Sunday, November 18, 2018

Q&A with Beth Anderson

Beth Anderson is the author of the new children's picture book An Inconvenient Alphabet: Ben Franklin and Noah Webster's Spelling Revolution. She is a former English as a Second Language teacher, and she lives in Colorado. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for An Inconvenient Alphabet?

A: An article on Ben Franklin’s attempt to change the alphabet caught my eye. As someone who’s always been fascinated with language and a former ESL teacher I could totally relate and dug in to see if there was a story there.

Ben’s alphabet didn’t go over well and was put in a drawer. Not a great story. But when I saw he met and worked with Noah Webster, I thought that looking at the relationship between the two historical figures might offer something interesting.

In the process, I found this quote exhibiting typical Ben Franklin humor: “Those people spell best who do not know how to spell.” This hit me in my teacher heart. “Those people” were the kids. They were doing it right! They needed to know that they, too, were great thinkers, doing egzaktlee what Ben and Noah wanted!

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: When I hit on an idea, I start by scouring the internet to evaluate whether it’s a viable idea for a children’s book or not. I go after academic and historical sites to gather info and further resources.

Then I start my library searches. Thank goodness for public libraries and interlibrary loan systems! I researched Ben and Noah individually, and also the intersection of their lives.

As a linguistics major, I had a strong base regarding phonics and etymology, but I dug into those topics and the history of American English. It was a challenge to take all these topics, merge them, and stay focused.

The initial article I saw on Ben Franklin’s alphabet was probably the biggest surprise. Learning about this unknown historical tidbit, it was also really interesting to see how the great Ben Franklin dealt with the failure of one of his ideas. The next surprise was that he worked with Noah Webster.

And the hands-down best surprise of all was the quote I mentioned above that gave me my direct link to kids. Ben and Noah also gifted me the title - using the word “inconvenient" over and over. As an author who struggles with titles, what a surprise to have the perfect title right from the start!

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Ben Franklin and Noah Webster?

A: The men were such opposites that it was really fun to find these two working together. It would be easy to think that they would never get along.

Ben was like a mentor for Noah. Ben was patient and kind, appreciative and encouraging. Ben was everything Noah wanted to be - famous, respected, influential. Noah clearly looked up to Ben, but also sought the support of big names like George Washington and Franklin to push his ideas on people.

It appears that Ben was a great influence on Noah, helping him become more flexible and realize that you can’t force the public to love your ideas.

Q: What do you think Elizabeth Baddeley's illustrations added to the book?

A: Oh my gosh, Elizabeth is amazing! She added fun, clarity, history, and so much life to the story! The subject matter of writing about writing created a number of challenges. She used illustrations to make the language concepts more comprehensible.

In addition, it was a story about two men from long ago. Elizabeth’s art made those men into interesting characters for kids, and the alphabet almost became a character itself, stalking them. She embedded historical information and humorous subtleties.

I adore the pictures of Noah at his desk, and am wowed by the illustration at the end that moves the reader from the beginning of the 19th century to the present. I hope readers will take the time to enjoy the endlessly fascinating details on each page.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m revising another revolutionary bit of history, hoping it will be sub-ready soon. And I’ve been working on revisions for an editor on a title due out in spring 2021, still unannounced.

I’m also in the fun stage of two manuscripts scheduled for 2020 - getting to see the illustrations develop. After I get a few things off my desk, I’ll decide which story to pursue next and start stacking up the research books. I find it difficult to be immersed in the initial major research portion with more than one manuscript at a time.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: While authors always hope that readers will connect to their stories and glean something meaningful from their books, it’s clear to me that working through each manuscript has lessons for the writer as well.

An Inconvenient Alphabet had a number of lessons for me, but the one that rang especially relevant with a debut book was Ben’s philosophy to let your ideas “take their chance in the world.” Isn’t that what we all do when we put our stories or art out there?

And like Ben and Noah’s spelling revolution, our books become cooperative efforts. We can't entirely control the trajectory of the book and whether it’s embraced by the public. That was Noah’s lesson, too, and he persevered, stayed flexible, and succeeded.

Thanks for inviting me to your blog!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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