Mara Rockliff is the author of the new children's picture book Jefferson Measures a Moose. It focuses on Thomas Jefferson's interest in science. Her many other books include Mesmerized and Doctor Esperanto and the Language of Hope. She lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Q: How did you learn about Thomas Jefferson's interactions with French writer Buffon?
A: I first came across the moose incident in an article by Cara Giaimo on the Atlas Obscura website. Buffon was a French count who claimed America was a miserable continent of puny people, undersized animals, and birds that couldn’t sing.
Buffon had never visited America, but he had strong opinions—and, as the most famous naturalist in Europe, he was giving the New World a bad name. Naturally, Thomas Jefferson set out to prove him wrong.
I’d recently published a book called Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France, about how Franklin used the scientific method to investigate the enigmatic Dr. Mesmer, who claimed to have discovered a powerful invisible force.
What this funny story about Franklin did for science, I thought, Jefferson’s absurd adventure with the moose could do for math. Jefferson loved numbers; he made a hobby of measuring, weighing, and noting down information everywhere he went. Kids who love facts and figures would relate to him, I knew, while others would enjoy seeing a Founding Father doing something so silly and gross.
Q: What kind of research did you do to write the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?
A: Well, of course, there are tons of books about Thomas Jefferson, including some focused specifically on his interest in science and math. From there, I moved on to the really good stuff: original documents, especially Jefferson’s correspondence. Thomas Jefferson wrote LOTS of letters. He got up before sunrise every morning, stuck his feet in icy water, then sat down and wrote letters until 1 or 2 p.m.
Reading the letters he wrote and received made these long-ago events feel very human—and often surprisingly hilarious.
One friend wrote to Jefferson about a dinner party in Paris where Benjamin Franklin and a number of other Americans were present. When a French guest asked Franklin whether he agreed that animals and people were smaller and weaker in America, Franklin invited him to look around the room.
“In fact,” Jefferson’s friend noted with delight, “there was no one American present who could not have tost out of the Windows any one or perhaps two of the rest of the Company.”
Q: What do you think S.D. Schindler's illustrations add to the book?
A: Everything! They’re a wonderful combination of careful historical research and gentle humor. (Did you spot the hidden mouse?)
And they make the story colorful. It’s so easy for kids to get the sense that the past was gray, like an old photograph. One of the greatest things a picture book can do is help them realize that people in the “old days” lived their lives in color, just like us—whether they were eating peas or reading with their feet propped up or measuring a mole.
Q: James Madison also appears in the book--how would you describe the friendship between Jefferson and Madison?
A: Batman and Robin. Madison was Jefferson’s small, skinny, younger sidekick, at least at first. They had a lot in common. Both were brainy and loved science. It’s easy to imagine Madison enthusiastically weighing a weasel for his friend. (He also counted its teeth, measured its tongue, and reported how it smelled: “a sort of rankish musk, but not so strong as to be very offensive.”)
Both were also passionate about religious freedom and the separation between church and state. They worked together on a groundbreaking law to protect the rights of “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination,” as Jefferson put it in his autobiography.
Unfortunately, while both also spoke out against slavery, neither of these wealthy Virginia plantation owners freed the hundreds of people they personally kept enslaved.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My next book with Candlewick will be The Girl Who Could Fix Anything: Beatrice Shilling, World War II Engineer, illustrated by the clever and amusing British artist Daniel Duncan. It’s the story of a girl who wasn’t quite like everybody else, and whose outside-the-box problem solving helped England’s fighter pilots stay up in the air.
I’m also excited about Try It! How Frieda Caplan Changed the Way We Eat, coming from Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster this January and delightfully illustrated by Giselle Potter. Frieda was the produce pioneer who filled our supermarket shelves with colorful, delicious fruits and vegetables that few Americans had ever seen before.
Ever tasted a kiwifruit or a sugar snap pea, a yellow tomato or a purple potato? Do you like donut peaches, baby corn, or Asian pears? Then Frieda Caplan is the one to thank.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: It’s easy to get up close and personal with Thomas Jefferson, You can read 20,457 of his letters at https://founders.archives.gov, along with 27,015 letters other people wrote to him.
The Library of Congress also has a vast number of Jefferson’s original writings—including an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, with handwritten revisions—digitized at https://www.loc.gov/collections/thomas-jefferson-papers/.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Mara Rockliff.