The Picture Book Buzz - Phantasmagorical Interview with Beth Anderson
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 10 books (with 5 in production), including Revolutionary Prudence Wright: Leading the Minute Women in the Fight for Independence (2022), "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, Franz's Phantasmagorical Machine, releases tomorrow!
Welcome back Beth,
Thanks for having me back, Maria!
I remember when this started as a manuscript. When did you first learn of Franz and his machine? What made you decide to write Franz's Phantasmagorical Machine?
This was one of my early manuscripts after I had discovered my love for true historical stories. I ran across a short article on Franz Gsellmann and his “World Machine” in April 2015. The machine was unlike anything I’d ever seen and consisted of an unbelievable array of objects. He recycled and upcycled and chased after his dream. Into his 60’s he still had a childlike fascination with creating, building, and learning through experimentation. I was a kid who spent time in the basement in my father’s shop. I tinkered and “invented” and put scraps of this and that together, so Franz’s story really struck home! I understood about the joy in the journey! His story was unknown, different, and challenged traditional expectations and thinking. I love stories like that!
It's so cool that you discovered Franz's story and were able to share it with others. On the second spread, did you include an illustrator note for the words and images above Franz’s head?
The words in the illustration on the second spread were part of the text. It looked like this:
Each year at school, the whisper grew louder ...
with the click of the abacus,
the flutter of page turns,
the scratch of the chalk
Text © Beth Anderson, 2022. Image © Caroline Hamel, 2022.
And that small section required much additional research too, as we went through editor revisions. I was trying to find mechanical objects that would have been in the classroom in rural Austria 1916-22 and connect to the machine that would come later. Fan, clock, pencil sharpener, radiator, and more were ruled out when I found someone there who could answer some of my questions. No, no, no. Rural schools were not up to date. I ended up with pages of a book, an abacus, and chalk.
The other onomatopoeia words that appear in the illustrations were in the text, too. And originally there were many more! I guess I got carried away. The only spot where the illustrator added her own words was in the spread where the…. Oh wait, I don’t want to spoil anything…let’s just say after “THUNK!”
Thank you so much Beth for sharing what the manuscript page looked like. It's so interesting to see what it became in the book. So, did you have any illustrator notes or provide photos of Franz and his machine?
I did provide some links and a few notes on Franz that I thought would be useful for the editor and illustrator. One thing I asked to consider was not showing the full machine until the final spread, only pieces of it up to the end. I’m glad that idea worked for all involved!
I'm glad that worked out for you. What was the toughest part of your research and/or writing Franz's Phantasmagorical Machine? How, if at all, did it differ from your other biographies?
There was very little available on Franz, and nearly every piece that was available was in German. Which I don’t speak. I tried to contact the little museum which displays the machine and was unable to get a response. Luckily, my critique partner Julie Rowan-Zoch knows German, and I have a weaving friend from Germany. So I used Google Translate to get the gist and then consulted them for translation, details, and explanations. Beyond the museum website, there was a chapter of a book on Franz and a book about him and the machine with lots of photos. It wasn’t until later in the process that I was actually able to communicate with someone in the town in Austria.
With some stories of people and events, it’s very clear as to the importance of their actions. But this story was kind of quirky and interesting and required me to find a way to get others to appreciate the less than obvious value I found in the story. So with that and my inexperience as a writer, it took a while. But Stephanie Fretwell-Hill “got it,” loved the story as much as I did, and this story led to me signing with her.
Oh boy, that sounds like a lot of work, but totally worth it. We often focus on what was hard about putting together the research and writing of a book. What was the most fun or fascinating part of researching and/or writing Franz's Phantasmagorical Machine?
The noises! Ha! Anyone who’s read “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses knows that I love making a sensory world come alive. I think the whimsy and pure joy Franz found in the process was reflected in my own process as I built my story creation with images, sounds, sights, onomatopoeia, alliteration, humor, and wonder. Quirky is fun! There was a lot of room for me to play and experiment.
