Tom Birdseye (1951-) - Sidelights
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Shennen Bersani (1961-) Biography - Personal to Mark Burgess Biography - PersonalTom Birdseye (1951-) Biography - Awards, Honors, Writings, Sidelights - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Work in Progress
Tom Birdseye readily admits that he never aspired to be a writer. As a young man growing up in North Carolina and Kentucky, he was more interested in sports, crawdads, mud balls, forts built in the woods, secret codes, bicycles without fenders, butter pecan ice cream, and snow. Birdseye, however, became published at the age of thirty-five after ten years of teaching, a year of living in Japan, and two unrelated degrees. The author once commented, "Life, it seems, is full of who'd-a-thought-its."
"At times it still amazes me that writing is my profession," Birdseye once said. "It was such a difficult process for me when I was a kid; I can really identify with the reluctant writer in school today." The author recalled how difficult it was for him to complete stories because of his poor grammatical skills. He acknowledges that if it were not for certain people offering him encouragement, he would not have prospered as a writer. Birdseye now carries a small notebook around just in case he comes across any new ideas or characters.
"True, I still labor through my stories," Birdseye once admitted, "wrestling with the spelling beast and the punctuation monster, writing and rewriting, then rewriting some more, until I glean my best, but the process has become one of pleasure instead of pain. I love doing it, and I love sharing it with others. The boy who couldn't imagine himself a writer, now can't imagine himself anything else."
Birdseye's first published work for children, I'm Going to Be Famous, appeared in 1986. In this story, a fifth grader, Arlo, focuses all of his energy on breaking the world record for eating bananas, which is seventeen bananas in two minutes. Arlo's feat begins as a personal endeavor but quickly becomes a major event at his school. He starts to wonder if breaking the record is worth the attention, especially since his parents disapprove. Arlo lies about the outcome, leaving him in an awkward position with his friends. Calling I'm Going to Be Famous a "furiously funny story," Booklist contributor Ilene Cooper stated that the work has a "built-in appeal and a certain silliness that middle graders will adore."
Tucker addresses issues of divorce, sibling rivalry, and unemployment. The title character, eleven-year-old Tucker Renfro, lives with his divorced father, apart from his mother and nine-year-old sister Olivia. When Olivia comes to visit Tucker after seven years of absence, they do not get along. With time, however, the siblings grow more comfortable with each other. Olivia makes Tucker hopeful by telling him that their parents are getting back together. His hopes are crushed, however, after learning that his sister has been lying. The book also touches upon Tucker's passion to become a hunter in the tradition of the Indians. He shoots a deer with his homemade bow and arrow despite being too young to receive a hunting license. After watching the deer suffer before dying, Tucker regrets killing the animal. The young boy's dilemmas are "treated sensitively and realistically," according to School Library Journal contributor Susan H. Williamson. Deborah Abbott, a reviewer for Booklist, contended that "readers will identify with the problems and the positive ending."
Waiting for Baby is another of Birdseye's well-known children's stories. In anticipation of becoming a big brother, a young boy envisions the fun he and his new sibling will have playing games, wrestling, and reading stories—but the activities he imagines are not appropriate for an infant. When his baby sister arrives, the older child is not disappointed because he likes to snuggle and hold her close to him. Booklist's Ellen Mandel asserted that Waiting for Baby is "a beautifully executed, reassuring read for expectant families." "This idealized view of a new sibling is a good choice for sharing aloud," Virginia E. Jeschelnig noted in School Library Journal.
Just Call Me Stupid tells the struggle of a fifth-grader, Patrick, who reads below his grade level. Published in 1993, the book details the effects that parental verbal abuse and neglect have on a child. Every time Patrick tries to read, he begins to hyperventilate and the words blur together. His alcoholic father makes matters worse with his negative comments. The only people who seem to care about Patrick are his teacher, Mrs. Romero, and his next door neighbor and classmate, Celina. Celina is bubbling with enthusiasm and motivates Patrick to explore his creativity. Thus, he recites an original story to Celina, which she records and secretly submits to a contest. When he wins, Patrick is furious with her. The boy later conquers his fear of books with his mother's unconditional love, Celina's confidence, and Mrs. Romero's encouragement. A contributor to Kirkus Reviews remarked that the book is "lively and well plotted, with funny . . . scenes and a satisfying upbeat ending." Describing Just Call Me Stupid as a "dramatic, insightful novel," a Publishers Weekly reviewer proclaimed the book "may also spark classroom discussion about self-esteem, disabilities, and talents."
