I'm excited to share this interview with readers, because Beth Anderson's books are reliably informative, entertaining, thought provoking, and heart-tugging. Her upcoming picture book is sheer delight: TAD LINCOLN'S RESTLESS WRIGGLE: Pandemonium and Patience in the President's House, illustrated by S. D. Schindler. I'll be back with a review of this October release later this fall, but here's a hint: I love it! So does Booklist:
"Anderson’s lively text offers anecdotes along with insights into how Tad’s high-spirited escapades may have given Lincoln welcome relief from his weighty responsibilities."
Beth invests endless effort in finding the facts for her stories, and even more in finding the heart for her storytelling, which she writes about: finding the heart of TAD and his father HERE. That's why I'm so grateful that she was willing to take some time to answer questions.
SB: Welcome, Beth, and thank you for spending time here with my readers. I’ll begin with my sincere compliments. As beloved as Abe Lincoln is in American history and legend, your story endeared him to me in entirely new ways. I believe that will be the case for everyone who reads your book. You not only revealed the very tender and loving relationship between Abe and his son Tad, your words and Schindler’s illustrations revealed the human lives within the building we now call THE WHITE HOUSE. It was not only authentic, but especially effective, to refer to it with the term of the day, the President’s House. That, like every bit of this book, anchors Tad's story in its very specific time and place for contemporary young readers. From beginning to end, you achieved a balance of the Lincolns’ lives as a Presidential family as the loving, grieving humans they were.
I won’t include any spoilers here, but your author notes indicate that this book took a drastic change of direction from your original intent. Would you share a bit more about the ways in which you found Tad’s stories and felt your focus shift from an origin story about a presidential tradition to a story focused on family love, laughter, and surprises?
Beth: Following a chain of ideas, I learned that the first presidential turkey pardon happened due to the request of Tad Lincoln. A child? Interesting! So I explored that piece of history. As I dug deeper in search of “heart,” the meaningful “take away” for the story, I found a rambunctious child, an exceptional child, a lonely child, a mischief maker, a stutterer, a “wildcat,” the Lincoln’s (sometimes “troublesome”) “sunshine,” a boy wise beyond his years, the “absolute tyrant of the Executive Mansion.” Oh my!
I began asking WHY and looking to see what was behind it. What was going on with Tad? He annoyed others—why? He refused his lessons—why? He brought ragamuffin kids into the White House for food—why? All that exploring took me to the emotional level where I discovered his endless energy, his speech and learning disabilities, his relationship to his brother Willie who had died the previous year, and an irresistibly endearing father and son relationship in which they each fulfilled the other’s needs. It was fascinating to see Abraham Lincoln as a patient, loving father who guided his son. Tad’s creative, humorous, well-meaning antics combined with his behavior issues reminded me of some of the students who challenged me in the classroom and, in doing so, stuck in my heart. So there I had a strong personal attachment and my passion emerged for telling a much deeper and fun story about Tad—a story in which a child’s impact on adults was front and center.
And…I had pets and trips to camps; I had his super energy and joyful heart; I had a story about a child’s life in the White House at an important time in history. So much to love. So much there for parents, children, and teachers that I then had the challenge of how to shape it all into a meaningful story.
SB: Every bit of that shines through in your "year in a life" approach. It allows readers to meet Tad over time and recognize his history and growth. That undoubtedly involved some very exacting research.
I am a huge fan of back matter. Yours includes information that answered some of my questions when the main text ended. Tad’s story is framed mainly during 1863, placing the Lincolns a few years into Abe’s first term and several years into the Civil War. Even with that tight focus, you covered a wide span of time for a picture book. Can you tell us about your decisions regarding pacing of the colorful events portrayed, and if there were particular ones that broke your heart when they had to hit the cutting room floor?
Tad’s colorful wriggling antics and clever mind earned their place on the page, but also convinced me that there could be many other stories that had to be left out.