It's clear you and Caroline had a lot of fun creating this book! How long did Franz's Phantasmagorical Machine take from idea to publication?
This book had a long process. I started in April 2015, just a year and a half into my pursuit of writing for kids. The manuscript caught an agent’s eye in Jan. 2016. Then soon went out on submission and was periodically revised per feedback we received about every 3-6 months. An offer from Kids Can Press came at the end of 2018. Editorial revisions began mid 2019. Then there was a bit of a delay with obtaining permissions so it was pushed back a season to spring 2022. Looking back at this timeline is a good reminder to persevere with patience!
Patience - something this writing journey definitely takes in spades! How much of your research did not make it into the book? Had you planned (or hoped) for the amazing back matter double spread of Franz’s machine?
From the start the machine seemed like a perfect “I spy” activity for kids, so I’m glad that became a part of the book! One thing that didn’t make it into the book was the list of nearly 2000 parts in the machine, and also some of the details on particular pieces. But really, it’s all mostly there. The actual timeline isn’t specified in the book and the lifetime he spent on it is compressed. I would have loved to have a photo of the actual machine in back matter, too. I hope people will explore photos and videos of the machine in action on the website listed on the last page!
With such limited "real estate" available in picture books, you did a great job getting so much of Franz's personality and his motivation into the book. And the back matter is fantastic. You’ve said before that titles can be tricky; how many tries did it take to arrive at this title?
The title hit pretty early on with this one—about 4 months in. I had been playing with a few options, and then I think I was looking for words to describe the machine, and as I ran across the word phantasmagorical, that was it! Not only was it totally fun, but it’s a word that comes from combining other perfectly ordinary words—perfect for this machine which combined the ordinary to make something extraordinary!
And so fun to say! Is there anything you want your readers to know about Franz's Phantasmagorical Machine?
Despite a lack of opportunity and education, Franz found his way, powered by curiosity, creativity, inventiveness, resourcefulness, and perseverance. I hope young kids, as well as adults, will connect on some level to find inspiration, spark curiosity, consider possibilities beyond everyday expectations, and …… listen to their own whispers.
I hope so, too. Did anything surprise you when you first saw Caroline Hamel’s illustrations? Which is your favorite spread?
Yes! With so many objects involved in the machine, I imagined the story in various ways, mostly very detailed. What surprised me was the whimsy and colorful palette she used. Her illustrations break with reality and expectations a little, just as Franz’s machine did. And her style really brought the joy to each page. My favorite spread is the one where…..oh wait, I can’t tell you…it’s the one after THUNK!
But since Maria will want to insert an interior here…this is another favorite:
Text © Beth Anderson, 2022. Image © Caroline Hamel, 2022.
Ha! Beth you know me too well. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I’m really excited to share the next two titles from Calkins Creek. Cloaked in Courage: Uncovering Deborah Sampson, Patriot Soldier comes out in November. (It’s up for pre-order now!) The illustrations by Anne Lambelet are fantastic and bring such a unique style to the page. Sampson’s story has never been told in a picture book, and I so enjoyed the historical detective work in uncovering her story!
Thomas Jefferson's Battle for Science: Bias, Truth, and a Mighty Moose is soooooo much fun! The illustrations from Jeremy Holmes are beyond fabulous! That one releases fall of 2023. It’s history + science + humor! Be still my heart, it doesn’t get any better than that!
There are two more in the publishing pipeline—both about extraordinary women, both mid-19th century, both connected to one of my favorite historical figures. Can’t wait to share more as soon as they’re announced.
We are going to have to keep our eyes open for these books!
For even more about Beth's journey writing Franz's story and how it affected her, check out her April 29, 2022 blog post - Behind the Scenes: “Building Franz’s Phantasmagorical Machine” (here).
Thank you, Beth for stopping by for this interview. I always enjoy talking with you.
Thanks, Maria! Always fun to share the “behind the scenes” with you!
Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Franz's Phantasmagorical Machine.
To find out more about Beth Anderson, or contact her: