The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Beth Anderson and Review of Cloaked in Courage
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 hanging 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 10 books (3 in production), including Franz's Phantasmagorical Machine (2022), Revolutionary Prudence Wright: Leading the Minute Women in the Fight for Independence (2022), Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle: Pandemonium and Patience in the President’s House (2021), "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).
[For general information about Beth , see our earlier interviews (here), (here), and (here).]
Her newest picture book, Cloaked in Courage: Uncovering Deborah Sampson, Patriot Soldier, releases November 15th.
Welcome back Beth,
Thank you, Maria! So nice to visit with you again!
What is your favorite thing to do outside?
Walk, hike, bike—just being out and soaking in the natural beauty!
When did you first learn of Deborah? What connection drew you to write Cloaked in Courage: Uncovering Deborah Sampson, Patriot Soldier?
I learned the basics a number of years ago, but for some reason, I wasn’t compelled to dive in. Then in 2019, I saw an article about a diary that was acquired by the Museum of the American Revolution. It had an entry that appeared to reference Deborah’s failed attempt to enlist. I decided to investigate. That failed attempt intrigued me and showed that her story was more complicated than what I knew. Still, Sampson didn’t grab me emotionally until I dug into her early years. Then I could start to answer the WHY questions about character, see an emotional arc, and connect experiences that made her who she was. The question that emerged as the driver of the narrative was What makes us who we are? And that’s a question that always fascinates me with people I meet, as well as people from history.
That's an awesome question to ask when we research, but also when we meet people. Sometimes understanding the why helps us relate to or forgive other's actions. What was the toughest part of your research and/or writing of Cloaked in Courage? Was it tougher to discover Deborah’s story than your other biography subjects?
There’s a good bit of information out there on her, but Sampson’s story is fraught with conflicting information. From the very beginning when she shared her story with biographer Herman Mann, he manipulated it to make it more dramatic and turn her into his idea of a heroine. Others perpetuated his misinformation or made further assumptions to create the hero they wanted. One of my challenges was to try to strip away all that. My goal was to let who she was be enough. So one thing I did was put on nonfiction blinders and intentionally not read accounts that had been fictionalized.
One source, Alfred Young’s Masquerade: The Life and times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier takes each bit of Sampson’s story and examines it using a range of historical sources and evidence. This book taught me more about being an historical detective and was an immense help in determining how to treat a few of the unverifiable pieces. While official records exist from her service and pension appeals, less is available on her early years.
Though I experienced working with multiple versions writing Revolutionary Prudence Wright, Sampson’s story took it to another level. Lessons I’ve learned with other books about the importance of context and setting paid off. Each book is different, yet contributes to the next. The historical detective work I was immersed in led to the back matter section on the challenges of research.
I love that you had the space in the back matter to discuss "The Challenge of Being a History Detective." What a wonderful resource for teachers and older readers! What was the most fun, unusual, or fascinating part of researching and/or writing Cloaked in Courage?
Young’s book where he tests every piece of Sampson’s story was so valuable—fascinating and informative. A gold mine, really.
One part of my research that was a little different was watching and interviewing Judith Kalaora who does an historical presentation as Deborah Sampson. She answered many of my questions and provided wonderful resources. But, seeing her in the role of Sampson offered even more. I could see the pieces of clothing she wore as a woman and then as a soldier. Also artifacts and military essentials. This made her even more accessible when I mentally tried to step into her shoes. Judith’s historical programs through History At Play™, LLC are a great resource for educators—and writers—and bring history to life through a different medium.
Another part that I found fascinating was the vetting of the art with historian John Rees. He helped us get the uniforms and equipment right, the details of the public house, the range of enlisting soldiers, the food on the table, the coach, the mattress, and so much more. One might think it’s simple to look up the uniform of the Continental Army, but it turns out that the uniforms changed over the eight years of the war. There are so many things that can slip by. The vetting process really is interesting.
I had never heard of History At Play, but after watching the preview, there are a couple I am really interested in seeing. Thanks so much for mentioning this! And we can never have too many experts. How long did Cloaked in Courage take from idea to publication?
After reading the July 2019 article, I decided to dig into Sampson’s story. Research took several months, with a first draft coming at the end of October. Then...I got stuck. Life happened. Lizzie Demands a Seat came out. And Covid hit, pretty much shutting down my ability to write for a while. Finally in mid-April 2020, I picked up that first revision, dove into research again, and revised, revised, revised. This story that kept me busy during the first year of the pandemic went under contract in December 2020.
