Oct 6, 2020

BETH ANDERSON Interview: Bringing History to Life!

During the past year I've become a fan of author Beth Anderson, one picture book at a time. If you follow this blog regularly, you have probably become her fan, too. I had loads of fun with her first picture book, AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET: Ben Franklin and Noah Webster's Spelling Revolution, reviewed HERE, which was  followed by LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT!: Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights, reviewed HERE, and "SMELLY" KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES: How James Kelly's Nose Saved the New York City Subway, reviewed HERE I “met” Beth Anderson through her books, so if you don’t (yet) know them, I hope you'll read the interview below. Then i invite you to click to read my reviews, all of which praise the appeal and impressive research and detail woven throughout her well-told, lesser-known, kid-friendly profiles. 
Then, of course, get your hands on those books to read them and watch history come to life in your lap.

I learned quite a bit about Beth using prior interviews and her website, which is loaded with useful resources and links to blog posts. Some favorites are linked at the end of this post to make it easy for you to follow her example and dig deep, mining for valuable information. 
This quote is highlighted on Beth’s website: 

"Writing is mining. It’s digging deep inside for special memories, emotions, and meaning. It’s burrowing into history for inspiring characters and moments that change the course of events." 
~ Beth Anderson 

Author Beth Anderson
Those prior interviews are why I’m exploring a new vein with my questions here, focusing on some things I wondered about the creation of her October release
“Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses, and her recent release, Lizzie Demands a Seat. 
My questions are in BLUE.
BETH's responses are in RED.

SB: Beth, thank you for taking time to join us here to share back story secrets about your remarkable nonfiction books.
BETH: Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog, Sandy! 

SB:I learned that you’ve traveled a great deal and lived many places, but I was surprised to see that you aren’t a New York City gal, so to speak. These two titles both reveal the history and heart of that city, and each conveys a real sense of place and time. Did your research for one or the other first draw you or provide hints to the other story along the way? Will you share a bit about how New York City and these two figures from “hidden” history found a place in your heart and on our bookshelves? 

BETH: It was pure coincidence that I wrote two stories about inspiring characters involved with transportation history in New York City. Though the two weren’t connected at the start, they ended up connecting later. I learned about Elizabeth Jennings in 2015 and was immediately in awe of her fortitude. But in addition to the woman, I wanted to understand the time and place, a huge gap in our civil rights history, to better understand where we are today. 
I also wanted to share the larger social landscape and the responsibility of all of us to participate in working for social justice. 
 I didn’t stumble upon James Kelly’s story until 2017, as Lizzie went under contract. I was attracted to Kelly’s story because of the quirky situations he encountered, the mysterious world of the subway, and, let’s face it, an extraordinary nose is irresistible! Research yielded a small collection of anecdotes with humor and heroism. Though it was very different than Lizzie’s story, there were connecting threads, and knowing a little about New York City and the importance of transportation helped. 
So while Lizzie’s story required that I dig deep into myself and social context to nail down the “heart,” Kelly’s story was more difficult structurally and needed a “heart” that would shape random pieces into an arc. 
I had done so much pondering on heroes with Lizzie’s story that I think it led me to explore a different kind of hero in Kelly—an everyday hero who often goes unnoticed. I am definitely not a city gal. NYC has always been intimidating to me. I’d been there a few times, but had never ridden the subway. I pored over maps and photos for both books. For Lizzie, I researched widely into the social aspects, and for Kelly, I went after more physical/ structural information on the city—including sensory. 
One lesson from both is the immense importance of varied aspects of setting and the impact on characters. I’m drawn to characters first, but when you start to understand the setting, stories intensify. Both books ended up linked by the New York Transit Museum which I had consulted in my research for “Smelly” Kelly, and later on details for Lizzie. 
The museum did a program on Elizabeth Jennings, featuring Lizzie Demands a Seat, and I am thrilled to be working with them again, this time for a virtual program on James “Smelly” Kelly. 
(Stay tuned for details!) 
When I visited NYC in February for Lizzie Demands a Seat events, it was powerful to walk up the same courthouse steps that Elizabeth Jennings did, and to find the street sign honoring her; and so fascinating to experience the subway after learning about “Smelly” Kelly. Knowing the history and how these two people had changed a city brought even more meaning to their stories. Both characters grabbed me at the emotional level because they dug deep within themselves and gave their best for the greater good, affecting hearts, minds, and lives. I hope kids will see the power of possibility, of thinking past “what is,” and how each person’s actions make a difference. 
 SB: Wow, digging deep may provide the richly detailed material for your stories, but uncovering those unexpected characters involves staying alert to new leads.
Picture book biographies are having great success in recent years. You’ve pointed out that your books about Kelly and Lizzie are not strictly biographies, since you incorporated dialogue and event descriptions that are not literally documented in research. I’m interested in the ways you managed to portray adult individuals with minimal content about their childhoods while keeping kid-readers intrigued by their actions and accomplishments. Was there a point at which you unearthed key personality traits or other qualities that made you feel Lizzie's and Kelly's lives would hook kids? 
Interior from Smelly Kelly, Page 3
BETH: For James Kelly, his nickname, his incredible sense of smell and all that entails, and the hilarious situations he encountered instantly connected with the kid in me. His heroic actions led me to consider different kinds of heroes. I saw so many parallels with superheroes in Kelly’s story, and it takes place when superheroes emerged in our culture—Batman, Phantom, Captain Marvel, and so many more. 
So…I created a superhero thread and had all kinds of fun with that. Kids may not catch all the references, but hopefully adults will get a chuckle as familiar words and phrases appear. Beyond the fun connections, I honed the emotional hook, the heart of the story, tapping into the childhood wish for a “superpower,” a specialness to be valued in the world. 
 And to add to all that, Jenn Harney’s amazingly fun illustrations draw a child into the story from the start. [Kirkus Reviews noted “Shades of Spider-Man” and also gave a nod to “Hamilton” in their review: “Another immigrant gets the job done.”] 

