Sunday, August 30, 2020

Q&A with Michael J. Rosen

Michael J. Rosen is the author of the new children's picture book A Ben of All Trades: The Most Inventive Boyhood of Benjamin Franklin. His many other books include The Tale of Rescue and The Horse's Haiku. He lives in Ohio.

Q: Why did you decide to write about Ben Franklin in your new picture book, and what do you see as his legacy today?

A: This first came about as a commission that didn’t work out. My agent proposed looking at a historical figure’s youth. I didn’t particularly know more about Benjamin Franklin than I did about John Adams, but I knew it had to be a familiar, often-taught person. I used to be a big swimmer. Franklin was the one who began taking swimming into the open, focusing on its healthful nature.

The book I had proposed was too long, and it wasn’t for the right audience my agent was imagining. I proposed it to Candlewick—here’s a picture book based on a couple of episodes in Franklin’s life—and they said they would love to do it.

Benjamin Franklin is our primary source of information—he wrote a very brief childhood biography at a ripe old age. I’m still trying to remember what I did last week, much less what I did in third grade!

On some level, I recognized that even the most focused nonfiction person is going to make the leaves on the tree abstract. I felt the same way about Franklin’s life. There was plenty I had to work with, but no dialogue. I had to find a way to create for kids the sounds of that era. It was a challenge, not just to get the information across, but to find a vehicle that would be authentic for kids.

Q: So swimming was what drew you into the idea for this book?

A: Exactly. We’ve all heard of the kite without remembering the details. When I was reading his biography, I found other details.

One, which we cut, involved kids going swimming, and as the water receded, he “invents” a bucket--they make an archipelago of rocks. He recruited his pals to do that. It was an example of the inventiveness he applied liberally across various endeavors. Then I found the episode where he goes swimming with a kite, and I thought, There’s something interesting there.

Q: Can you talk about how that exemplifies the way he thinks?

A: I’m interpreting and projecting. Franklin took on many things—ambassadorial work, figuring out a postal system, inventing, writing, printing. Most folks say, My job is [one thing]—they’re not also a chef and a horse racer. I’m not looking to him to justify me, but I feel there’s a kindred restlessness. I write for all ages, I paint, I do ceramics. The creative impulse is channeled in all directions.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?

A: I want kids to see the pleasure that they want to find—how curious the language of the time was, that there were no bathing suits, that there weren’t swimming pools. I am always amazed at our incredulity over things like that. Like that there didn’t used to be anesthesia.

Maybe there’s a kid like me who doesn’t want to be a candlemaker or a leathermaker when society and parents are insisting on that. I would want the “me” who reads the book to justify certain freedoms and consider something outside the expectations of society and even themselves.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My desk is stacked with options, some for another picture book, some poems for kids, some nonfiction. My next thing is painting and drawing because we’re here at home. I’ve got time. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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