Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Barbara Ninde Byfield

Byfield, Barbara Ninde (b. Abeline, Texas, 28 March 1930; d. Leland, Michigan, 8 November 1988)

Barbara Ninde was the middle of three children of Harry Warrington Ninde, Jr. (1899-1980), who worked as the manager of a mortgage and loan company, and Elizabeth Rudisill, née Freeman (1899-1986), who were married in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on 14 November 1925.  Barbara had an older sister and a younger brother.

Barbara Ninde Byfield in 1967

Barbara attended the University of Wyoming for two years, 1947-49. She married Hugh W. Byfield (1922-1984) in Chicago on 19 April 1956.  They had two daughters, but the marriage did not last long and they were divorced.  Byfield signed all of her books as by Barbara Ninde Byfield. Through the 1960s-70s she lived in New York City.

Her first book, of several self-illustrated juveniles, was The Eating in Bed Cookbook (1962), and it was followed by a series comprising The Haunted Spy (1969), The Haunted Churchbell (1971), The Haunted Ghost (1973) and The Haunted Tower (1976). An unrelated self-illustrated book was Andrew and the Alchemist (1977; retitled The Man Who Made Gold, 1980). Byfield wrote the text for Smedley Hoover, His Day (1976), based around photographs by Sara Krulwich, and four adult mystery novels appeared as Solemn High Murder (co-written with Frank L. Tedeschi, 1975), Forever Wilt Thou Die (1976), A Harder Thing than Triumph (1977), and A Parcel of Their Fortunes (1979).  These four novels center around an Episcopalian high churchman, the Reverend Dr. Simon Bede, and his friend, photographer Nancy Bullock. Byfield also illustrated a handful of works by other authors, and had a half-dozen contributions to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine between 1982 and 1986.

Byfield’s most significant publication relating to the fantasy genre is The Glass Harmonica: A Lexicon of the Fantastical (New York: Macmillan, 1967), which was retitled The Book of Weird when it was republished by Doubleday in 1973.  It is a witty, illustrated compendium of just over one hundred alphabetical entries, on topics ranging from “Advisors” and “Alchemists”, on through “Castles and Palaces” and “Crones and Hags” to “Dragons”, “Dwarves” (spelt like, and similar to, the Tolkienian sort), “Kings”, “Queens”, “Serfs and Peasants”, “Vampires” and finally “Wizards”.  There is a vein of humor to the entries, as in the one for “Mangel-Wurzel” which is defined as “a type of beet which should, like all beets, be used only to feed cattle. It is a crop which seldom fails and is much planted by Serfs and Peasants” (p. 98). And there is a lot of useful information for the deviser of quasi-medieval fantasy worlds, telling of the various landscapes (and what grows on them) as well as nice illustrations for various vessels like flagons, goblets, blackjacks, horns and tankards. It several ways in can be seen as a precursor to Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996, revised 2006).

"Landscapes" from The Glass Harmonica / The Book of Weird


  1. Thank you for posting this. Too few people seem to know about her books.

    1. You're welcome. Her books deserve to be better known.

  2. I love THE HAUNTED SPY children's book.

  3. Agreed, it's a great book, which I shared with my children.

  4. Happily, I discovered this book at the public library as a kid around the time I discovered Tolkien and Lewis. The Glass Harmonica was like Mad magazine for me in that it contained riffs on images and ideas widely known to adults but unsuspected by me as a lad. I'm thinking of Byfield's unforgettable image of a weary demon -- an image obviously (once you know the original) riffing on Millet's Man with the Hoe; but I'm sure other examples wouldn't be hard to find if I turned to the book. In the same way, I grew up in a warm and lively home, but we didn't listen to classical music; however, I enjoyed such whiffs of it that I got in preposterous ways, such as a few notes of the Bach Air in Yellow Submarine. When -- perhaps decades delayed -- one realizes what Byfield was up to, appreciation can come at last, however tardily!

    Dale Nelson

  5. Does anyone know how she died?

  6. Delighted to find this online after mentioning The Glass Harmonica to someone. After losing many books by lending them, & more to a thief, this is one piece of entertaining whimsy that will remain with me.