As a rare treat, I have a dual interview with the author and illustrator of the nonfiction picture book An Inconvenient Alphabet: Ben Franklin & Noah Webster's Spelling Revolution, which released September 25th.
I've had the privilege to spend time with Beth at a retreat and the honor to be one of her critique partners. Beth Anderson has always been fascinated by language. After years of teaching English as a Second Language, she took off in pursuit of her "someday" and began writing for children. She loves exploring points of view, playing with words, and digging into history and culture for undiscovered gems. Beth is drawn to stories that open minds, touch hearts, and inspire questions. Born and raised in Illinois, she now lives near the mountains in Colorado.
Beth believes in laughter, learning, and investing in young minds. And…that truth really is stranger than fiction. This is her debut picture book, with many wonderful ones to come.
Elizabeth Baddeley is an award winning illustrator of such notable titles as: The Good Fight: The Feuds of the Founding Fathers (and How They Shaped the Nation (2017); I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark (2016); Women Who Broke the Rules: Mary Todd Lincoln (2015); and A Woman in the House (and Senate): How Women Came to the United States Congress, Broke Down Barriers, and Changed the Country (2014) among others. Elizabeth has been honored by Communication Arts, American Illustration, 3x3 Magazine, Print and The Society of Illustrators for which she received a gold medal for her Swimmer Girls series.
Welcome Ladies! This is so much fun to have you both here.
ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write or illustrate? How long have you been writing or illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate?)
BETH: I decided to jump into writing for children in the fall of 2013. I joined SCBWI, found a critique group, and researched the industry. Within a year I discovered my niche, narrative nonfiction and historical fiction. I work on writing nearly every day in the study which I’ve taken over as my spot.
ELIZABETH: I suppose I’ve been illustrating since I could hold a crayon. That is how most of us get into it, when we are kids, we just never really stop! I majored in illustration in undergrad but didn’t use it a whole lot until after I got my masters in illustration from The School of Visual arts in 2012. I’ve been working professionally as an illustrator since then. I work in my home in Kansas City, Missouri. So far I have only had the opportunity to illustrate non-fiction, which I love. I especially enjoy biographies. However, I would love to dip my toe into fiction at some point.
What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
BETH: Let’s go for writing history… The first piece of writing I intentionally submitted and got published was a letter to the editor in Newsweek during the 80’s. (In another blog, I shared that I was a foreign exchange student in high school. I’d forgotten that my mom took portions of my letters home and shared them with the hometown newspaper, so that may actually be my first published writing.)
ELIZABETH: I really enjoy peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. Sorry, all the interesting things everyone already knows, ha ha!
Beth, that's interesting. How cool of your mom to do that. No worries, Elizabeth. Though that's an interesting sandwich choice, I have to wonder if it's something you like all the time or only now. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
BETH: I read a lot as a child, but I don’t remember having a favorite author, illustrator, or book. Two well-worn books were Bennet Cerf’s riddle book and The Cat in the Hat Came Back. I went through much of the Nancy Drew series and read many biographies. I may be the only child in America never to have read Charlotte’s Web. (I bought myself a copy a year ago, so I could remedy this oversight as an adult.)
ELIZABETH: Oh, there are too many to name. Books were a very large part of my childhood. I’m expecting my first child this month, so I’ve been going through all my old books. The ones that are currently displayed on his bookshelf are some of my favorites: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Jumanji, George and Martha books, anything by Steven Kellogg or Richard Scary. I always enjoyed books with a lot of details in the illustrations. My parents would read to us and I would study the art. I still remember the most obscure details in every book.
Oh Beth, I am glad you are going to read CW! I too loved Steven Kellogg & Richard Scary, Elizabeth. In fact, I recently found a box with little Busy Town figures my kids loved to play with. If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?
BETH: Take advantage of opportunities and you’ll find you can do more than you think you can.
ELIZABETH: Don’t worry about figuring out what you want to do with your life by the time you graduate high school. Just do what you are currently interested in and things will work out. You can change career paths whenever you feel like it!
Great advice for all of us. You never know what's going to happen next. We are no longer bound to a 30 year career, as our grandparents were. Many people change jobs/careers every 5 to 10 years. I have a few questions for you BETH:
Where did the inspiration for An Inconvenient Alphabet: Ben Franklin and Noah Webster’s Spelling Revolution come from?
An article on Ben Franklin’s alphabet caught my attention. When I dug into that, his quote, “Those people spell best who do not know how to spell,” struck me and became the inspiration for the story. While Ben was referring to the uneducated spelling phonetically, to me “those people” were kids learning to write. There’s more about the inspiration for the story in a blog post (here).
How long did it take for you to come up with such a great title?
Generally, titles are pure torture for me, but this manuscript was different. “An Inconvenient Alphabet“ was there from the start, a gift from Ben and Noah who often used the word “inconvenient” in connection with their endeavor.