In 1993, Birdseye turned his attention to folklore, in Soap! Soap! Don't Forget the Soap! An Appalachian Folktale. Plug Honeycut is a forgetful little boy who is sent to the store by his mother to purchase soap. Since the young man is easily distracted, he has to repeat, "Soap! Soap! Don't forget the soap!" Unfortunately, Plug ends up repeating whatever he hears from other people along the way. Each time he picks up a new phrase, he tells it to the next person he comes in contact with, unintentionally offending the stranger. When someone mentions soap again, Plug finally remembers his initial mission. A Kirkus Reviews contributor described Birdseye's retelling of the book as "colorful and comical." Booklist reviewer Janice Del Negro added that the "book will also work well in read-aloud programs . . . or as a source for more traditional library storytelling."
What I Believe: Kids Talk about Faith, written with wife Debbie Holsclaw Birdseye, explores in a candid, encouraging way the varied religious beliefs of six children aged twelve to thirteen. A Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Native American child each discuss their religious practices, their feelings about their religions, and how their religions function as an integral part of their daily lives. Based on a questionnaire originally given to adults, the Birdseyes revised the questionnaire for children and went seeking answers from their six subjects. "Despite what some adults think of the youth of today—that they are only interested in video games, rock stars, TV, and when dinner will be ready—our job turned out to be quite easy," Birdseye wrote on his Web site. "The world, it seems, is brimming with wonderful kids from all walks of life who are giving a great deal of thought to their spirituality." The book includes the children's views on God and discussion of how and why they pray. The "first-hand and refreshing" responses of the children reveal "a depth of perception and commitment," observed a reviewer in Teacher Librarian.
The companion book to What I Believe, Under Our Skin: Kids Talk about Race, addresses children's views and concepts of race and racial identity. As in What I Believe, the book records the candid responses of six children, aged twelve to thirteen, of Hispanic, Arabic, African-American, Native American, Caucasian, and Asian descent. Spurred by their success in getting middle-school aged children to talk about religion, the Birdseyes sought out children willing to discuss their ideas and experiences with race. Mindful of the potential volatility of the subject, the authors asked about experiences as a member of a particular race, about experiences with prejudice, and the general issue of race relations in the United States, especially in relation to young people. "Not only were they willing to talk, but with great honesty and feeling, giving us very personal portraits of themselves in the process," Birdseye remarked on the his Web site. Yapha Nussbaum Mason, writing in School Library Journal, commented that Under Our Skin "gives readers a chance to see what life is like through someone else's eyes, and in someone else's skin."
Birdseye turns again to fiction with The Eye of the Stone. Thirteen-year-old Jackson Cooper has his share of troubles. His schoolmates consider him a wimp, his father is unemployed, and as he tries to work up the courage to ride his bike down a steep incline on his thirteenth birthday, he knows that he will chicken out again. When he dozes off in the woods behind his home, however, he wakes up in a magical, ancient world where he is hailed as a mighty hero. The people of the village of Timmran adore him and count on him for protection against a warring village, which he provides with the powers of a magic stone. During a battle, Jackson inadvertently unleashes a destructive demon called the Baen, which causes untold deaths and injuries. Heavily burdened with the disappointment of having let down the people who relied on him, particularly the village girl Tessa, Jackson finds within himself the courage and resolve to seek out an enchanted flute that will defeat the demon and bring peace to his new world. After doing so, Jackson is returned to his real home, where his new-found maturity, courage, and wisdom remain to let him face the challenges of his own world. "This novel is a predictable but fairly interesting science fiction-fantasy tale," with elements of time travel and Romeo and Juliet, wrote Nicole A. Cooke in Voice of Youth Advocates. Despite finding "the time-travel element . . . not entirely convincing," Booklist's Carolyn Phelan, nonetheless remarked that The Eye of the Stone "provides plenty of excitement for adventure fans."
