I purchased Betti on the High Wire by Lisa Railsback because I was itching to read some of the 2010 Cybils nominees, and I haven’t been able to locate any at any of the libraries I frequent. I was intrigued by the blurbs about the book I had read, and in fact, I’m beginning to see a common theme in many of the books I’ve read lately–that of children and young adults immigrating to America and trying to figure out how to make their lives work here.
Betti on the High Wire is that, plus some. Betti (a.k.a. Babo) is a ten year old girl from some unnamed, war-torn country who is adopted by an American couple who have a seven year old daughter by birth. Betti is brash and loud, and she was the leader of the “circus children,” orphans (or at least children whose parents are missing) who live in an abandoned circus camp, among whom she lived back in her home. Betti loves those children and misses them. She’s not too keen on America–she is very afraid that she will lose her identity. Of course, life in America offers her much more than she ever expected, and in the end she does indeed learn to walk the high wire of being Babo and being a member of her new family.
I’ve simplified this story a whole lot. It’s written entirely from Betti’s perspective, so the reader gets to experience the shock of leaving one’s home in a war-torn country in which survival and sticking together are the main objectives every day to a land where there is plenty of food and toys and people . . . and. . . and. . . and. . . OVERWHELMED! Betti’s voice and imagination are unique (and at times very confusing) and genuine:
My old world was like this: leftover children and jungle dirt, lion cages and circus stories, explosions in the woods and the soft lap of Auntie Moo. In my new world, I’d have to go to something named Diznee-land, I’d play Lucy games, I’d swim in a swimming poo, and the Buckworths would call themselves my mom and dad. (64)
I particularly like how Railsback writes the “gooledygook” that Betti hears when her new family speaks to her in their too-fast English. This is from a conversation between Betti and her new sister, Lucy, about Lucy’s Barbie (like) dolls:
“I got this doll. . . birth-day. . . I love her soooo. . . much and I have . . . doll. . . house. . . really cute. . . Someday. . . I hope. . . car for dolls. . . maybe at Christmas. . . and maybe. . . Mom and DAd. . . they’ll get you. . . house. . . too.” (103)
This middle grade fiction novel is a good story about a big subject. At times I almost felt like the story is too big for its target audience–that some of the nuances of Betti’s difficulties would go over the heads of children in the upper elmentary age bracket. However, I do think that it’s a good starting point for a discussion about the ways of the world in which we live (and actually, some of what Betti experiences is not necessarily limited to those who are adopted from other countries). I was both frustrated by and appreciative of the fact that Railsback leaves Betti’s home an unknown. In the author note at the end of the story, Railsback (who has worked with children in war-torn countries) has this to say:
To name Betti’s country would mean that I’d be circling one small spot on a very large map–and that doesn’t seem fair–when there are so many strong and courageous kids all over the world.
Maybe, dear reader, you will have a much easier time naming Betti’s exactly place, and the color of her face. Maybe you’d like to name the texture of her trees, and the food she eats, and the language she speaks.
You are welcome to, if you wish. Wherever she comes from, please be kind.
For the right children, I think this book would be an enjoyable and eye-opening story.