The Cybil War by Betsy Byars
First published: 1981
I can remember the first time I read this book, 30 years ago when I was a sixth grader at Forest Road Elementary School. Betsy Byars seemed to be speaking directly to me in the confused language of pre-adolescents where boys and girls exist in that middle ground between hating each other, being friends, riding bikes and then, feeling the sting of first love. Though the book is dated (only people of my generation will get the reference to Donny Osmond,) the story itself is timeless. Boy meets girl. Girl grins and crosses her eyes. Boy falls for girl. But then, so does Boy’s best friend – and the war for the heart of Cybil Ackerman is on!
Simon and Tony have been friends since first grade. And up until now, Simon hasn’t minded playing straight man to Tony’s wild and crazy guy. Tony cracks wise, loves tormenting the girls (his sister as well as the girls in his homeroom class) and lies frequently. He is funny and loud and appears confident in a way Simon sort of admires. All that changes one fateful afternoon when Simon, hiding in the bushes (you’ll have to read to find out why,) overhears Tony telling one of his famous lies to Cybil. That day, Simon’s eyes are opened to what everyone has been saying about Tony all along.
I love this book because it has so many little lessons folded into it. It’s about being unsure of yourself and finding confidence. It’s about learning to see your parents as people and loving them faults and all. It’s about going into relationships (and here I mean friendships) with our eyes wide open. Very telling is when Simon’s mom says to him, “…what worried me when you and Tony were friends was that he took advantage of you and you seemed to always get the short end of the stick and take the blame and you never seemed to know what he was doing. Now that you see Tony for what he is–well, I feel better about your being friends.”
As an elementary school teacher, I see this story unfold in the lives of my students every year. I love hearing their reactions to Tony during read aloud and how they easily put themselves in Simon’s place. Cybil is such a strong, positive female character. She has such keen insight and sees the truth in a way that girls do when they mature faster than the boys around them.
This is a great, short and sweet read for 4th through 6th graders. Betsy Byars, one of my favorite childhood authors, has perfectly captured the heart and feeling of that in-between age. The feelings are universal. Adults who read this book will be happily transported back, as I am every time I read it.
Teresa Mapson-Reddish is a Gifted Education Specialist in Mableton, Georgia. She enjoys sharing her love of books with her Elementary Gifted & Advanced students. She is also the proud mother of three avid young readers whom she loves introducing to her favorite childhood books.