Jeanne Betancourt (1941-)
Jeanne Betancourt brings an understanding of both country and city life to her books for young readers. The author of the "Pony Pals" series for elementary school-age readers that follows the adventures of young horse-lovers, Betancourt is also the author of several books and "Afterschool Special" teleplays for teens that concern some of the harsh realities faced by some youngsters: drug abuse, racial prejudice, cocaine addiction, homelessness, and teen parenting. "I know that my reader/viewers are either experiencing some of these difficult and challenging situations personally, through their friends and neighbors, or through the media," the author once told SATA. "I want to show, in a story, the aspects of the 'issue' that I feel kids should be aware of. These are important issues that the media sometimes exploits. I want to explore them. I want to help kids grow stronger and wiser through the experiences of my stories, to see that they have responsibility and power. Through role models from their own age group I want to show kids what they can and should do for themselves and for others."
Betancourt was raised in rural Vermont, across the road from a dairy farm, where she spent much of her time playing, helping work in the barns, or spending time with the Swedish farm owner and his family. "Those years I never thought of being a writer," she once confided to SATA. "I loved my tap dancing classes and wanted to be a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall."
Then, in high school, Betancourt and her family moved to the city of Burlington, where she attended a Catholic girls school. Her dreams of becoming a Rockette were finally dashed when she learned that, at five feet eight inches in height, she was too tall to be a Rockette. Betancourt transferred her energy from dreams of dancing to pursuing a religious calling that began in her junior year of high school. After graduation, she moved to Rutland, Vermont, and entered a teaching order of nuns called the Sisters of Saint Joseph. Over the next six years, she earned her teaching certification and taught at high schools in Vermont. After leaving the order, she took her skills as a teacher to New York City; part of her new life there included getting married and having a child.
While raising her daughter, Nicole, Betancourt taught in New York's inner-city public high schools. She also found the time to pursue her interest in film and, in 1974, earned an advanced college degree in film studies from New York University that enabled her to design courses in film studies and filmmaking for secondary school students. Her first published book, 1974's Women in Focus, was based on her master's degree project.
"I wrote my first children's book, SMILE! How to Cope with Braces, when my daughter, Nicole, was having orthodontic treatment," Betancourt once recalled. "I couldn't find the right book to help her with this new experience, so I researched and wrote one. By the time the book was published, Nicole was out of braces, but her picture is on the cover of the book."
In fact, Nicole has been the inspiration for many of Betancourt's books; "But when it comes down to writing the story and getting into the head and heart of . . . my characters, I have to become the character myself," the author once noted. "Nicole can't do that for me." Betancourt was, however, inspired to write a series of books featuring the young protagonist Aviva Granger. She once remembered "when, at nine, Nicole first became a joint custody kid and began to split her life—two weeks at a time—with me and her father. I've given Aviva my maiden name, Granger, and set the stories in Burlington, Vermont." The four books featuring Aviva Granger—The Rainbow Kid, Turtle Time, Puppy Love, Crazy Christmas, and Valentine Blues—appeared between 1983 and 1990.
Despite having a real child on which to base her books, Betancourt also does a great deal of research for each new book. For 1988's Home Sweet Home, the author tackled the subject of young Tracy Jensen's move from New York City to her Grandmother Tilly's farm in a quiet New England country town. Tracy's feelings of alienation in her new environment are reflected by the situation of Anya, a Russian foreign exchange student she meets during her junior year in high school. "I read many books about the Soviet Union, visited dairy farms, and interviewed farmers," Betancourt once said about writing the novel. And "for Between Us—a mystery novel that makes a connection between drugs used for medical reasons and drugs sold illegally for recreational use—I spent many mornings in the pharmacy of our local hospital in Sharon, Connecticut, learning about drugs and how a hospital pharmacy works."
In Sweet Sixteen and Never . . ., sixteen-year-old Julie is faced with a different kind of problem when she starts dating a young man with a reputation for being "fast." She knows his desire to begin a sexual relationship with her is imminent, and she needs to decide how she is going to react when the time comes. Learning that her mother had a child when she was Julie's age but gave it up for adoption complicates things between mother and daughter after Julie's mother discovers birth control pills in her daughter's room. Fortunately, the lines of communication are open between each of the book's protagonists—Julie, her mom, and boyfriend Sam—and Julie is able to make the decision that is best for her. Writing in School Library Journal, contributor Nancy P. Reeder noted that Betancourt "effectively conveys Julie's turmoil." In a Kliatt review, Rita M. Fontinha applauded Betancourt's "believable plot and engaging characters," going on to say that the novel offers young girls "an excellent introduction to the real world."
Not Just Party Girls, which Betancourt published in 1988, draws on the author's experiences as a nun. Sixteen-year-olds Anne, Kate, and Janet are the Party Girls, a group that arranges birthday parties for younger children in their neighborhood. When Anne becomes concerned with the meaninglessness of her life after working in a local homeless shelter, she begins to consider joining a religious order—but her new-found desire to save others ends up hurting both her friends and her family. The down-to-earth wisdom of Anne's religious guide, Sister Mary, as well as "some highly unsettling practical experiences provide a strong antidote to self-righteousness and day dreams," noted Libby K. White in her positive review of the novel for School Library Journal. The author's life-long love of dancing is reflected in Kate's Turn, in which the young teen protagonist follows her dream of becoming a ballerina to a New York dance school and learns about the real rigors of the profession first-hand.
