The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Beth Anderson and Giveaway
After earning a B.A. in linguistics and a M. Ed. in reading, Beth Anderson taught English as a second language for more than 20 years. Surrounded by young people from all over the world, with literature as her favorite tool, Beth was fascinated by the power of books to teach, connect, and inspire. In 2013, she began her journey writing for children. Combining her love of writing with the joys of discovery and learning, she found her niche with narrative nonfiction and historical fiction picture books.
When she’s not writing, Beth might be weaving, gardening, exploring nature, or playing with her grandkids. 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.
Beth is the author of Lizzie Demands a Seat: Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights (2020), and An Inconvenient Alphabet: Ben Franklin & Noah Webster’s Spelling Revolution (2018).
Her newest picture book, "Smelly" Kelly and His Super Senses: How James Kelly's Nose Saved the New York City Subway releases tomorrow.
[For general information about Beth , see our earlier interviews (here) and (here).]
Welcome back Beth, it's always fun to chat with you.
Thank you for inviting me back, Maria!
ME: How did you first learn about James Kelly? What was your inspiration for writing "Smelly" Kelly and His Super Senses: How James Kelly's Nose Saved the New York City Subway?
BETH: I learned about James Kelly in a short article in one of the news feeds that I subscribe to. There was so much about him that grabbed me. I was always one of those kids who was curious about what was beneath those street grates in the city. I didn’t grow up in a city so that world was unknown to me and mysterious. Just thinking about the curse and blessing of an extraordinary sense of smell brought to mind many possibilities. His story had humor, danger, surprises, and a bit of a gross factor. The character was a can-do kind of person like my dad, a hard-working problem solver with ingenuity and integrity. The teacher in me loved the intersection of so many social studies and science topics, with real world cause and effect relationships and all that would offer in the classroom. The everyday hero aspect of the story also is near and dear to my heart, and now, as it releases into the world, we are noticing and depending on so many unsung heroes more than ever. After reading the first article about James Kelly, I was totally hooked and determined to somehow tell his story.
He is a very interesting person. What was the toughest part of your research and/or writing "Smelly" Kelly and His Super Senses? Did you learn something during the researching or writing that will help you with future books?
The greatest challenge came with the limited information. All I had were some anecdotes of James Kelly’s experiences working as the first “leak detective” for the subway. Given that, how do you avoid the “list” pitfall? How do you avoid an “episodic” feel? How do you get past “And then this happened…” and lazy and lame connecting phrases? I had to build an arc, find an interesting thread to pull through the events, and create transitions between scenes that carried the emotional thread and cause/effect relationships. I learned a lot!
First I went with the “detective” idea since the era was the golden age of detective stories like Dick Tracy. I struggled with the clues aspect and didn’t get a strong story line. Then I tried out the “superhero” idea. Wait, were superheroes a thing? Yep! Turns out the word came into the language in 1917 and the late 1930s and 40s saw the emergence of the superhero genre. I looked at mentor texts and that genre. As I immersed myself in that idea, the story blossomed, and I discovered the “heart” as I pondered the idea of heroes and what makes a hero a hero. Since delving into the media of the time for this story contributed so much to the writing, I now explore media to understand setting as I research other manuscripts.
I'm glad you found your way into this story and the reminder to look at contemporary media is a great one. Thanks. I know titles can be tricky. How long did it take to arrive at this title?
Fortunately, this book didn’t require the same amount of agony as others. It was pretty clear from the start. It only changed in a couple minor ways. One—it went from the “sleuth” idea to “super senses.” And two—in the publishing process we added quotation marks around “smelly” to note it as special and pull it away from the negative, and also added the subtitle.
Would you classify "Smelly" Kelly and His Super Senses as nonfiction or historical fiction? Why?
This book is historical fiction due to the very limited information that was available and that I had to use my imagination a bit to bring the pieces together into a meaningful story.
So, how hard was it to decide what went into the back matter and what went into the story?
Once I had my “heart” thread, it wasn’t difficult. After all, there wasn’t much on this man. I kept what was needed for context in the story and put the most interesting extras about Kelly in the back matter. Since the social studies and STEM ideas are so woven into the story, I wanted to call out a few for readers. I included information on his tools—what he’d found and his inventions. Another fascinating part of the story, a real eye-opener, was infrastructure. Though minimal in the text, it’s a major part of the story. There are so many occupations connected to infrastructure, it’s a vital part of community and cities, and it’s “invisible” in our lives until something goes wrong. I hope the mind-boggling statistics for the miles of cables and lines beneath the streets in New York City will inspire realizations and questions.
I really enjoyed the back matter, especially as Washington state doesn't have such a subway! What's something you want your readers to know about "Smelly" Kelly and His Super Senses?
I hope readers will understand there are all sorts of ways to use one’s talents, no matter how odd, for the greater good. I want them to see that life is a maze of cause and effect in which we are all connected.
