Whistling Up the Bay with Betty Beeby and Char Smith

Posted on August 26, 2010

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One Thursday in May Char Smith brought her class of 4th graders to visit Betty Beeby.  She has done this every year for 24 years.  This will be the last year, because Char is retiring.  Betty says she’s retiring too.  I’m not sure whether to believe either of them, but time will tell.

For those of you from Away, Betty Beeby is an artist, a descendant of Up North pioneers, and a force of nature. You can learn a lot more about her here. You can learn more about Char in the post you’re reading now, because it is mainly about her.

Betty and Char built their collaboration on their love for the true story of Theo, Tom and Herman, three boys who lived right here in Antrim County in the late 1800s. The tale was fictionalized by Nancy Stone and illustrated by Betty Beeby in Whistle up the Bay, published in 1966. From the beginning northern Michigan kids were drawn into the lives of the orphaned boys, but Char Smith has turned the book into an extraordinarily rich experience for her students. They read the story, of course. But then they turn their creativity loose. They make their own illustrations of favorite scenes. They plan skits and play the roles of Theo and Tom and Herman. They stand on the very shore where the boys listened for the whistle of the steamer coming up the Bay. They learn about the lives the boys made for themselves so long ago, and they go to the old Antrim Cemetery and climb to the ridge where they were buried.

And they visit Betty Beeby. A real artist. Ms. Smith’s friend. Cool.

They see the originals of illustrations from their beloved book. They see paintings and drawings and constructions of all kinds. Betty Beeby Herself tells them how artists work and how books are made and–here’s the really cool part–listens to them. She gives them lemonade and energy bars and attention. And then she tells them how much she admires their teacher.

In this 24th year of their collaboration, Betty Beeby has a special presentation to make to Char Smith. She reads a little speech that isn’t like a speech at all but like a really good letter, and she hands Ms. Smith a present wrapped in paper she designed.

Ms. Smith is beaming as the kids pile in around her to watch her open her present.

She likes it a lot.  They like it, too.  They know right away that it’s special, because they recognize it.  It’s an illustration from Whistle Up the Bay.  It must be the original drawing.

She says this is the best class she has ever taught, which she probably says every year, and every year it is true. She says they are smart and creative and that they work hard, and they privately resolve to be as smart and creative and hard working as Ms. Smith just said they were.

They are excited to be here, proud to show their work to Betty Beeby Herself and full of questions about the paintings and books and other stories that live in the red house on M-88.

They perform a skit they made from scenes from the book, and Dick Williams comes over from the Library to make a video of it.

Then it’s time to go. Everyone gathers outside for a group picture in front of the statue of Herman. This, too, is part of the annual ritual. This is, say Betty and Char, the last time they will stand here in a garden of children, because they are retiring. We shall see.

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