Children’s Literature Inspires Compassion for Animals

DSC00474A few weeks ago, my seven-year-old granddaughter and I were taking a walk when we came upon a bush filled with red berries.  A handmade sign swung from a branch: “Please do not pick berries. The birds need them for winter food. Thanks!” Ava read the words to me, and then continued to read a not-so-nice note someone had scribbled on the bottom by a person who clearly didn’t care about birds.

“Grandma, why would someone say something so mean about birds?” she asked.

How does one tell a seven-year-old child that not every person is kind in this world?

While Ava tried to wrap her head around the not-so-nice words, and the fact that someone had written them, I reminded her about the individual who took the time to make the red sign, and then carefully secured it to the bush with twine. “That’s what matters,” I told her.

“Yes,” she said, picking up trash from the road and putting it in her pocket. “And when we get back to your house, we’ll put out extra bird seed.”

SONY DSCWe continued on our way, Ava quiet in her thoughts, unlike her usual chatty self. And when she asked me to tell her a story as we walked by the reservoir, I began to recite the story of a girl who found two lost dogs in her grandmother’s yard.

“Grandma, that was me,” she said, spying a Dunkin Donuts bag near the base of a tree. She picked it up to use as a portable trash bag.

“Yes, I know that was you, and I love that story.”

“Okay, you can tell it again.” She gathered more litter. It was then that I realized what she doing. In her own way, Ava was balancing the not-so-nice note by cleaning up after others. “This way the birds won’t eat any of this trash and get sick. Like those dogs were when we found them.”

Two years ago, a couple of elderly dogs just appeared on our porch. They were wet and hungry, and Ava squealed when she saw them. “It’s like Because of Winn-Dixie!” she said. “And we have to save them, Grandma. Kate DiCamillo would want us to save them.”

SONY DSCAva had seen the movie, and we were reading the middle grade novel aloud. And before I could say “yes,” Ava was filling bowls with water, and gathering food for the starving dogs. After calling nearby vets and having no luck identifying the lost dogs, I called animal control, who couldn’t come to our home for 2-3 hours.

“Ava, how are we going to keep them from running off for 2-3 hours?” The yellow lab, while elderly, had a lot of spunk, especially after having eaten two servings of kibble offered by Ava.

“Grandma, I am an Animal Whisperer. Don’t you know that by now?” And then Ava proceeded to whisper to these two lost dogs. Softly. Lovingly. She chanted that she would watch over them until we could find their homes, and she then nearly cried when she noticed the black dog’s infected ears. She’d been tenderly brushing them with our dog’s brush.

“Will they be okay?” she kept asking me.

Image 2“Yes,” I said, over and over, until the Dog Warden finally arrived at our house. Every day after that, Ava and I talked about the dogs, whether they’d found their homes and gotten medicine for their ailments. Three weeks later, I ran into the Dog Warden at the grocery store, who confirmed that the dogs were reunited with their owners, who had just moved from Minneapolis, Kate DiCamillo’s state. The dogs had been trying to find their old house. “You and your granddaughter saved them,” she said.

It is moments like this that I feel hope. Hope in the face of strangers defacing signs made by people who care about the smallest creatures on this earth. Hope that springs forth in a young child because she read a book in which another young girl was kind to a lost dog. A dog name Winn-Dixie.

Children learn compassion from reading books, and then go to help lost dogs, care for birds, and assist the smallest of creatures, as well as show compassion to other people. They, like myself,  are forever affected by stories such as The One and Only Ivan and Home of the Brave, both written by Katherine Applegate, and The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo. As a young child, I loved The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and I watched the Birdman of Alcatraz multiple times. In terms of empathy, Ava’s favorite picture books include How to Heal a Broken Wing and “Let’s Get a Pup!” Said Kate, both by Bob Graham. When the family arrives to pick up Rosy, the old dog at the shelter, I never fail to burst into tears. Ava now finds this humorous and says, “Grandma, do you have to cry every time?” And then we read another favorite, Mr. Hacker by James Stevenson, a heartfelt story filled with empathy and humor.

SONY DSCWhen Kate DiCamillo spoke at the NJSCBWI conference nearly two years ago, I had the pleasure of chatting with our newly named National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for 2014–2015. Ava had drawn a picture for Kate, and sent me with photos of the dogs, we had rescued. I had Kate sign The Magician’s Elephant for my father, a book I had planned to give to him, not expecting he would pass before he could read it. And upon seeing the photos of Ava with the dogs, Kate asked if she could keep them.

Kate, like so many wonderful authors, inspire me every day. They inspire me to keep pushing myself for the children, who are the hope of our future and the most precious gifts on our earth.

