Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Q&A with Beth Anderson




Beth Anderson is the author of the new children's picture book biography Cloaked in Courage: Uncovering Deborah Sampson, Patriot Soldier. Sampson disguised herself as a man to fight in the Revolutionary War. Anderson's other books include Tad Lincoln's Restless Wriggle. She was a teacher for more than 20 years, and she lives in Colorado.


Q: Why did you decide to focus on Deborah Sampson in your new book?


A: Deborah Sampson is a person I had heard of, but the little I knew about her story didn’t grab me. But then, in July 2019, an article appeared about an old diary that referenced her first attempt at enlistment. This caught my eye - a found diary? - cool!


What I learned about how she was caught and shamed interested me - a crucial mistake that showed risk and stakes and humanity. I dug into her story, and once I hit on her childhood and what led up to her enlistment, I began connecting emotionally to her story, an essential step to creating a meaningful story for kids.


Getting her story on the page was a long difficult slog. I worked through an initial draft in December of 2019 and got stuck. I had pursued a storyline about her “becoming” who she was through her experiences, but I hadn’t found the “heart” of her story, a more specific and unique angle to resonate with young readers.


I became occupied with the release of Lizzie Demands a Seat, school visits, and a trip to NYC. Then Covid hit, and I just couldn’t write. Mid-April, I tried again. I really needed to focus on something besides the news and pandemic. I turned off notifications on my computer and phone and gave it another shot.


More research, more searching out pieces and planning, and lots and lots of revising later, I had a story with heart! What I found in her story was a girl and woman who found chances in challenges. She persevered through hardship, proving her capableness, rising beyond expectations. 


Q: What do you think Anne Lambelet's illustrations add to the story?


A: Anne’s illustrations push the story to another level. She did such a tremendous job of enhancing the abstract ideas and bringing them to life - like in the opening. The idea that a child had a boundless spirit, that would propel her forward past her expected role in life, is perfectly shown in the opening spread. It grabs my heart.


Anne’s style fits the period, and the palette is warm and inviting. (After our conversation on Facebook Live through Old Firehouse Books, I learned that she researched art from the era!) I was thrilled that she included so many historical details and meaningful elements that deepen the story.


Vetting the historical objects was fascinating as we consulted with an expert and found images of “wallets” of different sizes used to hold bread, clothing, or market goods; straw mattresses; uniforms (which changed several times during the war); knapsacks; food on an officer’s table; stagecoach interior and more. Anne’s art helps us understand what life was like for Deborah Sampson.


Q: You note on your website that writing the story of Deborah Sampson was “a challenge.” What made it challenging, and how did you research her life?


A: There is very little source material that is strictly from Deborah Sampson. The Herman Mann bio of Sampson, for which she provided much information, contains much misinformation. It appears that he wanted more drama and his own sense of a heroine rather than sticking to her factual experience. He also helped write her speeches, making it impossible to know if the words were hers or his.


One blatant example of misinformation is that he places her at Yorktown to participate in the victory. However, there’s sufficient proof that she enlisted after Yorktown. Another example is a section that reads suspiciously like another popular story of a woman warrior. That bio was THE book on Sampson, and the information was passed on.


For a while, I explored the idea of trying to structure the story in a way that would highlight falsehood vs. truth. Ultimately that didn’t work for me.


I found an amazing book, Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier, in which the author took every piece of her story as told by Mann and examined it for accuracy using a wide range of sources. (I learned a lot about being a history detective!)


Then, as I consulted more sources, if they took the details from Mann’s corrupted version of her life, I knew not to trust them. Anything published before Mann’s book had more value, and also anecdotes from people who actually knew her.


Official government documents are proof of her service, such as a muster roll, her enlistment form, and her pension appeals, but there’s very little that reveals the deeper person within. The research process was so fascinating that I decided to focus on that in the back matter and provide tips for kids on being a historical detective. 


Q: What do you hope kids take away from her story, and what do you see as her legacy today?


A: I hope kids will see possibility in their own lives and understand that they are often more capable than they and others might think. I want them to believe in themselves and know that there are opportunities in challenges, chances to build strength and resilience.


Also, the idea of excellence and integrity as a shield is something for kids to think about. No one had reason to question or suspect Deborah Sampson of being anything other than the soldier she appeared to be. 


Sampson was a gutsy woman who opened the eyes of others to the capableness of women. There are statues of her and a ship named for her. Most recently, in 2021, the Deborah Sampson Act was passed by Congress—a law that protects female soldiers and veterans from gender-based harassment and provides needed programs. Though everyone may not be familiar with her story, this tangible legacy shows she has left her mark.


I hope kids learn about this remarkable woman and are inspired to pave their own path and help break down barriers that prevent people from realizing their full potential. Seeing historical events through different people’s experiences has the power to widen our understanding of history—and the world today.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have three books in the publication process, so am at different stages with those. Thomas Jefferson’s Battle for Science: Bias, Truth, and a Mighty Moose is in final illustrations. Jeremy Holmes’ work is fabulous, and I can’t wait to see the finals!


Hiding in Plain Sight: Kate Warne and the Race to Save President Lincoln has gone to the illustrator, Sally Wern Comport, so I’m anticipating that incredible moment when I can see her sketches for the first time and my mind is blown by an illustrator’s genius.


The other book in process hasn’t been announced yet and is in final editorial revisions. I’m just starting to draft a new manuscript, with the usual challenges of TMI, focus, and shaping a heart that resonates for kids. Onward! 


Thanks so much for hosting me to share Cloaked in Courage!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Beth Anderson.

No comments:

Post a Comment