I'm happy to be featuring Beth Anderson, another #Epic18 debut picture book author pal. Her picture book, AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley, is a must for anyone interested in a fascinating look at language and spelling, as well as the friendship between Ben Franklin and Noah Webster. I look forward to adding this to my picture book collection.
Here are Beth's thoughts on stories . . . creativity . . . and connection.
STORIES – Discuss what inspires your ideas and stories, and share the process about your latest projects.
As a teacher, some of the best moments were when students pondered meaningful life questions along with academic learning. This is my goal in writing for children – to give them thought provoking issues, real life models, and joy in learning and discovery.
Almost every day, I look at news feeds from a variety of sources, and every once in a while there’s a tidbit that touches my heart, or inspires a “kid” memory, or piques my interest, or makes me say, “Wow! I didn’t know that!”
An Inconvenient Alphabet began with several of those responses to a blurb on an alphabet that Ben Franklin created in 1768. As a person who’s always been fascinated with language, this was a “Wow” that grabbed my interest. When I read the article, the quote, “Those people spell best who do not know how to spell,” struck me as funny but also rang true. As a teacher, parent, grandparent, there is nothing more endearing than a handwritten note from a child who has “sounded out” the words. Every child learning to read and write English, no matter how old, struggles with our crazy spelling that just doesn’t make sense. I was smitten by the kid connection in this story. But for Ben, this endeavor was a failure. Though it’s interesting to learn that the great Ben Franklin wasn’t successful in everything he did, for kids this was probably not an inspiring story. So I kept digging into the research and found Ben’s friendship with Noah Webster and their joint effort to reform American English spelling. Now I was on to something, but there was still a long way to go.
Over the past five years, I’ve learned a lot about my own research process, and this book was the first one in which I used a new way of organizing it all. Click HERE for my blog post on this new system. Generally, I first research on the internet to see if the story has potential. I gather information and sources. Then I go to the authoritative and primary sources. I brainstorm on what Candace Fleming calls the “vital idea” and what Barb Rosenstock calls the “So what?” Then I start looking at possible structures and begin drafting. After multiple revisions and much feedback, it somehow always ends up that I need a second dive into the research in search of some focal point that is at the heart of the story. For An Inconvenient Alphabet, it was the friendship factor. With renewed focus, there is always more information to find. A bottomless rabbit hole! But until I write and work with all the information I’ve gathered, agonize over it, and embed myself in it, I can’t make the story sing.
I can’t stress enough how crucial multiple critique groups are and how eye opening editor critiques can be. Multiple sources of feedback are what drives the process of learning to be a better writer.
CREATIVITY -- How do you showcase your creative side through writing/illustrating and other pursuits?
I’ll share with you an element of my creativity which I’ve recently discovered; many of my manuscripts use text patterns in some way. Maybe it’s the influence of weaving, which I also enjoy and is based on patterns and structure. Maybe it’s a neurotic need for symmetry. Who knows? But I find a certain comfort when a story falls into a pattern – whether in lines of text or sections or a repeated phrase. When I took a moment to think about how I use parallel structures and repetition, here’s what I found. Patterns can be a way to show connections between characters, setting elements, and events. They are also a great way to emphasize contrasts. They can grow and escalate. And breaking a pattern can create an element of surprise. When you have a limited word count to work with in a picture book, I think patterns offer interesting ways to present information. I’ve concluded that this is part of my “voice” and reflects what I see in the world – how we are all connected and internally the same, yet each unique; how life has patterns and parallels, some that support us, some that need to be broken; how breaking out of the norm can be inspiring and open a new path!
I’m not sure I’ve answered the question, but I think creativity is an essential part of each one of us that reflects our humanity, exercises our brains, and definitely needs to be a lifelong exploration.
CONNECTION -- How do you connect to your young readers through your writing/illustrating, and how do you stay connected to the KidLit community?
We all have that kid inside of us. The best way to connect to young readers is to spend time with them. Listen to them. Watch them. Remember. What’s going on inside? My years in the classroom provide not only the inspiration to tackle this journey, but also insights beyond my own experience as a parent and grandparent. The personal connections allow the writing connection to happen with the premise of a story. What is meaningful to children beyond what I found interesting? Wouldn’t they like to know that when they sound out words they are thinking like the great thinkers Ben and Noah? Wouldn’t they like to know why we continue to use PH for F sound, GH for all sorts of sounds, and extra letters that make no sound when these really don’t make sense at all? Kids above all others can see that our alphabet is truly inconvenient! I look forward to continuing to connect with young readers as an author when I have opportunities to share my books with them.
The online KidLit community is truly amazing with its endless information, advice, opportunities, classes, and generous people sharing their experiences. It’s a testament to how sharing lifts us all. I stay connected to other authors and illustrators through a number of writing related Facebook groups, SCBWI events, classes, workshops, retreats, and multiple critique groups. Each event and group widens the circle of friends and colleagues. Also, in hopes of providing content of value to others, I have a blog in which I share book recommendations, activity ideas for writers, teachers, and parents, and a series of guest posts from others in the KidLit community who share their process of “Mining for Heart.”
Beth Anderson has always been fascinated by language. After years of using literature to teach English as a Second Language, she took off in pursuit of her “someday” to write for children. She loves digging into history and culture for undiscovered gems, exploring points of view, and playing with words. Beth is drawn to stories that open minds, touch hearts, and inspire questions.
CONNECT WITH BETH:
An Educator’s Guide for An Inconvenient Alphabet will be available on September 25 with a link HERE. Additional activities may be found on Beth’s author website.