I would love to hear your favorite books that are sage examples of empathy toward animals, while I have by no means mentioned all of my favorites in this post.

Lastly, I was honored to be a guest this week over at The Writing Barn. Here is the link to my post on revision, inspired by a house wren family. Rejecting Rejection with author Betsy Devany – Writing Barn

PiBoIdMo 2013 Comes to an End

SONY DSCPiBoIdMo has come to an end. Which leads to withdrawal. It also leads to realizing one’s strengths and weaknesses, some of which I learned during PiBoIdMo 2013.

1. I can come up with picture book ideas under pressure, while also tending to a middle grade revision.

2. I should not pretend to know what I am doing when trying to baste a turkey on Thanksgiving.

3. The twenty-three-month-old grandson is better equipped to handle Norman the gorilla.

4. I need to volunteer for more hours at the elementary school because the place is ripe with ideas, except when I’ve been asked to read the final chapter of Charlotte’s Web aloud and get emotional. Which also turns a second grade classroom silent, and instantly ceases snack time shenanigans. Twenty-two sets of eyes lock on you, the One Who is Trying Not To Cry when Wilbur says how much he misses Charlotte. This led to a discussion about good writing, and how good writing evokes emotion.

SONY DSC5. I now have a lot of work to do and a number of manuscripts to develop. Thirty-six picture book ideas, to be exact. A dozen show strong promise. I am excited to explore them further.

When I checked in with Norman to see how many picture book ideas he came up with during the month, he handed me his list, every title oddly familiar in a middle grade/young adult kind of way.

Norman, Lost and Found

With a Name Like Norman

The One and Only Norman

Love That Norman

The Absolute Value of Norman

The Thing About Norman

Eleanor & Norman

The Higher Power of Norman

The Year of the Gorilla

One For the Norman’s

See You at Norman’s

Each Little Gorilla that Sings

SONY DSC“Norman, ” I said. “Gorillas do not sing. And is this why my novels are no longer in alphabetical order?”

Norman said I needed to ask his publicist.

“What publicist?”

“That boy wearing the headset, who interviewed me last week. I am too busy to talk, someone in this house needs to stuff the turkey with herbs.”

Which brings me to number two on my list.

For any of you who read my pre-PiBoIdMo postPre-PiBo Day 4: Betsy Devany’s PiBoIdMo Success Story (plus prizes!), two years ago, I was fired from making our Thanksgiving meal. This year, I decided to be brave, with the help of my husband. We brined the turkey ahead of time and then put it in the oven. After a few hours, the bird needed a little help. “I think we have to use the juice in the pan to baste the turkey. Yes, that’s it!” I said. And then I realized I had no idea where the baster was. My husband found it and handed it to me. He left the room to mind the outside grill, which had our ‘back-up’ turkey. I opened the oven door, reached in with the baster and burned the edge of a finger. I slammed the oven door shut, put ice on the now-red spot, and gathered strength to try again.

“I’m going back in,” I called.

He did not hear me.

I put on an oven mitt and picked up the baster. “I can do this, I can do this,” I chanted.

I lifted the foil, sucked up a tube of juice and squirted the turkey. I did it again, and then . . .

The bulb part of the baster pulled away from the tube, which lurched into the oven and dropped to the floor of the very hot oven.

“The Thanksgiving Curse!” I shouted. “Fire, fire!”

My husband was sitting on our back porch, reading the Black Friday ads, with a fire roaring in our fireplace.


He turned toward the kitchen window and waved at me. “Yes, come outside. Isn’t the fire nice?”

“The oven! The baster is melting. Hurry!”

I will say that the baster was not easily retrieved, and required a number of attempts to free it from the oven, at which point it was a charred and melted blob.

But in the end the turkey was moist and delicious, and I did not burn our house down.

Another vote is on the table in regards to how I may or may not be involved with next year’s Thanksgiving meal. I know how I will be voting.

Thank you, Tara Lazar, for another fabulous PiBoIdMo experience. I wish all the participants success as they shape their ideas into marketable stories. I look forward to reading each and every one.

Where Do Snowmen Go?


Normally rain brings a sense of excitement and wonder to my three-year-old granddaughter. But not today.  Ava does not jump up and down, begging  for her multi-colored child-size umbrella or her froggie boots or her unicorn raincoat. Nor does she plead with me to let her run outside so she can jump in every puddle she can find. 

Ava is worried about Bobby.

Today’s rain wipes away the snow–which appeared for Christmas this year–and washes away a snowman: Ava’s snowman. The one she had been yearning to build since the leaves changed colors in October.