Beth: I found a good number of stories from 1863, and they showed a transformation in Tad. When I found the last one (no spoiler), I knew I had the ending. From there I arranged everything chronologically and looked at the developmental pieces for Tad. I looked at how his father responded to him and the changes through the year. Which scenes would shape the arc?
[Slight tangent: I found lots of sets of 3s! Very fun to play with! I’ll need to do a blog post on that sometime. I love playing with structure!]
After much experimenting with the pieces, I found the ones that moved the story forward…except for one. (With “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses, I’d learned a lot about choosing and creating scenes and transitions.) And that one was hard to let go as it had a starring role as #2 in a set of 3. Sigh. It was one of Tad’s well intentioned efforts to help.
Someone (accounts differ as to who) gave Tad a toolbox which kept him quite busy. He decided to build furniture for the Old Soldiers’ Home. Well… after Tad was found sawing up the mahogany table in the formal dining room to make chairs, his toolbox disappeared. I lost that bit of fun in the revisions for the editor. It was just not needed and slowed the story. It was really important that the story move as energetically as Tad. [So, in the book, there are only 2 things that suddenly, inexplicably (wink, wink) disappear.]
SB: At least that bit of history made it onto THIS page, if that helps at all!
I’m a fan of your word mastery in all of your books. So, speaking of Tad, I was especially taken by “Restless Wriggle” in the title. It makes delightful alliteration, but it also made me smile about the various ways that different writers use WIGGLE vs. WRIGGLE. Apart from the liveliness of that choice, did anything in your research reveal this phrase, (or either of the two words) among the many sources you scoured?
Beth: Word choice is such an important part of writing picture books. Finding just the right word can often let you cut ten others. I spend a lot of time choosing words, and with a title it’s immensely important and usually a tremendous challenge.
Research sources generally used the word “squirm” for Tad as a baby. Abe thought his head looked a little large and he squirmed like a tadpole—thus they began calling him Taddie or Tad. I don’t recall if any sources actually used “wriggle.” It just felt like the right word to me—accessible yet distinctive. To me, squirm for a person has a connotation of discomfort or intention. “Wriggle” is what I’d use for a tadpole as it feels more intense, uncontrollable, and interesting than “wiggle.” And “restless”? To me it indicates pent up energy which is totally Tad. But also, the word doesn’t have a connotation of good or bad so it’s not labeling Tad negatively and leaves the judgment up to the reader. And of course…alliteration! The title wasn’t offered to me by the research as with An Inconvenient Alphabet. With this one, I experienced my usual title torture for quite a while.
SB: Very masterful. it also resonates as a word of the times, to my ear. That's just another example of the ways your text and Schindler’s illustrations brought to life the history, issues, and customs of that era. As distant as this period is from present day, your combined talents connected the people and problems and parental stresses of Lincoln’s day to modern lives.
Did your research and writing of this story have an impact on the way you felt about Lincoln BEFORE the project developed?
(I ask that, because it definitely changed mine!)
Beth: Don’t we all know a child a bit like Tad? Maybe some of us were a child like Tad? Who hasn’t struggled with behavioral expectations at some point? Have you ever had good intentions backfire? Don’t all parents (and teachers) struggle with discipline at some point? And really, once we’re given the opportunity to understand a child’s emotional challenges, aren’t we more patient and open? It’d be hard to find parents more stressed than Abraham and Mary Lincoln.
Take a look at this spread of a cabinet meeting. Haven’t we all received those looks as a child? And probably reacted that way as a parent or teacher or random person in the grocery store? 😆
Whatever our time or place, all the questions and ideas I just mentioned hit us emotionally. I have to bring my emotional connection to the reader. Craft-wise, I think it’s in characterization and trying to bring the reader inside the experience as much as possible with scene building. Characters need to act and react. Human issues are timeless. S.D. Schindler’s amazing illustrations show setting, but they also show that humanity that connects us.
As a child growing up in the “Land of Lincoln,” I was steeped in Lincoln history. I’d read stories about his boyhood and presidency; I’d visited Salem and Springfield. But I never encountered stories about him as a father. (Though I always saw a bit of resemblance between him and my father.) As I read the stories about his home life and relationship with the boys and Mary, he became a more complete person in my mind, with more depth—maybe a bit closer to the rest of us. While life in the White House and governing the nation is an experience we can only begin to imagine, the family role is something we can easily connect to on a meaningful level. This whole other side of him becomes even more interesting when you think about all he was dealing with at the time. What really took hold of my heart was how he so desperately needed the joy Tad offered, and also how he recognized and provided all that Tad needed from him. (OK, now I’m verklempt.)
SB: Same here.(FYI: verklempt = overcome with emotion) That has been my reaction each time I've read my advance copy. The chuckles and sighs and eye rolls are undeniable, and yet an awareness of the burdens of office and personal loss on the Lincoln family can't be ignored. I'm certain that young readers, even those not yet steeped in a lifetime of Lincoln lore, will sense it, but the adults in their lives will undoubtedly empathize with the poignancy of this story.
Ahem... recovering my thoughts here...
SB: I always like to ask if you have something in the works you’d like to share (and are allowed to share at this point in time, given publishers' restrictions about dates and details).
Beth: Somehow…I ended up with three releases in 2022. Two of the books are about little known, gutsy women and the American Revolution. REVOLUTIONARY PRUDENCE WRIGHT: LEADING THE MINUTE WOMEN IN THE FIGHT FOR INDEPENDENCE is illustrated by Susan Reagan, from Calkins Creek, releasing Spring 2022. And CLOAKED IN COURAGE: UNCOVERING DEBORAH SAMPSON, PATRIOT SOLDIER is illustrated by Anne Lambelet, from Calkins Creek, in Fall 2022.
The other spring title is a complete departure from these—a STEAM, historical fiction story about an Austrian man driven to tinker, create, and invent. FRANZ’S PHANTASMAGORICAL MACHINE is illustrated by Caroline Hamel, from Kids Can Press.
There’ll be more revolution in 2023 with THOMAS JEFFERSON’S BATTLE FOR SCIENCE: BIAS, TRUTH, AND A MIGHTY MOOSE, illustrated by Jeremy Holmes. Science, humor, and history! So much fun!
I never like to say too much about what I’m working on (often it takes a nose dive into “the drawer”)… but will say I’ve been working on another Lincoln story. Clearly I’m fascinated by so many aspects of his life. And when I started that one, I remembered a different story that had been relegated to “the drawer” that’s suddenly ringing with relevance and calling me to revise. And then I’ve got a few piles of research started…always…
SB: Wow, Beth. I introduced you with gratitude for finding time to respond to my questions, and now I wonder if I should apologize for interrupting your amazing productivity! I'll be here to read each and all of these upcoming titles as they become available, with a full intent to review them and share them here. I'm confident that your current look at an earlier Lincoln story will bring it to the right stage at exactly the right time.
For those who are not writers, the proverbial "drawer" is where writing attempts go to hibernate, simmer, marinate, and sometimes simply dissolve. Just as with that tidbit about Tad's short-lived furniture career, the "darlings" we set aside or edit out can often step forward to take a bow on an unintended platform or at an unplanned time.
Beth, thank you again for the generosity of your time and thoughtful insights. And for books that reveal the past, resonate with the present, and will remain treasures into the future.
TAD LINCOLN’S RESTLESS WRIGGLE: PANDEMONIUM & PATIENCE IN THE PRESIDENT’S HOUSE,
“SMELLY” KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES: HOW JAMES KELLY’S NOSE SAVED THE NEW YORK CITY SUBWAY,
LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT: ELIZABETH JENNINGS FIGHTS FOR STREETCAR RIGHTS,
AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET, BEN FRANKLIN AND NOAH WEBSTER’S SPELLING REVOLUTION