards the Steve Light books like “Trains Go” and “Trucks Go” as well as anything by Benji Davies (Bizzy Bear) and Marion Billet (Noodle).

[JM] I am so impressed that your daughter has such win intuitive understanding of drafts/revision. And I am glad to say that I have interviewed both Steve Light and Benji Davis on this blog. What do you feel about elementary classes being encouraged to have their own Caldecott voting?

[BB] I love it!  Get ‘em thinking critically about literature from a young age, I say.  

[JM] Do you feel picture book authors (as opposed to illustrators) are adequately represented in the ALA awards?

[BB] Never really thought too much about it, if I’m going to be honest.  Certainly they can win the Geisel Awards and, once in a rare while, the Newbery as well.  But there’s an award for every kind of writer out there.  I’m a picture book author myself, so I’m aware of all the non-ALA awards out there available to folks.  The E.B. White Readaloud Award, for example, is delightful.  Life’s too short to kvetch about what awards you aren’t receiving.

[JM] Which award committees have you sat on?

[BB] For ALA?  Just the Newbery back in 2006.  Since that time I’ve been asked to serve on Caldecott, but I worried that a book’s publication date would render me ineligible (not that it had any chance of winning, but because it’s a conflict of interest to serve and have eligible books in the same year).  I’ve recused myself on other awards as well for the same reason.  When you write books your chances to serve on committees is diminished significantly.

[JM] I visit my NYPL branch two or three times a week AND am so impressed that 98% of what I search for I find. Does each branch have autonomous acquisition powers? What are your sources (blogs/journals/lists) for making those decisions?

[BB] Oh my, no.  I buy all the children’s books for the NYPL system (so for the boroughs of Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx).  Individual librarians may order books already purchased from other branches for their own locations.  They can also suggest books for me to buy, but I have the final say in the matter.  I receive monthly carts of books from Baker & Taylor to sift through and then use reviews to determine what to buy and in what quantities.  Blogs and lists help as well, as do the books I receive in the mail and can read for myself.

[JM] Please give us a highlight moment so far in your library career?

[BB] It’s a little hard to choose.  We’re spoiled here in NYC.  I guess there’s the time I got to pose in a photo with a bunch of librarians along with Judy Blume and Eric Carle.  That was nice.

[JM] What was the catalyst for your amazing collaboration with Julie Danielson and the late Peter Sieruta on WILD THINGS! ACTS OF MISCHEIF IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?

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[BB] Ah!  Well, since I blog for SLJ I get paid.  And it occurred to me that there are some stellar bloggers out there, breaking their backs every day, who do not get paid.  Two of my favorites were Julie and Peter, so I contacted them and suggested we write a book together.  They liked the idea and we put our heads together on what to write.  The end result was WILD THINGS, though I would like to give great heaping helpfuls of gratitude to our editor Liz Bicknell who took our ramshackle idea and gave it both form and purpose.  Without her, heaven only know what might have been published.

[JM] Something you’d like to say to children’s authors and illustrators.

[BB] Good work making more diverse books!  We’re doing very well on books about kids of different races.  Now if we could have a few more on disabilities (casual books where kids just happen to be in wheelchairs) and religions (not seeing a lot of Muslim or Jehovah’s Witness characters, let alone contemporary Jewish kids) that would be swell.

[JM] For those who don’t know about it yet, please tell us a little about your move to Chicago.

[BB] Ah.  I’m so pleased.  Since I was hired to be the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system I will be moving beyond children’s literature in my purchasing.  It’s a much smaller system than NYPL (3 locations vs. 86) but that’s going to make for a nice switch.  I love the town, the people are amazing readers, and the children’s literary community out there is intense, dedicated, and whipsmart.

[JM] Favorite annual conference?

[BB] ALA.  I like many others but where else do you find a Newbery/Caldecott  Banquet of the same caliber?

Betsy, thanks so much for sharing some of your librarian expertise and I wish you continued success in your writing AND in Evanston Public library.

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5 Responses to Librarian Interview – Betsy Bird

  1. Nice interview and lovely photos! And, Joanna, Betsy is a world traveler like you! 🙂

  2. Robin Newman says:

    Wonderful interview, Betsy and Joanna! What a tremendous loss for NYPL. Betsy, Best of luck with your new adventures in Illinois.

  3. Funny, Betsy’s dream home library looks much like mine! 🙂 And, oh, to wield the power to decide what books to buy for the NYPL system…that’s a dream, too. What fun it must be to be Betsy! Thanks for the interview, Joanna.

  4. Hope you do more librarian interviews. Betsy is very interesting. What a loss to NYPL. But, good with her new adventure.. I’ve always wondered if librarians had large libraries at home.

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