Beth Anderson is the author of the new children's picture book Franz's Phantasmagorical Machine. Her other books include Tad Lincoln's Restless Wriggle. She was a teacher for more than 20 years, and she lives in Colorado.
Q: What inspired you to write Franz’s Phantasmagorical Machine, and how did you learn about the life of inventor Franz Gsellmann?
A: I ran across an article about the World Machine (Weltmaschine in German), and when I watched a video of it running, I was totally fascinated. I peeked into its recesses and peered at all the odd pieces (just like the children at the end of the story). It was so unique.
I dug in and learned about Franz Gsellmann, a small man with big ideas who was driven to tinker and build despite his lack of education, skills, and resources. He followed his joy, undeterred by criticism.
As a former basement tinkerer, I really loved the idea of sharing his compulsion to build and all the fun upcycled and recycled objects he included in the machine. I’m instantly smitten with stories of ordinary people who do extraordinary things. Here was an ordinary man who used ordinary objects to create something extraordinary. It was intriguing in so many ways, including the idea of value.
Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that surprised you?
A: I scoured the internet first and explored the website of the World Machine. There were several books that included Franz and his machine, but everything was in German. So…I used Google Translate to get the gist and then asked German-speaking friends to help me understand the relevant parts. I watched every video of the machine I could find, listening, examining, searching.
The machine was such a surprise to begin with. Then, how Franz viewing the Atomium solidified his vision. And when I worked through translating the list of 1960 items in the machine, there were so many delightful surprises with odd objects from flea markets and scrap yards. It’s sort of a time capsule!
Q: What do you think Caroline Hamel’s illustrations add to the book?
A: Caroline’s illustrations bring Franz’s joy to life and make the whimsical nature of the story sing. Her palette pushes you “outside the box,” just as Franz’s thinking pushed past the usual. I think my favorite part is how she created a visual for Franz’s “whisper”—using images from the machine—that followed him everywhere!
Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, “Based on a true story, this account of one man’s pursuit will leave readers pondering the nature of inventions—does a creation need a clear purpose?” What do you think of that assessment, and what do you hope kids take away from the book?
A: Kirkus nailed it. That’s exactly what resonated with me about the story, the idea of judging worth. Does a machine have to produce something tangible? And what is the value of creating for the sake of joy, learning, and exploring? While people criticized him for how he pursued his curiosity, their own curiosity about the machine was also irrepressible. But with theirs, they brought judgement.
I hope kids will question and think past traditional expectations and labels to see the vast realm of “invisible” value in the world around them and recognize the range of things and experiences that enrich their lives.
I also hope they’ll consider the power of curiosity to open one up to new ideas and experiences. Sometimes we can’t see or calculate worth. What’s the value of inspiration? To me, it’s a gift we give to the future.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m preparing to share the story of Deborah Sampson with the world Nov. 15. And then another “revolutionary” story with Thomas Jefferson and science in 2023.
I have a couple more stories in the Calkins Creek pipeline that haven’t been announced yet, but I will say both are connected to Abraham Lincoln, one of my favorite historical figures. One is going to illustrations and the other is in editorial revisions.
Beyond that, there are a few projects on my desk where I’ve done the easy research and now have to see if I can find what I need to start writing.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I hope other writers will be encouraged by the long path this story traveled. Here’s a post on my blog, Building FRANZ’S PHANTASMAGORICAL MACHINE, where I share how the story reflects my journey writing it. Hang in there, keep revising, keep searching for that someone who “gets it”!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Beth Anderson.