Birdseye revisits a familiar fairy tale in Look Out, Jack! The Giant Is Back! Picking up the story about ten minutes after Jack dispatched the giant in the original Jack and the Beanstalk, Look Out, Jack! tells what happens when the original giant's brother slides down the beanstalk, looking for Jack and a little revenge. Mr. Giant, bigger and meaner than the original, pursues Jack and his mother to the mountains of North Carolina, where heaps of delicious southern food—and smelly feet—stave off the giant's vengeance. Eventually Mr. Giant becomes angry and stomps so hard that the mountains collapse and swallow him up as easily as the giant swallowed mounds of fried chicken, biscuits, and mashed potatoes. Janie Schomberg, reviewing the book in School Library Journal, remarked that "readers will love this tale about Jack." Writing in Kirkus Reviews, a critic noted that Birdseye's "folksy style of storytelling uses an American vernacular full of tall-tale exaggerations and dramatic page turns," concluding that the book is "great fun."
Oh Yeah!, Birdseye's 2003 book, is also based on exaggerations, this time the escalating dares and counter-dares issued by two boys during a creepy campout in their back yard. Safely tucked inside their pup tent, the boys boast of their ability to stay out in the yard no matter what. The first could stay outside in the dark even if there were spiders hanging over his head; the second could stay out in the dark even if there were spiders over his head and snakes crawling around his feet. With shouts of "Oh Yeah?," each boy increases the risk and intensity of fear he could withstand, through crocodiles, dragons, and monsters. Finally they exit the tent, leaving their stuffed animals inside to demonstrate their amazing bravery. When a "kid-eating monster" shows up on the scene, they're frightened into the house—until they realize they left their stuffed friends behind, and muster up the courage to rescue their toys from the monster, which turns out to be the family dog. "Children who enjoy a good scare will delight in the imaginary big-eyed, slithering, stalking, dangling critters that crowd the pages in increasing numbers," wrote Marge Loch-Wouters in School Library Journal, while a Kirkus Reviews critic noted that Oh Yeah! "will probably strike a chord and tickle the funny bone of many young 'brave' campers."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, December 1, 1986, Ilene Cooper, review of I'm Going to Be Famous, pp. 574-575; July, 1990, Deborah Abbott, review of Tucker, p. 2086; November 1, 1991, Ellen Mandel, review of Waiting for Baby, p. 530; March 15, 1993, Janice Del Negro, review of Soap! Soap! Don't Forget the Soap!, p. 314; January 15, 1994, p. 930; July, 1994, p. 1952; February 15, 2001, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Eye of the Stone, p. 1136; September 1, 2001, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Look Out, Jack! The Giant Is Back!, p. 112; January 1, 2004, Ilene Cooper, review of Attack of the Mutant Underwear, p. 852.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1988, p. 450; May 1, 1993, review of Soap! Soap! Don't Forget the Soap!, p. 593; November 1, 1993, review of Just Call Me Stupid, p. 1386; September 1, 2001, review of Look Out, Jack! The Giant Is Back!, p. 1285; July 15, 2003, review of Oh Yeah!, p. 961.
Publishers Weekly, March 18, 1988, p. 86; April 27, 1990, p. 60; October 25, 1993, review of Just Call Me Stupid, p. 62; August 1, 1994, p. 78; September 10, 2001, review of Look Out, Jack! The Giant Is Back!, p. 92; August 11, 2003, review of Oh Yeah!, p. 279; December 8, 2003, review of Attack of the Mutant Underwear, p. 62.
School Library Journal, May, 1988, p. 76; June, 1990, Susan H. Williamson, review of Tucker, p. 116; November, 1991, Virginia E. Jeschelnig, review of Waiting for Baby, p. 90; April, 1998, Yapha Nussbaum Mason, review of Under Our Skin: Kids Talk about Race, p. 141; December, 2000, Valerie Diamond, review of The Eye of the Stone, p. 138; October, 2001, Janie Schomberg, review of Look Out, Jack! The Giant Is Back!, p. 104; August, 2003, Marge Loch-Wouters, review of Oh Yeah!, p. 122; January, 2004, Kathy Krasniewicz, review of Attack of the Mutant Underwear, p. 124.
Teacher Librarian, May, 1999, review of What I Believe: Kids Talk about Faith, p. 51.
Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 2001, Nicole A. Cooke, review of The Eye of the Stone, p. 50.
Tom Birdseye Home Page, http://www.tombirdseye.com/ (January 25, 2004).