Interior: Lizzie Demands a Ride
 Lizzie’s story was more difficult in this regard, but the importance of her story as civil rights history was undeniable. I looked for kid connections. 
Kids ride buses. Kids are attuned to “fairness.” Many kids have probably watched silently as someone endured taunts from a bully. And many have suffered taunts themselves while others did nothing. I tried to incorporate those emotional links and gut-wrenching feelings. 

And I think Lizzie’s actions are just so incredibly courageous, physically and emotionally, that her story can impact any age reader. I worked hard to make her story nonfiction, but due to the incomprehensibility for kids of a few of the words in her recorded statement and also the diluting effect of “reporting,” I opted for clarity and the power of direct speech. I wanted the reader to experience the events as much as possible. And the illustrator, E.B. Lewis, created images that go straight to the heart. 

SB: Well, you certainly achieved impressively kid-friendly storytelling in both cases. 
Something I’m eager to ask about “Smelly” Kelly involves his "fame", or lack of fame.
While learning about Kelly, did you encounter folks/fans who seemed to know everything about him and were thrilled to see you elevate his professional life to public attention- or a sort of Subway Hall of Fame? 
Or did you feel you had dibs on fandom for “Smelly”? 

BETH:  Beyond the author of one book I used, no one I’ve encountered so far has known about James Kelly! I was only able to dig up three sources. Later, well into the publishing process, the historian at the NY Transit Museum came across a newsletter article on him while she was looking for something else. That article provided a little information on his family that confirmed what I had found in 1930 and 1940 census records was really him! (That was nerdly exciting! Suddenly he was even more real.) 
The folks at the Transit Museum were thrilled to learn about him. And…they’re creating family programming on him! Hopefully “Smelly” Kelly’s fan base grows when the book comes out. He certainly deserves some attention! 
Photo of Kelly, courtesy New York Transit Museum 

SB: I agree entirely. We often hear about gourmet chefs being "super tasters", or dogs having "super sniffers", but Kelly's story is a perfect example of a "super" power serving society!
When I'm working on a writing project requiring research, I uncover tons of facts, major or trivial, that just don’t make it onto the page. Was this the case with Kelly?  If so, will you share one or more of the “leftover” details that have stayed with you? 

BETH:  Oh, there are so many fascinating facts that never make it on the page. Many went into back matter or illustrations, but I think they all contributed to the telling by guiding word choice, characterization, emotional connection, setting, and “atmosphere.” There is one laugh-out-loud scene that I plan to share in a blog post, a little long to share here. 
But here are a few extra tidbits… 
  • Kelly used a 1763 map of Manhattan subterranean springs and streams when hunting down water leaks. 
  • The 1940 census shows: the week prior to census taking he worked 48 hours, and he worked 52 weeks a year. (gives a sense of the man) 
  • Investigating clogs as well as leaks, he caught a school of 40 killifish in a subway restroom pipe and a 10” trout in a Bronx water main. 
  • He was zapped by the third rail once and fell unconscious for a moment. 
  • Subway trivia: Blue lights along the tracks in the tunnels mark phones. 
  • And considering leaks, you’ll be pleased to know that sewer mains are located below water mains. ☺

SB: You're right! It's good to know that drinkable water pipes were laid ABOVE the pipes that carried sewage. I love the idea that this logical, common-sense decision WAS made and continues to be the case. An ounce of prevention... as they say.
Finally, I know you have other titles coming out, but have been waiting to announce details. I may as well ask, can you share any news with us yet?

BETH: Recently, announcements appeared for FRANZ’S PHANTASMAGORICAL MACHINE, illustrated by Caroline Hamel (Kids Can Press, spring 2022) and THOMAS JEFFERSON’S BATTLE FOR SCIENCE: BIAS, TRUTH, AND A MIGHTY MOOSE, illustrated by Jeremy Holmes (Calkins Creek, Fall 2022). Only one secret remains…huzzah! 

SB: It's obviously too soon to link to those two upcoming books, but I've made a note of both titles and dates on my calendar to check them out as soon as they are available. I'm excited about both, and have no doubt that kids will be, too. 
Beth, you've been more than generous with your responses here, and I have no doubt that young readers and writers will be fascinated by your research and writing and the lives of these remarkable historical figures. 
That's true for this OLD reader/writer, as well. We're all grateful to you for sharing so much background about your books and your process. Your enthusiasm is contagious.

Beth was kind to share some special offers with our readers:

For signed copies with swag, 
pre-order from Old Firehouse Books HERE or Boulder Book Store HERE 
and let them know if you’d like the book personalized.

Follow up with more about Beth and her books by clicking below:

Extra Activity Packet also available on website

Beth will celebrate this release in some VIRTUAL events: 
  • Oct 17, 11:30-1:30 MDT: outdoor signing for “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses at Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins
  • Oct. 22, 4 pm EST: New York Transit Museum program on James “Smelly” Kelly Including a reading, costumed interpreter skit, Q&A.
Click on each below so you can follow/connect with Beth on: 


  1. I'll add a postscript here - A few weeks ago I was delighted to e-meet some of James Kelly's descendants! And in the process of sharing information, I learned that those census records I was so excited about were....not him. A great example of the problems of a common name and so little information available. The family, some of whom have inherited the "Kelly nose," is quite excited about the book!

  2. Wow, talk about primary sources! Thanks for the update and that intriguing family trait of super-sniffing! How wonderful that you could learn more from them and about them. Thanks again for sharing your process and updates here.

  3. Wonderful stuff here Beth - and what a bonus to have the census records story to share with students once school visits can begin again!


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