The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Beth Anderson about Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wiggle
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 9 books (with 5 in production), including "Smelly" Kelly and His Super Senses: How James Kelly's Nose Saved the New York City Subway (2020), 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, Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wiggle: Pandemonium and Patience in the President's House, releases next Tuesday - October 5th.
Welcome back Beth, I am excited to spend some time with you and learn about your newest book.
Let's jump right in. Where and how did you first learn about Tad Lincoln? Why did you decide to write his biography - Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wiggle: Pandemonium and Patience in the President's House (versus say a story on the turkey’s pardon 😊 )?
An article about Tad Lincoln being responsible for the first presidential turkey pardon caught my eye. I dug into that story, but when I asked WHY—the all-important motivation, I found what I felt was a more meaningful story behind the turkey pardon.
What I had was cute, but seemed to be lacking the “so what?” To get the full value of the turkey pardon you really have to look at what had been going on and at the relationship between Tad and his father. When I explored that I found a generous, joyful, creative, energetic child challenged by life circumstances and behavior expectations in the White House. I was hooked! As I gathered pieces of Tad’s life in the White House, the year 1863 stuck out as a time of transformation for him and had irresistible antics that would connect to kids and feature some interesting history.
It's fun how you dove after one story and come up with an even bigger treasure. What was the toughest part of your research and/or writing Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wiggle: Pandemonium and Patience in the President's House? Did you learn something during the researching or writing that will help you with future books?
Every manuscript has so much to teach me. There are always personal lessons along with lots of writing lessons. One of the challenges for Tad’s story was, as editor Carolyn Yoder calls it, “stacking the scenes.” While “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses had some similar challenges, stacking those scenes was based more on physical elements. Tad’s story required really digging in to identify and enhance turning points, and I think that was my biggest lesson. Picking and choosing scenes, transitioning effectively, and weaving context into the action is always a challenge!
I admire your ability to create those transitions so seamlessly. So, titles can be tricky; how many tries did it take to arrive at this title?
Oh my gosh, I have two and a half pages of brainstormed titles. I tried out about five with revisions. Most titles are pure torture for me. I played with ideas of a house divided, mischief, “troublesome sunshine,” partnership, father and son, wiggles and wriggles and twinkles, patience and pandemonium and protest, and more. (“Protest” was cut from the subtitle for length.) AGH! But…when I finally hit it, I LOVED it!
I am glad you did; it is such a great title! How long did it take for you to find the through line (or heart of the story) for Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wiggle? Once you figured it out, how long did it take to craft that wonderful first line – “Thomas Lincoln wriggled from the moment he was born.”?
I was initially hooked by the character of Tad as he reminded me of some of the kids who challenged me as a teacher, and in doing so, not only made me a better teacher but stuck in my heart forever. I also loved the father-son relationship that emerged. And there were great themes dealing with mercy, seeing goodness, and family. But the more unique idea that I found really interesting – the heart/vital idea - hit me pretty quickly on this one: that a child, and one that many thought a nuisance, was really the person who brought joy and hope to his father, a President stressed beyond belief. While we often see adults lighting a path for a child, we seldom appreciate what children bring to adults. Kids don’t realize how much they have to give—especially when everyone around them is trying to shut them down.
Text © Beth Anderson, 2021. Image © S.D. Schindler, 2021.
As for the first line…Abe helped me with that, saying his son reminded him of a tadpole with his large head and constant squirming. Wriggle just felt like the right word—not awkward or intentional or negative, unique enough with a special energy to fit Tad. Every report of Tad’s activities involved his high energy and constant motion so that became the thread of energy throughout. Some kids are like that from the moment they’re born. 😊
This is a very special gift from you to those kids and their parents. Your previous picture book biographies have been historical fictions? Is Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wiggle a nonfiction or historical fiction? Why?
Tad’s story is nonfiction. There’s so much written about the Lincolns, so many sources to consult, that there was plenty to draw from for Tad’s story. All that rich material makes a nonfiction telling possible.
And yet, allowed for your unique angle on the Lincoln family story. What's something you want your readers to know about Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wiggle?
I found so much in this story—so many life lessons, so much fun, strong themes interlaced with an important time in history, and the opportunity to see a family rather than an outward facing image of a famous American. I hope that parents, teachers, and kids will connect in some way and carry something of Tad’s story with them as they encounter children that may require patience and nurturing to be able to see all they have to give. And it’s not only others seeing goodness—it’s about that child finding their own gifts and voice.
I love the guidance and leeway that President Lincoln gave Tad. It’s always interesting to learn the journey of a book. How long did it take for Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wiggle to go from idea to publication?
I committed myself to go for the story on 1/14/18, as noted in my spiral. I began drafting on 1/25. It was submitted on 4/23/18. And we had interest the next day. That’s by far the quickest I’ve ever produced a manuscript! And I know it’s because the heart/vital idea of the story hit me so quickly. It’s the fastest response, too.
Wow, that was amazing timing! What was the most interesting thing you learned about Tad and/or President Lincoln?
The details of everyday life were fascinating, including seeing how the President brought Tad along during his errands when he was out and about in Washington, D.C. Also, the interaction of Tad with the soldiers camped out on the lawn of the President’s House. AND, of course, learning about the Lincoln boys and the whole different atmosphere they brought to the executive mansion!
The most amazing and unexpected part of research came from several articles which analyzed Tad’s speech and learning issues. I had found some information about Tad having speech difficulties, but when my agent, Stephanie Fretwell-Hill, suggested I bring those issues into the framing of the story, I found more than I imagined would be available. The extensive information on Lincoln and his family has allowed researchers to study Tad and conclude that he had a partial cleft palate as well as language based learning disabilities. And, given his relentless energy, he might be considered ADHD today. I’m sure some would call him “high maintenance.” This information as the flipside of his creativity, social awareness, joyful heart, generosity, and capableness helped me understand him as well as those around him. While most of this went to back matter, it allowed me to dig into character more deeply and intensify the emotional arc.
I'm glad that a lot of it did end up in the back matter. Did anything surprise you when you first saw S. D. Schindler’s illustrations? Which is your favorite spread?
Text © Beth Anderson, 2021. Image © S.D. Schindler, 2021.
I love all of S.D. Schindler’s historical details (like the “hearing aid”) as well as his dry sense of humor. My favorite? So hard to choose. Maybe the goat sled because, well, the goat sled! I would have totally loved to do that as a child. The cabinet meeting? Priceless expressions—haven’t we all done one of those in response to an unruly child? I think my favorite might be when Tad finds the turkey in the kitchen….(no spoiler) 😱 There’s just so much to love in that spread!
Wouldn't share that last one, but I agree that the goat sled would have been so much fun! How are, or have you been, staying creative during these times? Have you found anything that helps you “prime the well”?
I’ve been taking a more relaxed attitude. I was stuck for a while. But ultimately have been glad to have creative pursuits to do at home. The saving grace over the past year and a half has been the abundance of virtual offerings. I’ve taken advantage of many fabulous professional webinars that have inspired me and pushed me forward. So thankful for the writing community!
These two years have been amazing in the number of webinars and opportunities for authors and illustrators. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I’m trying to think ahead and get myself prepared for three releases in 2022. I have two on extraordinary Revolutionary War women—Revolutionary Prudence Wright: Leading the Minute Women in the Fight for Independence releases Feb. 1 (Fabulous illustrations by Susan Reagan! It’s up for pre-order so you can take a look.) and Cloaked in Courage: Uncovering Deborah Sampson, Patriot Soldier comes out in the fall (Illustrator Anne Lambelet has a few sneak peeks on her IG!). And the third release is Franz’s Phantasmagorical Machine, with a really whimsical look by Caroline Hamel, on May 3.
Anticipation’s rising for sketches for my 2023 release, and I’m just getting started on editor revisions for a Lincoln story that had been resigned to “the drawer” for a couple years. Newly relevant, it’s been interesting to pull it out after not looking at it for a long while and re-envision it. Very excited to see where this will go! And…starting to revise a new manuscript. Lots going on in different stages.
Beth, these sound so fascinating. I can't wait to get a look at them. If you could meet anyone real, literary, or imaginary who would that be?
Now that’s a tough question! With every story, there’s always the wish that you could talk to the characters and ask them questions. So of course, since I’m immersed in Abraham Lincoln’s world these days, he would be a top choice. But then there’s also Bruce Springsteen and John Prine—great storytellers in song. Or someone different than me like Sacagawea or Frederick Douglass. Or inspiring like Greta Thunberg. Endless possibilities. I’m pulling “a Tad” and wriggling out of this one. 😂
No worries. Like Tad, you gave us lots to think about. Thank you, Beth for stopping by for this interview. I always enjoy talking with you.
Thank YOU! It’s always fun to join you on your blog!
Be sure to stop back on Friday for a sneak peek Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Tad Lincoln's Restless Wiggle.
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