The air outside is damp. Ava asks, once again, to visit Bobby, who resided in the front lawn where her great-grandparents live. I do not tell her that her snowman is now a pile of dingy mushy snow, even though I think she suspects this.

I dig through my selection of picture books to find an appropriate book. One which will help me in explaining the loss of Bobby.

Ava finds her own way to cope. She sits down and pulls books off her shelf. “Grandma . . . I know where Bobby is.”

“You do?” I flip through the pages of The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst. Maybe that would work.

Ava taps my elbow. “Uh-huh, I do. I do, Grandma. Bobby is at The Rainbow. He is working there.”

Oh, that’s good. Bobby is not a pile of slush with his features floating away towards a drain.

“What does Bobby do at The Rainbow?” I ask, with much curiosity.

Ava beams, obviously proud of her wonderful imagination. “Bob–by–is workingatthe penguinplace.” She cups her hands to her mouth and whispers. “He feeds the penguins so he can stay cold and not melt.”

“Oh, that is a perfect job for Bobby,” I tell her.

 “Uh-huh, it is. It is just perfect, Grandma.”

With the knowledge of Bobby having grown up and gone out into the world to find a job, I see hope. My imagination begins to run. Ava hands me a pile of picture books to read to her. She snuggles next to me and pulls Norman, our gorilla, close to her side.

 “Me and Norman want stories, Grandma.”

And so I read and read and read, and in the spaces of time where she is turning the page or pausing to talk to Norman, I write notes in the small notebook I keep by my side.

 I write about Bobby.

An Unexpected Gift

With the constant barrage of advertisements for holiday sales, we have lost the meaning of Christmas.  This deeply saddens me. I will not shop at every given moment only because the media tells me to. Instead of buy, buy, buy, I want to dig a hole in the snow and find a warm bear to hibernate against. Someone can dig me out when spring arrives.

But family calls. I throw the large bag of holiday catalogs into our recycling bin, pack my bags, and head back to Idaho.

Once I arrive in Boise–well past midnight–I have tasks to accomplish. And in doing these tasks, I put expectations on myself: to give my best effort, to remain cheerful and energetic, and to do whatever my sister needs from me to help her and her young daughters through her health crisis.

I have no concept of how much I will get in return.

After five hours of sleep and a neck in spasms from the plane ride, I receive my first surprise gift, befitting for a writer. I am asked to read holiday picture books to a group of eight-and-nine-year-old Girl Scouts–most of whom I’ve never met, once their planned activities are completed. I take the place of my sister, who is one of the troop co-leaders, and obviously unable to attend. There are nineteen girls who feast on pizza, juice, and popcorn, all of which fuels their group energy to a level, which is a little daunting to me. Especially on no sleep. This group is a larger challenge than the room full of young toddlers I had read to at the library last week. But the girls are so charming. They win me over with their smiles and enthusiasm.

The leaders segregate the girls into four groups: learning how to properly break eggs (a class I need to take), decorating cookies, making the sugar cookies from scratch, and a craft activity, which I am asked to run. Being a quick learner comes in handy when you have to teach nineteen kids how to make something you’ve just been shown how to make yourself. The key is to look like you know what you’re doing, and hopefully, you will, soon–preferably before your next group of kids comes running to the craft table. It helps to maintain a level of flexibility, especially when you need to find a quick substitute for Rudolph’s nose. The red hots are not cooperating, which my first group of girls quickly point out to me. I eye the room and remember seeing red napkins when the pizza was being devoured.

 “Who wants to hunt down some red napkins?” I ask. Five hands shoot into the air. I ask another mother to run the emergency errand. Five hands plunk onto the table.

“But, Mrs. Betsy, the noses won’t stay on.”

“Ah, yes, I kind of noticed that . . . so we have an opportunity here to practice being  flexible and creative. Any ideas?” One hand shoots into the air. Mine.

Red napkins arrive. The errand mom stays by my side for support. I stare at the napkin, willing it to tell me what to do. The clock ticks. I smell the cookie dough. I want to eat some. Then, as in writing, I let go and trust my instincts. I don’t think about it. My fingers tear the napkin into small squares. I ask the other mom to give each girl two pieces. “We are going to improvise,” I tell them, trying to sound confident.

The final red hot, which was hanging on for dear life, slides off its candy cane base and plunks onto the table. The Girl Scouts moan as a group. The situation is not looking pretty. I need to rally the troops. Quickly. I start to sing Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. My table joins in, softly at first. Next, the cookie decorating station is singing, and then the kitchen class, the egg-breaking class, until no one is silent. We sing as red napkins become noses–scrunched into little balls. Red hots disappear while the girls’ tongues now appear red.

