Graduate School of Library and Information Science
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

501 East Daniel
Champaign, IL 61820


Young Betsy with Cow

I grew up in an Alabama pine forest with no one to play with except a dog, cat, horse, cow, alligator, raccoon, possum, owl, and garter snake. None of them talked much. They were pretty good listeners, though, and I learned from them to listen and also not to be afraid of silence. Silence can be a writer's best friend when she needs to hear the voices in her head.

Every once in a while I did make too much noise, especially when my father was listening to the radio trying to glean the latest news of World War II. If I spoke then, he would yell at me to be quiet and I would slink into the kitchen, where my mother always seemed to be chopping vegetables before dinner. "Did I ever tell you (chop, chop, chop) how your great-grandmother (chop, chop) chopped her hand open one time (chop) and found her needle and thread (chop, chop) and dropped the needle into boiling water (chop, chop, chop) and sewed her left hand up with her right hand (chop) ?" Who needed World War II? My heroes were in the kitchen.

I also heard a lot of stories from the African-American women who worked with my mother to help take care of the patients in my-father-the-doctor's clinic. From listening to stories I branched out to reading stories. I didn't go to school because our backwoods education system was so bad. My mother taught me at home, and I wrote my first book for her birthday when I was four years old, a poetry book. It was pretty short, but so was I.

I didn't stay short, however. When we moved to East Tennessee for better schooling, I managed to hit six feet by the sixth grade. Because I was built like a tree, and because my parents were for integration before there was a civil rights movement (my mother was a Yankee and my father was from India), and because I was an outsider on all counts, I still didn't have anybody to play with. I began to read stacks of books from the library. I also practiced piano, guitar, voice, and harp and got hooked on Appalachian folk music, then Irish folk music, Jewish folk music, flamenco, and on around the world.

When I got to college, the creative-writing teacher made all his students imitate either T.S. Eliot or Ernest Hemingway, so I decided to continue writing on my own. I majored in history and wrote a historical novel for my senior thesis. But what about a job? I went to the public library looking for work. They said there was an opening in the children's department, if I would take a children's literature course and start a storytelling program. I told them the biggest story of all—that I could tell stories—and that story came true. After a while, we had a hundred kids coming to the program every week.

I began to review children's books, which I have done for thirty years, at Booklist and then at The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. My own poetry, fiction, and picture books were published, and I had children of my own, who taught me as much as I taught them. I studied children's literature and folklore, got a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago's Graduate Library School, and became a professor. The funny thing was that after all the tales I had gotten to know about heroes, tricksters, fools, and fairies from cultures all around this country and the world, it still hadn't hit me that my true folklore came from the kitchen.

Then during a storytelling class I started telling about the women in my family. The students got quiet in a way I'd never heard, so quiet I could hear the voices in my head. Those voices got stronger and stronger until one day the words became clear—words about my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, my great-great-grandmother, and on back—and on forward, too, with my daughters speaking up for the future. Seven Brave Women didn't take very long to write, but it took my whole life to hear. And the best thing about it is the way those women wanted to share, not star, and the way readers have shared their own family stories in return. Listening is still the best thing I ever learned.