Betancourt has dyslexia, a learning disability that makes ordering letters for the correct spelling of words difficult and also makes remembering dates and names a challenge. "I also have trouble following special directions and am a very slow reader," she once explained to SATA. "To compensate for my disability, I have developed a sharply tuned attention to conversation (particularly the rhythms and emotional content of dialogue), heightened visual acuity and memory, and empathy." Her personal experiences of overcoming her disability were the focus of her 1993 work, My Name Is Brain Brian. In the novel, the sixth-grader Brian deals with his learning disability as well as all the other typical problems that arise during adolescence. He begins to reexamine his long-time friendships with pals John, Rich, and Dan, as well as his relationship with his authoritarian father, his new teachers who are able to diagnose and help Brian adapt to his dyslexia, and other students at school. Even the "class brain," Isabel, gets a new impression of him after she is forced to work with Brian on a science class project. "Betancourt's depiction of Brian's emotional and psychological growth is believable and involving," noted Janice Del Negro in a Booklist review. A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the novel "a skillfully structured, entertaining story" and acknowledged that "Brian himself . . . is drawn with real insight."
Aimed at a younger audience, the "Pony Pals" books reflect Betancourt's love for animals, and with dozens of titles, the series is perhaps her best-known work. The author told Kids Care Clubs interviewer Maureen Byrne that these stories were inspired by her mostly unfulfilled desire to ride horses as a child. Introduced in 1995 in I Want a Pony, the "Pony Pals" are Pam, Anna, and Lulu, three girls who live in a small town like the one Betancourt grew up in. The author called the girls "strong, smart, independent, kind, and fun loving. They are the kinds of girls I would have liked for friends." Their ponies, Lightning, Acorn, and Snow White, are the animal friends she dreamed of as a child.
Shifting to an urban setting, Betancourt began the "Three Girls in the City" series in 2003 with Self-Portrait, in which the shy teenager Carolyn moves from the Wyoming countryside to Manhattan. In the city, she makes friends with Maya, a confident extrovert from Harlem, and the more cynical, withdrawn Joy. The girls share an interest in photography but have very different home lives and perspectives. Carolyn's mother died recently, and she feels her father is overprotective of her.
Maya has a happy family life but is torn between her new pals and friends from her neighborhood. Joy's parents have divorced, so she must divide her time between two homes. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called the story "pleasant if predictable" and credited the author with defining "distinct, credible voices" while she "gently contrasts their developmental differences." Reviewing the book for Time Out New York, Barbara Aria commended Betancourt for the "subtlety with which [she] portrays her characters' insecurities." Other volumes in the series that have followed include Exposed, Black and White, and Close-Up.
"Some people think that a writer's life is lonely," Betancourt once explained to SATA. "When I'm writing a story, I don't feel lonely because I am actively involved with lots of interesting people—the characters in my books. I love knowing that some day—in the private moment of reading—other people will get to know and care about these people too." Despite the enjoyment she gets from her work, she continues to take her responsibility as a writer for young people seriously. "I believe that the antidote to our human problems is based in human values—those little things we can do for one another to alleviate the pain. I've learned, as children must, that bad things happen to good people and good people have no choice but to become better through the process of coping. This is where the writer comes in. Samuel Johnson said it best when he wrote, 'The only end of writing is to enable the reader to enjoy life better or better to endure it.'"
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, January 15, 1988, p. 854; January 15, 1989, p. 858; April 1, 1993, Janice Del Negro, review of My Name Is Brain Brian, p. 1430.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, December, 1982, review of Smile! How to Cope with Braces, pp. 61-62; April, 1983, review of Dear Diary, p. 143; February, 1992, Zena Sutherland, review of Kate's Turn, p. 148; April, 1993, Kathryn Jennings, review of My Name Is Brain Brian, p. 241.
Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 1992, p. 48; February 11, 1993, review of My Name Is Brain Brian, p. 142.
Kliatt, April, 1987, Rita M. Fontinha, review of Sweet Sixteen and Never . . ., p. 5.
Publishers Weekly, June 9, 2003, review of Self-Portrait, p. 51.
School Library Journal, August, 1982, Hannah Pickworth, review of Smile!, p. 111; June, 1987, Nancy P. Reeder, review of Sweet Sixteen and Never . . ., p. 104; February, 1988, Susan H. Williamson, review of Home Sweet Home, p. 84; January, 1989, Libby K. White, review of Not Just Party Girls, pp. 90-91.
Time Out New York, July 3-10, 2003, Barbara Aria, review of Self-Portrait, p. 65.
Voice of Youth Advocates, October, 1982, Susan B. Madden, review of Smile!, p. 53; August, 1983, Elizabeth G. Paddock, review of Dear Diary, p. 144; August-September, 1987, Judith A. Sheriff, review of Sweet Sixteen and Never . . ., p. 118; April, 1988, p. 21; February, 1989, pp. 282-283; October, 1990, p. 214; April, 1992, p. 22.
Kids Care Clubs, http://www.kidscare.org/ (July, 2002), Maureen Byrne, interview with Betancourt.
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Shennen Bersani (1961-) Biography - Personal to Mark Burgess Biography - PersonalJeanne Betancourt (1941-) Biography - Personal, Career, Awards, Honors, Sidelights - Addresses, Member, Writings