Saturday, January 27, 2024

Q&A with Gretchen Woelfle




Gretchen Woelfle is the author of the new middle grade book How Benjamin Franklin Became a Revolutionary in Seven (Not-So-Easy) Steps. Her other books include A Take-Charge Girl Blazes a Trail to Congress. She lives in Los Angeles.


Q: Why did you decide to write about Benjamin Franklin in your new book, and how did you decide on the “seven steps”?


A: I spent several years as an editorial assistant at the Papers of Benjamin Franklin, a vast editorial project at Yale, and became smitten with the man. (The project began in 1954 and won’t be complete until 2027.)


When I began writing for children, I considered a book on Franklin, but a multitude already filled library shelves. I needed a new angle on Franklin. Decades later, I found one.


I had a lot of fun with the “seven-step” structure of this book. Franklin used lists to figure things out for himself and others. Sometimes his lists were serious, sometimes humorous.


Because I wanted to express his personality, I used a format he favored. Franklin was a brilliant writer, and the best way to portray his boundless curiosity, energy, and love of life was to quote his own words. Each of the seven steps includes his own “voice.”


My format also shows the how his private personality influenced his public life and led to the radical shift in his outlook for America’s future. As countless writers have done, I presented many extraordinary accomplishments of Franklin’s life. But I also presented his failures, and showed how they impacted him.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I had read widely about Franklin while working at the Franklin Papers, but many more biographies and scholarly articles have been written since then. So I read on.


Some recent literature has presented Britain’s perspective about the colonists’ revolt and the war that followed. These books and articles enlarged my understanding of Franklin’s actions during the 18 years he spent in London trying to resolve the conflicts and broker peace between the colonies and Britain.


His failure brought about his transformation from loyal British subject to fiery American revolutionary.

Q: What do you think John O'Brien’s illustrations add to the book?


A: John O’Brien’s brilliant black ink drawings mimic popular 18th century engravings. They also bring Franklin’s legendary wit and humor to life on nearly every page spread.


The full-color cover of How Benjamin Franklin Became a Revolutionary in Seven (Not-So-Easy) Steps shows our man at the top of a seven-step stairway painted to look like the early American Flag, with a letter of AMERICA printed on each step. 


Such a coincidence never occurred to me: that America has seven letters and would fit John O’Brien’s clever take on my rather droll, but cumbersome, title.


One illustration shows young Franklin, a printer’s apprentice, writing a satirical letter to his brother’s newspaper in the persona of a feisty widow, Mrs. Silence Dogood. Franklin holds a mirror in his left hand and Silence scowls back to him.


O’Brien uses the same device in the Author’s Note, showing me at my computer, gazing into a mirror with Benjamin Franklin smiling back. Franklin would love this, and so do I!


The Boston Tea Party created an uproar in the colonies and in Britain. O’Brien sets the Boston Harbor event in a giant teacup decorated with the Union Jack – a tempest in a symbolic teacup.


Another drawing shows a long winding line of men waiting to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Above them is Franklin’s famous 1754 political cartoon – the first ever published in America – titled Join or Die. It shows a snake cut into pieces, labeled with names of the colonies.


O’Brien shows men of the colonies – now a united “snake” – determined to declare themselves free of British rule.


Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about Benjamin Franklin?


A: Benjamin Franklin’s loyalty to the British Empire is rarely mentioned in our American history classes. We learn about Franklin as a Founding Father, with a unilateral American identity.


But Franklin spent the first 70 years of his life supporting the union of America and Britain. He held the British Empire in the highest esteem.


In 1754 he proposed a General Union of the British Colonies: an equal partnership of British America and Parliament. But every colony and Parliament flatly rejected it.


Cooperation and unity were Franklin’s goals, and he worked tirelessly for nearly 20 years to restore peace between Britain and America and to keep the colonies in the British Empire..


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Now that I’ve written my love letter to Benjamin Franklin, I’m returning to women’s history and Black history. One book is well along, another in the beginning stages of research.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I recently joined “Benjamin Franklin” (aka Phil Soinski) to celebrate his 318th birthday with an Electric Birthday Celebration at the International Printing Museum in Carson, California.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Gretchen Woelfle.

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