After an hour, the station rotations come to an end. The girls’ aprons are covered in flour. They play horsie. Eat more popcorn. Drop popcorn all over the carpet. Chase each other into the bathroom. Have pillow fights. Their energy level continues to climb. There is no end in sight and all I can think about is how I want to sink my teeth into a sugar cookie, fresh from the oven and coated with powdered sugar frosting.

It is time to do the dishes, clean-up, and gather the girls in front of the fireplace with their sleeping bags to settle down–if this is possible. With my Girl Scout fingers in place (one girl corrects me as I have the wrong salute at first,) I vie for their attention. Three girls respond. My temporary confidence sinks. If I were standing in snow, I would have been up to my thighs. I try again. “Ah . . . Girl Scouts.” Now, ten girls come to the other side. With the help of the troop mothers, the room falls silent. Hope pulls me out of the snow bank and within five minutes, the room is taken over by sleeping bags filled with chatty girls in pajamas, maintaining an energy level, which obviously would have carried them through the entire night until the break of dawn.

I need a nap. A long one.

I move through the crowd of giggling Girl Scouts and attempt to swap places with another mother, offering to clean the kitchen while they tame the crowd. No such luck.

The picture books are pointed out to me. I carefully climb over the girls and sleeping bags and pillows to reach the pile of books, and then climb back across the room and head to the front of the fireplace.

I ponder the noise level. I ponder the selection of books to read to this group.

I ponder an escape route.

And then I remember my expectations of coming to Idaho: to help my sister and her family welcome in the holiday.

I ask for quiet. The laughing, whispering, and giggling continues. I remind myself, Betsy, you are a writer and a reader and you can do this. Don’t think about their age level. Just read.

I hold up the Girl Scout salute–no correction needed this time. The girls begin to settle down. I hope my two nieces won’t consider me an embarrassment when I warm up the audience by telling them a few stories about the toy store where I work; about the ducks who occasionally wander into the store; about Norman, the gorilla, who now lives with me. There is a moment of silence. I seize the opportunity and begin to read The Night Before Christmas. This edition is a pop up book.I read, using different voices. Santa’s deep voice. My narrator voice. The nineteen girls are now snuggled into their sleeping bags, their heads on their pillows. Many hug beloved stuffed animals.

Is this possible? Can a simple, well-known story capture the attention of a group of energetic girls, seemingly too old to be read to from a picture book meant for a younger audience?

Yes, it is possible.

The girls are a captive audience. I pick up The Polar Express and began to read. Not a word is spoken, though their eyes sparkle. Eyes which say I believe.

I reach the part in the book where a crowd gathers in town to await Santa’s arrival. I pause for effect. Then with one arm raised, I play Santa presenting the first gift of Christmas. Though it is I who receives the gift.

For at last, once again, I hear the ringing of the bell.

Thank you to Boise Girl Scout Troop #131 and to all the Mom Elves.

Lessons From the Library

Thank you to all the children and adults who braved the rain last night to attend the Groton Public Library Lullaby Concert; to Judith and Miss Vicky for arranging these events, and supplying the holiday treats; and a special thanks to the little ones for becoming such great “wild things” during my reading of  Where The Wild Things Are.

Reading to kids is a wonderful experience, and never knowing what the overall age of my audience will be keeps me on my toes. In writing for children, you must always keep the child reader or listener in mind, and this applies to reading to large groups of children as well. 

What I’ve learned through my own experiences from being a volunteer reader:

1. Come prepared with books for a variety of ages. If the overall group consists of more toddlers, read the shorter books with less text.

2. Make sure to include books which allow the kids to be involved, either through making sounds or answering questions. Kids want to be a part of the reading and should not be expected to passively sit for forty-five minutes.  Respect their needs.

3. Pay close attention to the energy level of the group. If the kids seem restless, encourage a stretching break. Get them to stamp their feet, stretch their arms, and to get their wiggles out.

4. Appreciate your audience.

5. Bring stickers to give the kids at the end of the concert. This way you can greet them personally and thank them for coming.

I look forward to my next appearance with the lovely Barbara Harvey on guitar.

Upcoming Library Appearance

My next appearance at the Groton Public Library will be on November 30th. 6:30 pm. The talented Barbara Harvey will join us. She is a guitarist and singer. Norman, my gorilla friend, is already planning what he will wear. My three-year-old granddaughter, Ava, has requested to have a seat up front, next to me. When I asked her about this, she said, “Decuz, Norman needs me.”


