Today I am excited to share an author interview with you all! Author Beth Anderson has graciously agreed to spend time with us as we celebrate the release of her book AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET. Since authors have busy schedules (especially around the time their books are released), I’m asking two questions so she can share “her two cents” and give us a glimpse into her journey as an author.
Beth Anderson, a former English as a Second Language teacher, has always marveled at the power of books. Armed with linguistics and reading degrees, a fascination with language, and penchant for untold tales, she strives for accidental learning in the midst of a great story. Beth lives in Colorado where she laughs, wonders, thinks, and questions; and hopes to inspire kids to do the same. [Find out more about Beth on her website here.]
Lindsay: Welcome, Beth! Thanks for joining us today. You’ve said that, to you, “writing is mining,” which is an insightful observation. What process did you follow to research information for An Inconvenient Alphabet, and what challenges or lessons did you encounter along the way?
Beth: Thank you, Lindsay, for inviting me to offer my two cents.
Before I start digging into a topic, I survey the territory and then decide if I want to “stake my claim” and commit myself to unearthing the gem of a story. I use the internet to explore possibilities, get a general overview, and gather sources. Digitized primary sources are often available. From there, I hit the library.
I began with Ben Franklin and his alphabet. Though his alphabet was a failure, it was interesting that not everything he did was successful. That wasn’t much of a story, but a closer look revealed that he met and collaborated with Noah Webster—that’s a nugget. I’d much rather tell a story about the two of them and their efforts that were part of the spirit of a new nation finding its identity. So I dug into Ben and Noah together, Ben and Noah separately, language issues, English etymology, and what was going on at that time in history. Digitized letters were immensely helpful—letters to and from Ben Franklin sharing his alphabet idea with a friend who argued against it, letters between him and his sister who spelled horribly, and letters between Ben and Noah, gems containing information I could shape and polish into a story kids could connect to.
Once I had worked on the story a while and generated some specific questions, I reached out to museums, the Library of Congress, historical societies, and other institutions. A great example of collaboration and using resources during the editorial stage can be found in the speech bubbles on the page containing the sentence, “Some spoke like the king of England, others like backwoodsmen, and many barely spoke English at all.” I was able to use research to provide a sentence for the backwoodsman with pronunciation issues. An historian at Colonial Williamsburg helped me craft the woman’s “king’s English.” And the phenomenal Elizabeth Baddeley, illustrator, added a baby “who barely spoke English at all”—I love it!
Research for AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET offered plenty of challenges—such as limited sources, pieces that are forever lost (like Noah’s initial plan), and questions that can’t be answered.
Lessons abound in every manuscript—from how to research to shaping a narrative. But the characters in this story also spoke to me. Ben’s mantra to let your ideas “take their chance in the world” echoed within me. And together, Ben and Noah demonstrated that ideas shared can blossom and grow into something you hadn’t imagined.
Lindsay: You taught English as a second language for more than 20 years. How has that work influenced the way you approach writing children’s books—and An Inconvenient Alphabet, specifically?
Beth: My years in education have totally influenced my writing. In the classroom, from K through 8, I used picture books as a springboard for teaching a wide range of language, reading, and writing skills within the context of a great story that provided opportunities to make connections to the world. (Woof! I apologize for that huge sentence, but picture books are bursting with potential!) The icing on the cake, as a teacher, was when a book also reinforced and extended learning in social studies or science. Narrative nonfiction always engaged students with the power of story and resulted in amazement, questions, and learning. And I’m no different. Consequently, as a writer, I’m drawn to narrative nonfiction and historical fiction.
When I hit upon the subject matter for AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET, it immediately connected with me as a teacher. And the kid connection hit me like a lightning bolt – children learning to write English are doing egzaktlee what Ben and Noah envisioned. Wouldn’t children love to know that? The story not only answered that ever-burning classroom question, “Why is English so hard to spell?” but also inspired more questions about language and history. For me the research uncovered a relevant, interesting story that had many layers with its two opposite characters, perseverance, fun, life lessons, language concepts, and history.
As a result of my teaching experience, when I look at a picture book, I look for a story that kids can connect to, but I also look for a story with lots of potential to touch children in other ways. When I write, this is the type of book I want to create.
Beth, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughtful creative process with us, and for creating a fun, unique story that focuses on perseverance and determination. Your passion for engaging children in learning through reading shines in your story!
Here are some great ways for you to connect with Beth Anderson:
Headshot credit – Tina Wood Photography