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Blog: This Writing Life


  • Writer's pictureMelissa Stoller

3 Question Interview - BETH ANDERSON

I'm so happy to feature my #2020VisionPB friend Beth Anderson on the blog today! And check out my previous interview of Beth here. I love her latest picture book, "SMELLY" KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES - HOW JAMES KELLY'S NOSE SAVED THE NEW YORK CITY SUBWAY. I live in NYC and ride the subway often, and I was so curious to learn more about this unsung hero! Read on to discover how Beth found the heart of this book, and for her thoughts about stories . . . creativity . . . and connection. Welcome, Beth!

STORIES – Discuss the inspiration for your ideas and stories, and share the process about your latest projects.

Thank you so much, Melissa, for inviting me to your blog!

I like to explore unheard voices of people who have made a difference and also unheard stories that let us see people we’re familiar with in a new light. James Kelly was an immigrant who became an everyday hero, unsung and unnoticed by all those who benefitted from his dedication to the safety of the New York City subway from the 1930s through 1950s.

As the NYC subway’s first “leak detective,” he found all sorts of strange things. His nickname, “Smelly” Kelly, might sound unflattering, but was actually a title of honor given by his coworkers because of his extraordinary sense of smell and ability to find leaks of all sorts. There isn’t much information on him, but the few hilarious, fascinating, and inspiring anecdotes that I did find made me determined to share his story with kids.

Anecdotes are a challenge. I needed to put them in context and recreate Kelly’s world. And I needed a way to make his story meaningful for kids.

I gathered everything I could find on him, the subway, the times, the city, and tried to understand his world as he did—through his senses. I’ve never been a city girl and never rode the NYC subway until February this year, so I had a lot to learn. I pored over period maps of the city, of the subway system, and of industries. I found historical sensory maps, including a smell map and a sound map. I watched old videos and studied photos of the subway being built. With all that swirling in my mind, I immersed myself in the time and place and started plotting the story.

The most important part of the process was finding the “vital idea/takeaway/so what?/heart” thread for his story that would pull the anecdotes together into an arc meaningful for kids. I brainstormed on heroes and on the differences between a hero and a superhero. What makes a person a hero? That, and the answer, no spoiler here, inspired my “heart.” From there I began to write and revise, shape and sharpen. As I pulled a superhero thread thru the story I relished planting key words, references, and phrases, hoping it would be as much fun for adults to read as kids.

“Smelly” Kelly’s story is everyone’s story – discovering your strengths, finding a way to use them in the world, being the best you can be.

CREATIVITY -- How do you showcase your creative side through writing/illustrating and other pursuits?

As a word nerd I enjoy exploring structure, word play, figurative language, imagery, sensory language, and so much more. I get creative by breaking all the rules for writing I used to teach kids. (bwahahaha) With punctuation. All kinds. Wherever I want. The dreaded NS (not-a-sentence!) It’s ok if you do it with purpose, right? On occasion, I make up hyphenated words or resurrect oldies willy-nilly (some copy editors don’t like that). I also seem to have developed an aversion to traditional paragraphing at times and like to experiment with how words



the page.

Sometimes that creativity is kaboshed in the publishing process.

Beyond writing, I’ve been known to get creative with leftovers and with critter deterrence in the garden. And though I haven’t been very productive in recent years, I enjoy weaving and knitting.

CONNECTION -- How do you connect to your young readers through your writing/illustrating, and how do you stay connected to the KidLit community?

Through my writing, I try to connect with kids’ minds, hearts, and sense of curiosity. I think that path into a story is through characterization, creating a character on the page they can “inhabit” to vicariously experience the challenges of a different time and place. In doing so, hopefully they stretch into new possibilities, ask questions, find inspiration, and understand themselves and their world a little better.

Life in the time of covid creates more challenges for connecting authors with kids. I welcome opportunities to talk to kids about reading, writing, and books in whatever format available. For now, we’ll have to visit virtually. I offer free 30-minute virtual visits with classes and look forward to sharing “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses with kids.

Connecting with the kid lit community has become easier in the covid era. Workshops and classes have multiplied, resulting in so many opportunities to meet more kid lit creators and learn via a variety of digital meeting formats. The connection to the generous and supportive kid lit community has been essential as we all face new challenges.

Here’s a little whiff of “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses…

Free Educator Guide available for download here:

For signed copies with swag, pre-order from Old Firehouse Books HERE, or Boulder Book Store HERE, and let them know if you would like the book personalized.


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. Author of AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET (S&S 2018), LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT! (Calkins Creek, 2020), and “SMELLY” KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES (Calkins Creek, Oct. 2020), Beth has more historical gems on the way.



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