“Grandma, you are so silly! You tagots Norman is berry shy,” Ava said, “He needs me to hold his hand.”

At his last library appearance, Norman  danced with the kids, and Barbara let him use her guitar, while Ava watched from afar.

“Do you need to hold Norman’s hand?” I asked Ava.

“Yes, Grandma. I want to make friends with the other kids.”

During his years of working at the toy store, Norman helped many children who were shy. And even after retirement, I see that he continues to do this, wherever he goes.

“Ava, if you sit in the audience, you will be next to other children, and you can still be near Norman.”

She furrows her brow and walks over to Norman, who is sitting on our couch.  Ava whispers into his ear, and then presses her nose to his. “Okay, Norman?”

“Grandma, he says if he gets scared, you can hold his hand.”

“I will,” I say, winking at Norman.

For more information on the Lullaby Concert, click on the links below:   or

Betsy’s Wild Things Window


Every few months we have to create a new window display at The Toy Soldier. With the release of a movie based on one of my favorite picture books, Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, I got the green light to do a Wild Things window. My one challenge was to not spend any money on display materials. I do love challenges, almost as much as revisions.

When I create a new display, I first walk around the store to see what tie-in products I can use. Do we have extra copies of the book to use in the window? Are there enough stuffed creatures to display, while leaving a sufficient quantity accessible for selling. I need ground coverage, objects to frame the window, and enough product to create a barrier to keep the children from climbing into the space and knocking everything down. Why? They want to ride the rocking horse or play the child-size piano or hug the giant polar bear or press their nose against the window to watch the ducks, which would require they plow through the toys across  the wooden platform, and all in a matter of two seconds. This has happened before. You usually hear the commotion before you confront the actual damage. Then you check that the child or children are unharmed, return them back to the adults in charge, walk down the ramp to the register, pop an aspirin or two, hope a school bus isn’t going to pull up at any second to release a group of teenagers, who will storm into the store and grab all the pop-guns, and then take a deep breath. Well, maybe this window wasn’t exactly right.

Once I gather several copies of the book and stuffed characters, I begin to tear down the existing display. I shelve the product, sweep the wooden platform, wash the window, run outside to keep some kids from terrorizing the ducks outside, and tap into my creativity.  Don’t go out and buy anything. Hmm? My brain starts to click. I see things in my house that would work great. After confirming I can leave the other employee at the store, I dash home. Pull boats and plastic fall leaves out of my everything-I-don’t-know-where-to-put-or-don’t-have-time-to-deal-with room and throw them into my car. I remember a stool my daughter had and no longer wants, fabric in my sewing room, plastic vines. Two blocks from my house, I remember the wooden crate. I turn the car around.

With my trunk full, I drive back to the store with thoughts pinging within my brain. I am excited. The concept for the window takes shape.

Back at the store, I begin to design the window; drape fabric over the boxes, twist the vine around the window frame. Check the order of events within the book. Create the story from beginning to end, from one side of the window to the other.

The window complete, now all I have to do is convince young children that “Yes, this is not a new movie which someone recently wrote. This started with a book. A marvelous book by Maurice Sendak, which you must read.” And so, I read it to them. They leave with smiles on their faces, bags with purchased copies, while roaring “You are a wild thing.”

When the day has ended and the pop-guns  are neatly lined up, I step outside and admire the new window. I say thanks for the opportunity to be able to work at The Toy Soldier. It is a place where magic and creativity and the love of children’s literature all come together. DSC03513DSC03517DSC03519DSC03529



Be a Volunteer Reader



Betsy and Norman reading at the library 8/09 

Betsy and Norman reading at the library 8/09

This past Monday I was the reader for the  Lullaby Concert at the Groton Library. Norman joined me.  He led the children in being monkeys while I read Caps For Sale. We brought hats for all–thanks to my husband for loaning me all of his baseball caps. Norman was so thrilled to be with children again that he didn’t want to leave. He danced. He played peek-a-boo and even volunteered to be a turtle when Barbara sang her turtle song. When the youngest children approached him with caution, Norman leaned over and extended a hand. Soon, even the little ones wanted a Norman hug. Norman wants to play Barbara’s guitar at the next concert. We shall see. After Norman and I had a long discussion about why he wasn’t driving home, he called his sister, Margaret, to tell her how much he misses her.

Norman on the phone with his family
Norman on the phone with his family

  Betsy, Norman and Barbara 8/09

To all my friends and family, I love you. I miss you.
Any storm that comes our way will pass in time.
Recognize something wonderful in your day. Laugh, then laugh again.
I am here for you. Always.