“Would this alteration produce any inconvenience, any embarrassment or expense? By no means.” [Webster, Dissertations…, p. 394-5]
“The true question then, is …whether the conveniences will not, on the whole, be greater than the inconveniences.” [Franklin, The Works of Benjamin Franklin, p. 301]
With Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” so much a part of our culture, the title just jumped out at me.
Jill Esbaum suggested that, “If any of you are looking for nf pb mentor texts,” they should look at your author’s note and back matter, How hard was it to decide what went into the back matter and what went into the story? And/or what of all your research to keep in the back matter?
Definitely, the greatest challenge with nonfiction is determining what goes into the story. The research process reveals so much interesting information, all useful and vital to grounding the story. I had research on multiple topics: Ben, Noah, Ben and Noah, phonics, spelling, etymology, the history of American English, the time period. There’s always extra information on the characters, but it was hard to know how much supporting information on language was necessary for the reader and what would be too much and cause confusion.
For instance, with the words, “some letters had too many sounds,” I needed to show some examples for kids to understand the concept. The same with, “some sounds had too many letters.” For these, Elizabeth Baddeley incorporated my examples into lively illustrations. What I didn’t need here was WHY we have these problems. So that information went into the back matter. Since it’s a natural question for kids to ask, I wanted to share enough information on where some of our sounds and spellings came from to answer the question. Adding the WHY to the story only distracted from Ben and Noah’s goal to reform spelling. I got lots of practice with the author questions: Does this move the story forward? Or pull it in another direction? Is it essential to context or understanding the story?
At the heart of why the language is the way it is, is the organic nature of language, growing and changing with our world. Though seeing language as a science wasn’t essential to the story, I wanted to share some of that with kids because it’s just so darn interesting! It also becomes a challenge to decide what to mention in back matter. Mostly, I thought about my former students and the questions they’d ask, and also how I’d answer without bombarding them with TMI.
You definitely succeeded! I particularly like the addition of "notes on the research." What was the hardest part of your research and/or writing of An Inconvenient Alphabet?
I think the most difficult part was what I mentioned above — figuring out what was essential to the story. But in addition to that, I had a story about two men, from long ago. No child main character, no child in the story at all. Would kids connect?
I heard a kid voice in my head providing a running contemporary commentary on the events. [“Ish? Really?” “No more ABC? What about the song?”] This directly connected to kids. I tried it out as a character named Alpha for a while. I had a lot of fun with it, but ultimately, it was too distracting. The solution to the kid connection was actually in the content. Kids deal with our inconvenient alphabet on a daily basis. And…turns out Ben Franklin is undeniably an historical rock star. This just goes to show you that sometimes those “rules” of writing for children might not apply.
Yes! The rules are guides, but not absolutes. You mention a 70-page spiral notebook organization on your blog (here) – How did you come up with this process?
I was desperate! With previous manuscripts I had tried charts, notecards, and all sorts of methods. But as I started this manuscript and the reality of all the varied topics for research hit, I knew I had to find a better way. It wasn’t only that. As I researched I found a tidbit of this or that, random ideas for titles or structures. Not only did I need a way to capture all these things, but I wanted to be able to find them later. (minor detail!)
As a teacher, I’d used a similar, but much simpler, method for writing workshop – a spiral with a “table of contents” to keep track of each page. So I started designating pages for my various needs: research notes, title ideas, structure ideas, contacts, quotes, setting, etc. and just kept adding topics as I needed them. I soon found that color coded tabs helped too - for each man, story elements, and the most important pages I kept referring to or adding to. It was a work in progress. But…I could record random thoughts as they hit and find them later! No more scraps of this and that. With subsequent manuscripts, I’ve gotten better at setting it up and now know most of my needs before I start.
[For additional information on Beth's process and drafts, check out Jill Esbaum's interview (here)].
What a great method of organization. Your next two books - Lizzie Demands A Seat, Elizabeth Jennings Fights For Streetcar Rights (spring 2020) and “Smelly” Kelly And His Super Senses, The Mostly True Story Of An Ordinary Man And His Extraordinary Nose (fall 2020) – are also nonfiction biographies. Is this your favorite type of book to write?
I know many are calling these bios, but I don’t really think I’m writing biographies when I’m working on them. My focus tends to be on events and relationships rather than the chronology of a life. Lizzie’s story is different than most of my others. Hers is a serious, powerful story of seeking social justice, and really just a small piece of her life. I wrote that manuscript before An Inconvenient Alphabet. Since Ben and Noah’s story, I’ve been drawn to more somewhat quirky or unknown historical events that are not only fun but contain larger important messages and interesting settings. Due to very little information on “Smelly” Kelly, his story is historical fiction with a bit of a different spin. And then I have one more nonfiction manuscript under contract, not yet announced, that touches both my heart and my funny bone. I can’t wait to share these pieces of history with kids.
We can't wait to hear about them! Do you see a connecting thread between these three books?
I’m always interested in how we connect with others. No matter what we look like or where we come from, no matter what our challenges or skills, we all have the capacity to make a difference. We are all connected in some way or other, and when we realize this, we accomplish more. Each one of these stories from the past can inspire us today.