How long did it take for "Smelly" Kelly and His Super Senses to go from idea to publication?
I started the research in April 2017, and the story went under contract with Calkins Creek a year later. The publishing process took two and a half years.
So about four years. Having worked with a couple of illustrators, what has been your best experience so far? Your biggest surprise?
I don’t think there is a “best” experience as they’re all different, and I learn more with each one. I’m fascinated with the process of how the art happens given the varied forms, processes, and artists. I loved the details and humor in Jenn Harney’s work and was overjoyed when I saw how she’d brought not only those aspects, but also the high energy, to “Smelly Kelly” and His Super Senses. So fun! My biggest surprise, though, was her use of two palettes for the above and below ground worlds. When I saw the first subway world spread, it took my breath away!
I love how his bright blue clothing and shocking red hair stand out in both color palettes. Do you have a favorite spread from "Smelly" Kelly and His Super Senses?
Text © Beth Anderson, 2020. Image © Jenn Harney, 2020.
As I mentioned, that first subway spread that knocked my socks off is definitely a favorite, but again, it’s so hard to choose. I love how Jenn dealt with the challenging aspects of the story, nonvisible elements like odors and the infrastructure between the street level and the subway. The last page, which I shall not spoil here, was such a delight to see—how she brought the story home to the reader just melted my heart.
It is a really fun spread! How have you been coping with 2 releases in the year of Covid? Do you have any advice for those just learning their book is to be published? (Best experience to try or worst experience to avoid now or when we can get back to in-person releases & school visits?)
Lizzie Demands a Seat released in January, and I was very fortunate to be able to do events in New York City in February for the launch. (phew!) In March, activities pretty much ended. I did a few virtual visits with kids in April, but I think we were all reeling with the new reality.
Releasing “Smelly” Kelly virtually will be a challenge. I’ve been watching as events have evolved and have been talking to other authors with new releases. Watch and learn, as they say. My conclusions at this point are really the same as before. Look for and take advantage of any opportunities, put yourself out there, be creative, work with and support others. I think it’s hard to consider any effort wasted when you are in the comfort of your home with no traveling or other expenses incurred. And,it helps to look at the positive—the ability to share your book with kids in far off places.
Great advice, Beth. What are some things you are doing to stay creative?
The many workshops and conferences available virtually at low costs have been a real blessing. Even if the writing isn’t flowing, these opportunities are a great help in staying engaged and positive, a way to “fill your tank.”
They definitely have been a great way to stay "connected," hone skills, or learn new ones. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I’m excited about upcoming titles and seeing the art take shape. As for new projects…I’m a little stuck these days. Research on one is stalled due to library and institution closures. So I’m working on RE-VISIONing a manuscript that’s been rejected. And also exploring some new ideas to see what might work with limited access to research materials. Probably the most fun though is preparing for the release of “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses – ordering scented swag for pre-orders and preparing two virtual presentations with the New York Transit Museum.
Oh, that sounds like fun. (See information & link below) Is there any one thing you can’t do without?
You, know, that’s an interesting question at this time of pandemic, wildfires, and hurricanes. Some of what feeds my writing soul is less accessible now. And I feel the hole. But we are finding ways to do without and doing with less. I think I need people – in-person. Oh, geez, you’re thinking. Why’d she have to take a light-hearted question and get all philosophical. OK, sorry. The internet. Because I need it to do the kind of writing I want to do. And it connects me with the outside world and……PEOPLE! 😍
You were doing just fine! Thank you, Beth for stopping by for this interview. I always really enjoyed talking with you.
Be sure to stop back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on "Smelly" Kelly and His Super Senses: How James Kelly's Nose Saved the New York City Subway.
To find out more about Beth Anderson, or get in touch with her:
One lucky reader will win a copy of "Smelly" Kelly and His Super Senses.
- Simply comment below or on Friday's #PPBF post (or both), to be entered in the random drawing for a copy of "Smelly" Kelly.
- Be sure to say where you shared the post, and I'll add additional entries for you.
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FAMILY PROGRAM – MEET JAMES “SMELLY” KELLY
Thursday, October 22 | 4:00 pm - 4:45 pm Free Online Program
Discover the incredible story of Irish immigrant James Kelly as told by children’s author Beth Anderson in her new book “Smelly” Kelly and his Super Senses, and costumed interpreter Joe Hartman, who will offer a first-person glimpse into Kelly’s life and times. “Smelly” Kelly earned his nickname by using his keen olfactory sense to help sniff out leaks and other potential dangers in New York City’s subway system. Over the course of his career, it’s estimated that Kelly traveled almost 100,000 miles of track on foot and trained 60 assistants. Join us to learn more about this hardworking, unusually talented and undersung hero of the New York City Subway! REGISTER > Free online program. Recommended for ages 5-12. Find out more »