I’m glad you included the additional information about Deborah’s impact and glimpse of the rest of her life in your back matter. How long did it take to figure out the thread of piecing together who she was and would become?
It’s always a little tricky to find the right spot to end the story and leave the rest to back matter. When I found the “story question” I wanted to pursue, I stopped when that was effectively answered, (eliminated the “and then this and then this”), and began to think about the events of her life leading to that moment in relation to that focus.
While we always try to put on the main character’s shoes, as I did when I learned that Deborah was “bound out” at age 5, it also helped to put on her mother’s shoes to try to understand her decision and look at that turning point in Deborah’s life in different ways to see if there was an angle that would propel the story. Once I researched being “bound out” and her mother’s situation, instead of being locked into the “poor Deborah” point of view, I could also see it as her mother giving her a chance in life. And with that, it opens up the perspective of Deborah being able to grab hold of opportunities and reach past hardship as she grows.
Another aspect of setting also helped a lot – media. When I learned that Sampson read a lot, I looked at what books were available, and of course that’s much easier than now as titles were so limited. Beyond some classics like Robinson Caruso and Gulliver’s Travels that may have encouraged her longing for adventure, popular chapbooks about “the world turned upside down” would have also fed the revolutionary fervor for defying traditions and rules. And, a whole new rabbit hole of warrior women stories, poems, and songs opened up! Who knew it had been a thing for a century?! Joan of Arc and Hannah Snell were just two. With that, I considered how being surrounded by those tales might have affected her as an indentured servant. I also could better understand the historical context of her actions.
It's so fascinating to see "behind the scenes" at your process for finding that central heart and thread of a story and then following that through the facts and various viewpoints. You’ve said that titles can be tricky; was this title any easier to create?
This was a hard one, haha! I used the working title of Becoming Deborah Sampson for most of my revisions (but it felt too common), then it was Deborah Sampson’s Boundless Spirit: The Heroic Story of the Revolutionary War Soldier. The editor wanted something better. I did a lot of brainstorming, and we finally settled on Cloaked in Courage. I was always told to try to get the key words in the main title, but I think titles at the time were moving from getting the names in the main title to using more interesting phrases and letting the key words go to the subtitle.
It's a very provocative title, especially combined with that glorious cover image. Is there anything you want your readers to know about Cloaked in Courage?
There’s so much emotional learning (SEL) to be had from her story. Just like us, she responded to her situation in her time and place. She failed and learned from her mistakes. She persisted and gleaned strength from hardship. She proved herself as more than anyone expected. And I love that her pursuit of excellence served her throughout her life as she faced challenges. I hope that young readers will see that they too are more capable than they or anyone else might think, and that they will grab their opportunities in life.
I hope so, too. Did anything surprise you when you first saw Anne Lambelet’s illustrations? Which is your favorite spread?
Text © Beth Anderson, 2022. Image © Anne Lambelet, 2022.
I absolutely love Anne’s illustrations—the palette, the style, composition, everything! My favorite spread is the opening one. I think in general I’m drawn to dark spreads, but it’s more than the richness of the colors. The opening text of the book is a little different, and I was worried when I submitted it that an editor would want to cut it. For me, it set up the story question (as well as important context), but I could also see that it might be difficult to illustrate what I was trying to say and engage a reader emotionally right off the bat. Anne totally got it, nailed it, enhanced it, and gave me goosebumps! That illustration opens the story with “possibility” – exactly as I’d hoped. And it pulls us to the heart of the character.
Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I’m awaiting final art on Thomas Jefferson’s Battle for Science: Bias, Truth, and a Mighty Moose which comes out next fall – the sketches are aMAZing!! The manuscript for Hiding in Plain Sight: Kate Warne and the Race to Save President Lincoln has gone to illustrator Sally Wern Comport. Super excited to see how that evolves! And I’m working on editor revisions for an as yet unannounced story of another mighty woman.
I spent a while pondering and poking around with some ideas before diving into a new story. I latched onto one and researched for a few months…and then I found another one that raised its hand all squirmy and irresistible, and said, “me first!” So…since I can’t seem to work through the research and drafting phase of two stories as once, I’m focusing on the interrupter and going for it! 😊
These sound amazing and I can't wait to see them, especially Hiding in Plain Sight, as I saw the genesis of this one. Good luck with the new drafts. Thank you, Beth for stopping by for this interview. I always enjoy talking with you.
Thank you, Maria, for all your support of kid lit creators and for sharing so many amazing books!
