Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Q&A with Beth Anderson



Beth Anderson is the author of the new children's picture book Thomas Jefferson's Battle for Science: Bias, Truth, and a Mighty Moose!. Her other books include Franz's Phantasmagorical Machine. Also a longtime educator, she lives in Colorado.


Q: Why did you decide to write about Thomas Jefferson’s love of science in your new book?


A: Thank you so much for the chance to share this new book on your blog, Deborah!

I read about Thomas Jefferson’s obsession with science, measuring, and mammoths, and then saw an article about how he pulled out all the scientific stops and used a moose to prove that the most famous European natural science authority, Count Buffon, had published incorrect information about the animals of North America.


The crash of serious scientific inquiry that questioned the powerful with obsessions and emotions in an over-the-top response that feels ridiculous today was irresistible.


Especially when it tapped into so many issues relevant today—like bias, misinformation, and the question of how to “measure” truth. It was a great opportunity to share that Jefferson, too, was wrong about many things and had hugely consequential biases.


As usual, I saw SO much, too much, potential in the topic, and the challenge, as always, became the focus.


Q: How did you research the book, and did anything especially surprise you?


A: It’s always fascinating to discover personality quirks that allow you to see a bigger picture, a more human rendering, of famous historical figures.


Because of the role Jefferson played in our past, the historical record is plentiful. There are quite a few books on Jefferson as a scientist. He was an amateur but pursued science relentlessly. He recorded the temperature four times on July 4, 1776 while Congress pored over the proposed Declaration of Independence.


The bill for “procuring” the moose was sure to catch a child’s attention and inspire an “ew” or two. There were so many great details I had to cut from the text.


It was surprising to see that a number of the founders were really into science and indulged in it in the midst of the revolution. One letter from James Madison about government business also shared meticulous measurements of a weasel! 


It was also interesting to open up history and see the self-interest involved on both sides of this intellectual battle.


The patriots feared that the negative impression of North America would affect immigration and trade at a time when they sought economic growth and independence.


Buffon’s misinformation upheld the idea of European superiority to discourage emigration. The logic some European “thinkers” were using was bonkers, and their reasoning ridiculous. And of course, the most damaging aspect was applying this kind of self-serving biased thinking to groups of people.


I left some of these issues in back matter for readers to ponder and discuss. History is complicated.


As I wrote, I thought a lot about truth and different kinds of truth—scientific truth that can be measured with instruments and data, and human truths which must be measured with the heart.


There are so many important concepts in this history. I believe kids are more capable thinkers than we often give them credit for, and the future depends on us raising critical thinkers.

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Jefferson and Buffon?


A: Jefferson was shy and nervous about confronting the French authority with his errors. He was an amateur (who greatly respected Buffon), intent on telling the most famous—and royal!—scientific authority (who had written a large set of encyclopedias), that he was wrong.


I got the feeling Jefferson didn’t want to confront Buffon in person. Jefferson’s book with all the data carefully laid out should convince him. The panther skin would show him. When those fail, Jefferson has to argue his points face to face over dinner.


One funny little piece isn’t in the book—when Jefferson arrives for dinner, Buffon makes him wait. Jefferson is given a document and told that once he’s read it, he would be convinced Buffon was correct. So that was more intimidation!


It appears that at dinner Buffon was full of bluster and Jefferson tried to respectfully refute and present evidence. Oh, to be a fly on the wall! But that is also something a child can relate to—the challenge of trying to tell an authority figure they’re wrong.


Q: What do you think Jeremy Holmes’s illustrations add to the book?


A: OH MY GOODNESS! Where to begin? Jeremy meshed text and art so completely that it’s hard for me to recall what I had in the manuscript and what he added in some places with art. He gets inside Jefferson’s head…literally and figuratively!


There’s a bit of a “graphic novel” look which serves pacing well, and, in spots where I had parallel pieces of text, his illustration format enhances it. His placement of text also bolsters the scientific inquiry aspect. Emotion pops throughout, along with fascinating details and fun for the reader.


Jeremy did a lot of research and included a few primary source documents that offer an entertaining peek into the history (including that bill for the moose!).


He totally got where I was coming from with this manuscript. It’s like he was reading my mind—and then proceeded to blow my mind with all he brought to the story.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve started a story about an artist, and I have an idea waiting for a research dive.


Two books scheduled for 2025 and 2026 are in the publishing process—both about amazing young women, and both connected to Abraham Lincoln, one of my favorite historical figures. One features Kate Warne in the Baltimore Plot, and the other shares how a spunky teen named Vinnie Ream sculpted the statue of Lincoln that stands in the Capitol rotunda.


And…I just got good news on a new manuscript submission!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I hope your readers will share the information about Thomas Jefferson’s Battle for Science with educators they know as the book as so much potential for the classroom.


Educator Guide: https://astrapublishinghouse.com/resources/thomas-jefferson-guide/


Intro video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4CTq_vXMQ0 


Available at booksellers everywhere!

Publisher book page: https://astrapublishinghouse.com/product/thomas-jeffersons-battle-for-science-9781635926200/

For signed copies, visit Old Firehouse Books here: https://www.oldfirehousebooks.com/book/9781635926200


Website https://bethandersonwriter.com


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Beth Anderson.

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