Jun 1, 2022

Beth Anderson Writes... So Well!

KidsCanPress, 2022

I'm so  excited about the informational fiction picture book FRANZ'S PHANTASMAGORICAL MACHINE, written by Beth Anderson and illustrated by Caroline Hamel. I shared some of my detailed thoughts about it in a recent interview, HERE. I’ve also enjoyed reading interviews with Anderson by other bloggers, HERE and HERE, involving the origin/creation story behind this book. She wrote reflections on the heart and power of this particular book on her own blog, HERE, which I highly recommend. 

I've had the pleasure of interviewing Beth about her previous books, HERE and HERE. I'm excited that she found time to respond to my questions again, so I tried to make them count! What I most wanted to ask about is her skill with the craft of writing, particularly word choice and word play.

SB:  Beth, welcome back! Thank you so much for joining my readers again to share your time and talent with us. 


Thanks so much for inviting me back to talk about FRANZ! 

SB: Your educational background and prior professional career focused on languages and communication, so it’s not surprising that the texts in your books feature word play, apt word choices, and text structures and patterns that strengthen storytelling. The opening text for FRANZ’S PHANTSASMAGORICAL MACHINE uses sparks of questions when we meet young Franz as he encountered a cuckoo clock on the wall of his home:

“He put his ear close to the chirping bird. What makes that sound?

He peered at the gears. What makes them move?

He peeked behind the small door. What’s going on in there?”

None of these are remarkable or phantasmagorical words, but the astonishing magic of curiosity and questioning in a child-mind (of any age) shines through and sets the stage for a satisfying resolution phrase all the way at the end of the book. It does so by presenting a familiar situation in light, lyrical language. 

These are three memorable and inviting lines. Those few words include internal rhyme, assonance, and alliteration, despite being seemingly simple. The call/response format of observation and italicized inquiry requires no dialogue marks or tag lines. They are beautifully direct.

With that lengthy introduction, here’s my question-- How’d you do that? And then sustain such skill throughout the text? Please share your approach to first stage drafts and refinements. Any insights will be welcome.



The beginning of the story went through many changes. The early versions were more about Franz Gsellmann’s love of tinkering and building and were definitely more “telling.” Then, since I had read how he was fascinated by nature, I tried out some tree imagery, and this is where I began moving more toward establishing his curiosity as a young child. I was learning to go to the emotional level, I think. And I was also discovering the “heart.” 

Then instead of dual imagery of nature and mechanical objects, I focused solely on the mechanical. When I submitted it, I think I had three images—a light bulb, a music box, and a clock—all paired with the question What’s going on in there? That question drove me through the story, I suppose because it’s kind of a joke in my family. That was the singular question I had throughout. I loved the ordinariness of it, the fun of it, and how it applies to so many things. [Think about it…it’s good for when the kids lock the bathroom door and you hear all kinds of shrieking and splashing. Good for when you witness strange comings and goings. Good for when you listen to a music box.] That question was my signpost of curiosity throughout the story for Franz and others, a way to show that we are all naturally curious, and…it could carry many different emotions with it. 


But…when we began editorial revisions, the editor wanted more specific STEMish questions. And somewhere in that process, I came up with the absolute best, most perfect opening line EVER (for me)! Unfortunately, it didn’t work with illustration as it required too much time in childhood growing from baby to young boy. Talk about killing a darling! OUCH! That was hard. (But I’m holding onto it in case I can ever use it for another story.) Moving through revisions, we did a lot of experimenting with questions. Too technical didn’t sound right. I wanted ordinariness, questions every child might ask, as the base so the move to extraordinary would be more interesting and show we all have that capacity. Of course, I had to play with sound and rhythm for a while, too, until I got that just right.  


The creativity and whimsy in the story drove some of my word choices, as well as the machine itself. I watched videos of the machine over and over, noting sensory details like shapes, movement, colors, and sounds. I played with those on slips of paper as I wrote. I used the list of items in the machine (1,960!) and sorted them different ways as I experimented with them in the text. The details of the machine were an aspect of what I loved about the story and essential to the fun. Being able to organize the details in different ways helped make it all manageable. In the end, I lost a portion of all that word nerd fun to serve pacing. But I think you have to go bigger before you can cut back, because often the cutting back is more like “compression,” finding ways to include more in fewer words. 


Aside:  DANG, I am so curious about that perfect opening line, but I am certain I will get the fun and satisfaction of reading it eventually. And for readers who haven't heard the expression "killing your darlings". This is the figure of speech writers use when a particularly FAVORITE line, or chapter or character or ending or...anything!!! must be removed for the good of the overall story. It is difficult to do when an editor or agent or critique partner urges that choice, but it is clearly wisdom and growth when the writer herself recognizes that sacrifices must be made for the good of the story.

SB: Thank you for such clarity and insight! That felt like a mini-masterclass in how excellence emerges with continued reflection and wise revisions, not to mention the editorial process AFTER a work is under contract. 

After such a demanding question, let’s deal with some fun facts that give your thinker a rest! In several places I learned that you tinkered in your dad’s workshop with your own creations. Will you tell us about some of the things you constructed, fixed, designed, etc.? Do you still have any of them? Any that you wish you DID still have? Any that later came into our world to make you feel you missed out on a valuable patent? Where did your own ideas come from? Did you have a cuckoo clock in your home (or other curiosity-sparker?)



I was raised a “maker,” though no one used to call it that. For generations before us it was about survival and “making do.” Both of my parents were always ready to tackle any project, and I’m thankful that I was raised with that attitude of trying and learning.  (I could go on endlessly about their projects and creations!) The solo tinkering endeavor which I distinctly remember over all the others was making a “mixer” in the basement workshop. I made a stand with a crank that turned a plastic scoop. In actual use it would have been a disaster, but that didn’t dampen the fun of making something mechanical. (I “invented” crude versions of things that were already invented, so no patents for me—though my great-grandfather had a few!) My tinkering projects are long gone, probably due to the quality of the workmanship. (HA!) Some of my early craft items are still around. I continue to enjoy various kinds of crafts, and I think I was drawn to weaving because it’s mechanical, too. I see the same love of “making” in my grandchildren. Allowing kids to experiment and create builds an array of life-skills along with a sense of capableness and independence. I wish all kids could have that experience. I hope FRANZ’s story will provide an invitation without intimidation.


I remember being fascinated by an aunt and uncle’s player piano, as well as the inner workings of our own piano. I’d peer inside to watch the hammers as I tried to play at the same time. And yes, we did have a cuckoo clock! So amazing with the little bird, the door that opened, the sounds, the mechanics of the clock, the chains and weights that worked their way down. A feast for curious eyes and minds! It fit perfectly into FRANZ’s story, and I ended up down a rabbit hole examining cuckoo clocks!

Aside: Beth mentioned weaving, and during the time I've come to know her (virtually) I realized she is quite the accomplished weaver. As a child I had a small tabletop loom and can tell you this about weaving:

A) I loved it!

B) It requires enormous patience in planning, setting up the loom, managing the many strands and directions and elements with an even hand, and EVEN MORE patience. 

C) All of the traits in "B" form an analogy for the writing process Beth described in my first question.

SB:  Thank you for revealing how deeply connected you are to that analytical inner process. Your craft advice is priceless and you  offered delightful insights into your own creative/constructive childhood. Now I’d like to ask about sustaining confidence in yourself. You referred to the value of that in children, but as adults we often lose the self-confidence we had as children. Franz certainly had a knack for believing in his dreams. You’ve written about this original text being rejected, then eventually helping you find, then partner with an agent who appreciated Franz, and YOU, and the magic of a creative spirit. (Curious readers can read about that HERE, and in your dedication to your agent for this book.) But then, as seems to happen so often, this story did not sell right away, even with a dedicated agent. Would you share some tips for sustaining faith in yourself and your stories during the all too familiar rejections that precede success, and even continue after your well-earned recognition and great reviews for other work? What keeps you going?




I think many of us have our own whisper that urges us on. But it’s also the encouragement of others like critique partners and those you’ve dared to share a manuscript with. Those are the people who keep pushing you forward to learn and improve. (The generous  and supportive kid lit community is a blessing!) The fact that FRANZ opened the door to representation was huge. Having an agent who believed in FRANZ sustained me, as well as the sale of other manuscripts. In a school visit several years ago, a child asked me if I had any “encouragers.” I loved that! “Encouragers” are so vital to us at every age! I see many stories, too, as another kind of encourager! 


When I first started subbing, I didn’t understand rejections as well as I do now. Submission isn’t the end of the process and doesn’t mean you’re done. One of the lessons from subbing FRANZ was to pause after each round of submissions, glean anything we could from the feedback, and revise more. That keeps you actively in the process and moving forward. Also, if we use the word PASS instead of REJECTION, as editors do, it seems more healthy. (Yes! Word choice is powerful!) 


Honestly, I think age helps, too. With more life experience, you’ve withstood some of life’s rejections, faced a variety of challenges, and probably gained some confidence along with an ability to persevere. Though writing can be very personal in ways people can’t imagine, we have to be able to detach a bit and know the “pass” isn’t a rejection of us as human beings. I’ve learned that editors pass for all sorts of reasons. And after you’ve experienced the publishing process you understand that editors have to truly love your story to work on it for several years to make it the best it can be. After all you’ve invested in a manuscript, you don’t want anything less than that.


SB: Every word rings true, Beth, including the impatience of youth and a growth as we age. Your comments also called to mind some lyrics that are universally true- "to everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven".

You've been so generous in your responses, so this is the bonus, for you and for readers here. Please, please, please update us on any upcoming releases that you are allowed to discuss.


Coming November, 2022  


I’m really excited about sharing CLOAKED IN COURAGE: UNCOVERING DEBORAH SAMPSON, PATRIOT SOLDIER in November. The illustrations by Anne Lambelet are fabulous! It’s a story of courage, perseverance, possibility, and how we find strengths in our challenges that ultimately make us who we are.


And then in 2023, THOMAS JEFFERSON’S BATTLE FOR SCIENCE: BIAS, TRUTH, AND A MIGHTY MOOSE has all that I love in a story—history, science, and humor! It’s in the final art stage right now and, oh my, oh my, Jeremy Holmes has brought soooo much to the story with his amazing illustrations. I am thrilled that some of what I had to leave out of the text, he has brought into illustrations after his own extensive research. 


Aside: I love that your note makes clear the need to TRUST your work to an illustrator without trying to direct or take charge. I'm sure that both illustrators were inspired enough by the work to invest research and talent to bring the full story to the page. This is a perfect example of developing your work, then believing in yourself and your story.

Beth Anderson: writer, weaver, tinkerer

SB: These upcoming titles are so exciting to anticipate. In one case you've found a sadly neglected historical figure to spotlight, and in the other you took a VERY familiar historical figure but pursued information about him that most readers will find entirely new and revealing-and fun! What's more, I know that you have others "in the pipeline" (more figurative language from the publishing world!) that will be equally exciting, informative, and entertaining. All of this makes your participation in these interviews even more generous with your time and attention.


And thank you so much for letting me join the release celebrations for FRANZ'S PHANTASMAGORICAL MACHINE!  The book is terrific and I can easily imagine Franz, in some other dimension, grinning at his newfound fame! He would be thanking you, too, I'm certain. And I'm also certain that I'll be reading your new books and hoping to ask you a few more questions with each!

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