Friday, May 8, 2020

Q&A with Candice Ransom

Candice Ransom is the author of the new children's picture book Bones in the White House: Thomas Jefferson's Mammoth. Her many other books include Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten and The Big Green Pocketbook. She teaches at Hollins University.

Q:  How did you come up with the idea for Bones in the White House?

A: I was reading an adult nonfiction book, Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology, when I came across this sentence: “The delighted Jefferson had the Lick’s fossils laid out in the White House storage area that later became the elegant East Room.”

What? President Jefferson arranged fossils from Kentucky in the East Room of the White House? I had to [find out] why was Jefferson interested in old bones. The book gave some background, but I craved more. I had to know this story.  

I began researching the time Jefferson got the fossils he’d wanted for more than 30 years, moving backwards through his life and the history of the new nation.

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

A: I began by reading books on prehistoric America and Jefferson’s life to get a general sense of where I needed to go. I traveled to Charlottesville, 90 minutes away, to visit Monticello and the International Center for Jefferson Studies and Jefferson Library several times. 

Most of my research was done in university and museum libraries. I found primary resources on Founders Online, through the National Archives.

I went to Philadelphia to interview a well-known scholar on Jefferson and science. I studied mastodon skeletons at the Natural History Museum in New York City. I went to a prehistoric dig site in southwestern Virginia. I took in an exhibit of Jefferson documents and personal writings in Richmond, Virginia. 

In all, I researched for more than three years.

My research took me to amazing places. What surprised me the most was that, in an attempt to figure out the identity of this unknown creature (the mastodon), Americans reached out to experts in natural history (the word “scientist” had yet to be coined) in England, France, and Germany. 

Interest in the strange, giant bones found in Kentucky’s Big Bone Lick coincided with the end of the Revolutionary War. America was an upstart republic, and Great Britain had been an enemy five minutes ago. France and England were at odds, too. 

But political differences were set aside to share information and further scientific knowledge. Jefferson was instrumental in keeping lines of communication open across boundaries.

Q: What did you think Jamey Christoph’s illustrations added to the book?

A: I’d seen Jamey’s work before and had always admired his attention to historical detail and his quiet palette. 

For my book, he used muted colors that would not have been out of place during Jefferson’s time and felt just right. His varied compositions kept the reader’s eye moving, yet if a scene needed to be lingered over, he let the reader walk around in it. 

Best of all, Jamey’s art conveyed a lyrical, even mythic, tone to the facts.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from Bones in the White House?

A: Early in the story, Jefferson is described as a curious child, keenly interested in the natural world around him. I grew up in Virginia, too, and identified with young Jefferson’s curiosity. I hope kids see themselves as curious beings and take a stronger interest in the world in which they live. 

Though Jefferson spent most of his life in public office, he never lost that childhood curiosity...and never gave up on the mastodon.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m researching a new nonfiction project. I don’t choose my topics lightly. I must remain passionate about the subject for three to five years, or longer. 

Bones is really about the New Republic gaining foothold on the world scientific stage, through the lens of one man and one animal. My new project will again focus on science through the lens of one man and one animal. It’s a sort of continuation of the story of Jefferson and his “mammoth.”

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: When I finished writing and revising Bones, and it was acquired by Doubleday, I didn’t stop there. Writing this book opened avenues in early science that I want to know more about. I fell in love with those 18th and 19th century natural historians! In a past life I may have been one of them!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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