To find out more about Beth Anderson, or contact her:
Review of Cloaked in Courage:
Uncovering Deborah Sampson, Patriot Soldier
Beth Anderson adds to her impressive list of nonfiction biographies with an inspirational picture book examining the strength and courage of a woman soldier during the American Revolution.
Cloaked in Courage: Uncovering Deborah Sampson, Patriot Soldier
Author: Beth Anderson
Illustrator: Anne Lambelet
Publisher: Calkins Creek/ Astra Books for Young Readers
American Revolution, female soldier, bravery, tenacity, self-discovery, and independence.
The remarkable story of Deborah Sampson, a woman who fought in the American Revolution disguised as a man—and who ends up finding her true identity and purpose in life.
Deborah Sampson didn’t like being told what to do, especially by the King of England. Fiercely independent, 18-year-old Deborah enlists as Robert Shurtliff in George Washington’s Continental Army to fight for her country’s independence. But being a soldier is hard, dangerous work. Can she fight for her country and keep her identity a secret? Can she also discover who she really is and find her true purpose? This unbelievable story from American history about a woman with a rebel spirit will inspire and enlighten young readers.
Deborah Sampson’s spirit was always a little
Maybe it was the stories of her Pilgrim ancestors
seeking freedom. Maybe it was the Revolutionary
times in Massachusetts when colonists protested
Maybe it was just Deborah
What I LOVED about this book:
From the age of five, Deborah was sent by her single, poor mother to work as a servant for an elderly aunt and other families. With "each chore, hardship, and book, Deborah discovered pieces of herself." When she worked for the Thomas family, Deborah absorbed their patriotism, built up strength, and read the boy's lessons and stories of adventures and warrior women; further fueling "a boldness growing inside."
Text © Beth Anderson, 2022. Image © Anne Lambelet, 2022.
Using a muted palette and sepia tones, Anne Lambelet does a great job using vignettes and subtle shifts in clothing to depict Deborah's aging from five to eighteen. I love right side of the above spread and the way it shows the various influences, environmental and intellectual, which lead Deborah to follow her own path and decide not to marry, but instead to become "masterless woman."
Text © Beth Anderson, 2022. Image © Anne Lambelet, 2022.
This is such a powerful moment. Not just in showing the short paths of the other women and the possessiveness (of at least two of the three men) of each "master" of the house, in comparison to Deborah's longer path. But also her shirking of the traditional bonnet, confident stride, and troublesome crooked finger. She had indeed grown into her too large spirit.
Working a loom at a public house, her patriotism grew. Intrigued by the payment of enlistees, tales of battles, and her memories of women warriors, Deborah donned a disguise and tried to enlist. But her nerves and a tattling old lady who remembered Deborah's crooked finger, foiled her plan. Deborah fled to another town and successfully enlisted as Robert Shurtliff. She "drilled harder and longer" and was assigned "to the Light Infantry Company, the best and brightest." The wonderful period illustrations of the public house, clothing, and general conditions the soldiers struggled under offer readers a captivating glimpse into history.
Fearing discovery, when she got shot in the leg, Deborah unsuccessfully tried to dig the musket ball out. Yet somehow she found the strength to push forward, to keep working. And this determination got her noticed and appointed as General Paterson's waiter. Though once again a "servant," she spent the remainder of the Revolution, and a subsequent mission to quell an uprising, enjoying the camaraderie of fellow patriots.
Text © Beth Anderson, 2022. Image © Anne Lambelet, 2022.
Deborah and Paterson's troops survived the war, only to be leveled by a virus. At which point, a doctor discovered her gender. The final spreads, as Deborah returns to General Paterson to 'face the music' and determine her future, are gripping and show a lot about the bravery and character of this woman soldier. The back matter explores the many challenges of historical research, what is known of Deborah's later life and her cause to champion military pensions for herself and other women, and the 2021 Deborah Sampson Act codifying care and pensions for female soldiers and veterans. It is an inspirational book about a brave female soldier who dared to take chances in figuring out who she would become and a challenge to the reader to think about "What makes us who we are? Who will we be?"
- play the telephone game. How close to the original was the final person's statement? Try again. Did the result differ? If you were a researcher, how could you figure out what the original word or phrase had been?
- when you hear a news report or read a social media post, how do you know if is true? What can you do to prove if it is true or false?
- be sure to read Beth Anderson's post on how setting was a "window" into Deborah's character (here)!
- check out the Discussion Guide by Astra Publishing.