Betsy Franco sees math in everyday things. The number of ladybugs on a leaf. The symmetry of two trees framing the entrance to a house. A squirrel hoarding acorns. Pick up Franco’s newest book, Mathematickles (Margaret McElderry, 2003), and discover how deceptively simple and poetic math can be. Franco is the author of over 50 books for children, many of them math-related. “I want children to see how creative and playful and sassy and beautiful and fascinating math can be.”
Franco begins every workday with a visit to the elementary school her three sons attended. She walks around listening to the kids, sometimes participating, sometimes hanging back to observe. One time she asked the kids what they had in their pockets. Money. Lint. Crumbs. Marbles. Stones. Toy dinosaurs. Their answers became a poem called “Where’s My Lunch Money?” in which a child finds only his left hand and a hole in his pocket. “Everybody knows me as the continuously visiting author,” she says. But the visits are worth it. Every day she returns home with at least one new idea for a poem—a special blessing when she wrote the 100 poems in Counting Our Way to the Hundredth Day(McElderry, 2004).
Franco was a studio art major in college, but it was tough making a living from oil paintings displayed in galleries. By chance, she started working for an educational publisher as a typist and quickly worked her way up to assistant editor. Asked to write a few poems for a math textbook—something she’d never even tried before—she channeled her artistic energy from college into writing and she’s never looked back.
According to Franco, “I spent a lot of years writing without getting published.” But she continued to visit her local elementary school every day, and read her poems to the children. She would even write her poems out on cards so the children could read them back to her.
Now that Franco makes her living as a writer, she feels it’s part of her job to help other people get published. After reading Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher, Franco decided she wanted to hear what teenage girls themselves had to say. Franco asked teens to submit writing over the Internet, called everyone she knew across the country, and contacted an inner city writing teacher she’d read about in People. The result is Things I Have to Tell You, poems and writings by teenage girls (Candlewick Press, 2001).
Because Franco has three sons, she knew she had to try the same experiment with boys.You Hear Me? poems and writings by teenage boys (Candlewick, 2001) obliterated the stereotype that boys couldn’t or wouldn’t write. Franco is thrilled with the result.
Both anthologies convey a sense of honesty and trust. According to Franco, “The writers’ openness made me determined to try not to hit a false note in any aspect of the books.” During the editorial process, Franco formed girls’ and boys’ consulting groups who rated each submission. Sometimes Franco and the editors didn’t agree with the ratings, but they respected the teens’ opinions and included the highest ranked writings.
Judging from the responses Franco has received to the anthologies, it was a good strategy. One girl kissed the book and said now she knows she’s not alone. One boy stayed in high school because his poem was published in Franco’s book. Another boy applied for his first library card so he could read the anthology, and has been taking out books ever since. A girl published in the anthology has recently had her own book published by Candlewick Press.
Franco lives in Palo Alto with her husband (who runs a nonprofit organization for women and children in Afghanistan), and her three sons. She loves children and listens to them more than adults. “I want children to feel they are just as important as anyone else.”