It seems more and more important to find ways that we are all connected and to not lose the lessons from our past. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer.)
As a child, my parents encouraged me not to be afraid to try new things. My teachers recognized my love of writing and pushed me forward. As a teacher, my students inspired me. My daughters amaze me. My husband, whose retirement gig is building acoustic guitars, and his motto, “the quality of your work is directly proportional to the number of times you’re willing to do it over,” inspire me every day.
I'm hanging that quote above my computer. Is there anything special you want your readers to know about An Inconvenient Alphabet?
I want kids to know that they are, indeed, great thinkers!
And I want teachers to know there’s a terrific curriculum guide (here).
Perfect! Do you have any advice on querying agents, surviving rejections, managing bouts of success, or anything else for authors or illustrators?
Be like Ben. As I wrote this manuscript, his words to let your ideas “take their chance in the world” settled into my head. Because that’s what we do as writers. Rejection means keep trying and stay open to suggestions and learning. From what I’ve seen and experienced, the ups and downs of writing are just like every other aspect of life. I wish you all lots of Ups!
Thank you Beth! I wish that for you too.
Now, I have a couple of questions just for you ELIZABETH:
What is your favorite medium to work with? Your least favorite or hardest?
Well, I tend to avoid my least favorite and hardest mediums because no one needs to see that! Most of the time I use a combination of watercolor or ink (as in the case of An Inconvenient Alphabet) and digital compositing. It definitely depends on the story, though. Earlier this year, I worked on a book that was primarily acrylic paint and the book I am finishing up now has a little bit of everything. In my free time, I’m always experimenting, and I never really know how that’s going to work its way into my book.
I look forward to seeing what you create next. What was the hardest thing for you about illustrating An Inconvenient Alphabet?
Definitely organizing the information we were trying to convey. It was a tricky story to navigate because it had a lot of twists and turn and failures along the way. Noah’s story is not a straight line. I didn’t want to try to fit too much information on each page, because language can be a hard thing to depict visually. In the end, I tried to repeat themes and represent the letters physically (almost as characters themselves) and that really helped me to illustrate the concepts Beth had written about.
The letters almost take on a life of their own at times and I really enjoyed the interactions of the cat and dog with the letters. What is the best thing an author can do to help an illustrator? The worst?
I always really love when they include any research notes or images they might have come across while working on the manuscript. Chances are, we are researching the same things, but we tend to go about it in different ways. It can save a ton of time on the front end when all that is included. Illustration notes are ok as long as they are really important to you or the story. Once I read a note, it’s hard to get that idea out of my mind. Just make sure it’s something you feel really strongly about.
Few authors likely think about the limiting effect of illustration notes on an illustrator's creativity. Using the author's research as a jumping off point, definitely helps in not reinventing the wheel! Many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in An Inconvenient Alphabet? Could you share one or more with us?
In the case of An Inconvenient Alphabet, I feel like this is fairly obvious, but it’s the dog and cat characters that appear throughout. Originally, they were just meant to be little details within the illustrations, but in the end they were really a great tool for moving the story forward. The dog is modeled exactly after my own dog, and Franklin's cat is sort of a mashup up my two cats, Penny and Harry.
Their antics are fun to follow through the story. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us? (Beth gave a small hint above. Look back where she talked about her next two books, if you missed it.)
I have been very busy working on two books this summer in preparations to take several months off when my baby arrives in a couple weeks (or less!) the first was a biography about Abigail Adams and the second a biography about Billie Jean King. I’m super excited about both of them!
However, my next book to come out is titled The Cat who Lived With Anne Frank and comes out this spring. I traveled to Amsterdam last summer to do research for it. It’s a very special book to me!
I am looking forward to reading that book! Thank you for squeezing in a little time to talk with me. Best wishes for an easy delivery!
Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing that either of you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or are glad that you did not know?
BETH: I wish I had known more about the whole process, and I still wish I knew more about the whole process. But sometimes naivete is a good thing. :-)
ELIZABETH: Everything will take longer than you think it will!
So very true. What is your favorite animal? Why? Or maybe a current animal you are enamored with?
BETH: Such a hard question – like asking what’s your favorite book. I can’t choose. Each one is so special in its own way. I love giraffes – grace. And elephants – tenderness. And octopus – fascinating. Whales – ginormous. Dragonflies – magical. Snowy owls, Komodo dragons, and the list goes on…
ELIZABETH: I’m pretty obsessed with my dog, and thus obsessed with Boston Terriers. I actually just dressed up like him for Halloween last night (photo attached). I think he was confused.
You two are so adorable!
Thank you, Beth and Elizabeth for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you both.
Be sure to come back for a Perfect Picture Book post this Friday on An Inconvenient Alphabet: Ben Franklin & Noah Webster's Spelling Revolution.
To find out more about Beth Anderson, or get in touch with her:
To find out more about Elizabeth Baddeley, or get in touch with her: