Today I get to talk to another dynamic duo that I’ve been dying to get on my blog.
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 Loveland, Colorado where she laughs, wonders, thinks, and questions; and hopes to inspire kids to do the same. You can learn more about her at her website.
“Smelly Kelly and his Super Senses” is a nonfiction picture book about an incredible human being who really did have a super sense of smell. He also found a way to harness that gift and creative inventions to help with that gift that are akin to no one else I’ve quite heard about. This book is why I’m convinced that nonfiction picture book biographies are NOT a thing of the past. There are endless tales to be found within history that are every bit as fascinating as this one.
Welcome to my blog Beth!
Me: I always love finding another teacher-writer. What is it that draws you to writing picture books about history?
Beth: Teaching definitely guided me to my niche. I taught ESL for a number of years, and always appreciated books with characters that appealed to any age and provided rich potential for language arts work, language acquisition, and content area support. Illustrations add so much to all those areas, too. But the most powerful aspect of all has always been the response of students, with amazement, questions, and the inspiration that comes when they learn—Yes, this is true. History for me as a child wasn’t particularly engaging, and I think it’s because, with a focus on names and dates, the human side was missing. As a result, I’m drawn to digging into those human challenges that provide models for kids to inspire, and help them understand the world today.
Me: This is your third historical picture book, with several more coming out over the next few years! What is the secret to your success? How do you find such amazing nuggets of real life to turn into a picture book?
Beth: Well, full transparency here, Lizzie Demands a Seat, “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses, and 2 more coming up are actually historical fiction. Lizzie because some of the actual words she used are dated, and “Smelly” Kelly due to limited information to create a story. Sometimes I’m faced with a choice between a limited nonfiction story or adding a bit of fiction to create a more engaging story. I tend to go with story first and end up with 90-98% true. I think it’s important for kids to be aware of this, so I share information on the research in the author’s note.
The secret? I’ve learned to persevere for the sake of telling a story I adore. I’ve learned a lot from the incredible and generous kid lit community. And I take advantage of opportunities to learn about writing for children. So, I guess if there is a secret, it’s to dig in and learn every chance you get.
And no doubt the most valuable thing I’ve learned is about the importance of what I call the “heart.” (Candace Fleming’s “vital idea,” Barb Rosenstock’s “so what?” Others might say “takeaway.”). It’s not theme, but something that springs from the author seeing the story through their own special lens. It moves a telling from “reporting” to “experiencing” and threads an idea through the narrative that resonates with the reader at the end.
I keep my eyes and ears open to sniff out potential stories just like “Smelly” Kelly in the underground world of the subway on the lookout for danger.
Me: I love that! What was it about “Smelly” Kelly’s story that first grabbed you and drew you to write about it?
Beth: The articles I found about him told about bizarrely interesting experiences. Some were hilarious, some disgusting, some pretty unbelievable. And then his incredible nose…his story definitely had kid potential. Kids are all about smells, and the idea that your nose could make you a hero—wow! That’s a superpower that hasn’t been explored! 😆
Me: Was it hard researching about someone who had very little information available about him? Did you have to get creative or do a lot of extra research for this story? Can you tell us a bit about that process for this story?
Beth: Yes! The minimal information was definitely a challenge! I found only a handful of anecdotes and a bit of information on the man. I researched in all directions and came up with zilch. But his story was so fun that I didn’t want to give it up. I had to find a way to connect the anecdotes into an arc. I needed a “vital idea” or “heart” thread with a special angle that could resonate with kids at the end.
I had discovered that the time period was the heyday of detective stories, so I tried telling it from a mystery/detective angle. But it didn’t have a strong “heart” piece. The 1930s-40s also saw the emergence of superheroes like Batman, the Phantom, and Captain Marvel. So I took the hero angle and dug for the heart. Don’t all kids secretly want to be a superhero? Wish for a superpower? What’s the difference between a hero and a superhero? What makes a person a hero? Digging deeper, I found my special takeaway. It’s not the power or strength or speed that makes a person a hero. It’s why and how they use it. Ultimately, it’s about the power of their heart.
So, I worked to thread that idea through every scene, bringing it to resonate at the end. (going back to an earlier question, that’s the secret—making your story matter) Though that sounds simple and easy here, creating this thread, using limited anecdotes to create scenes, transitioning scene to scene, and stacking them to create an arc, was a huge challenge for me. And in that process, more research was required to fill in all the holes. Lots of learning!
Me: Jenn Harney’s illustrations in this book are amazing! Did you communicate with her at all during the creation of them? Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Beth: Communication passed through the editor about research and historical information every once in a while. I think it was Jenn’s first experience having to do historical research for a story, and I was thrilled to learn that she found it fascinating and absolutely loved that aspect.
When I saw the sketches, the energy just popped off the page. And when I saw them in color, the two palettes she used for the above ground world and underground world just knocked my socks off. Jenn did such an amazing job to create this character and his world!
Me: I agree! Any advice for other picture book writers?
Beth: Persevere! I think that rule about putting in your 10,000 hours is absolutely true. And take advantage of opportunities! Kwame Alexander recently commented on the notion of being “lucky.” The more you put yourself out there, the more chances you have to get lucky.
Me: Great advice. Can you talk a little bit about your future book projects? What can we look forward to reading from you?
Beth: I’m so very excited about Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle, due out fall 2021. We’re in the stage of proofing the passes now, and I love S.D. Schindler’s illustrations more with every round. So much tenderness in the father and son relationship, and so much fun in Tad’s antics! Both father and son were definitely powered by their hearts.
2022 will be busy with three releases. Franz’s Phantasmagorical Machine, a STEAM story about curiosity and the drive to create, is based on the life of Franz Gsellmann. Revolutionary Prudence Wright is a little known story of how the women of Pepperell, Massachusetts rallied when the men were called away to Lexington and Concord. My fall release, Thomas Jefferson’s Battle for Science, focuses on the scientific inquiry process, the impact of bias, and importance of truth.
Wow Beth! Those all sound so amazing to me. I can’t wait to read them. Thank you again for stopping by my blog. But wait, dear readers, there’s more!
I also get to introduce you to the illustrator. Jenn Harney and I have been virtual friends for a few years now. I’ve always loved her illustration style and I’m delighted to finally interview her on my blog.
Jenn Harney is an illustrator who has been working in and around children’s literature for the last 20 odd years. She’s the author and illustrator of UNDERWEAR! and SWIM SWIM SINK both published by Little Brown. Her most recent collaborations include PROBABLY A NARWHAL written by Shelly Armstrong Moore (Boyds Mill Kane) and the one discussed today SMELLY KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES written by Beth Anderson (Calkins Creek). You can learn more about her at her website.
Thank you for stopping by my blog Jenn!
Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start creating art work?
Jenn: I’ve always drawn…I really don’t remember ever not drawing. Just something I could always do….never thought about when I first started creating artwork because I’ve always done it. Like eating.
Me: You have had several books published as either an illustrator of others’ work or an author illustrator now. How did you get into the work of illustrating picture books? Can you tell us a little bit about your journey to illustrating this particular book?
Jenn: I met Tomie dePaola from afar when I was in first or second grade. It was the first time that I realized that making books was an actual job that you could do as a grown up. Since then, it was always in the back of my head that it was what I wanted to do.
I took the scenic route.
Children’s books were always the end goal, but I got to them via coloring books, educational publishing and toy design. Only after YEARS did I feel confident enough to come back to just doing illustration. I started doing Hidden Pictures with Highlights, started building the portfolio up with things I wanted to draw, and went on a search for an agent.
This book? I lucked out! Seriously lucky! Beth’s story came to me (via my awesome agent Rachel Orr) and I pounced on it. Early 20th century New York City…all of that research?! (I’m a total research nerd) Sign me up! I loved it as soon as I read it.
Me: What does your illustration process look like? HOW did you create such amazing textures in each page of this story? Is it a blend of traditional media and digital? Or just digital? Can you talk about your process in creating images for this story?
Jenn: I start on envelopes. Everything for me starts on envelopes. They’re cheap, easy to throw out, and always around. I do SUPER rough thumbnails on an envelope. I snap quick photos with my phone and bring everything into Photoshop to start tightening up.
I tighten up my sketches, do the final line art and the color work digitally. At the very end, I have a stash of watercolor washes (thanks John) that I will layer over the top to add some extra texture and interest. I love specs and spots and dust too. Lots of underpainting and big rough brushes to let some of those underpainted colors show through. Lots of trial and error until things look right. Lots of adding and removing layers. Lots and lots and lots and lots of layers. An embarrassment of layers.
Me: The way you designed this book just blows my mind. There is one spread with an eel in the middle that made my jaw drop! In some ways, it reminds me of the page layout design flow that LeYuen Pham was just talking about at the Summer Spectacular. Do you think about flow in an image? Or flow from page to page?
Jenn: Thank you so much! I honestly had so much fun with this project. Beth had all of these great details in her manuscript and Calkins Creek (Carolyn Yoder and Tim Gillner) gave me a lot of leeway with the layout. Flow is so important…you’ve got to engage the reader in each image, but also you have to move them from page to page. That’s the fun part (let’s face facts…it’s all the fun part…..it’s children’s books) The page with the skyline and Kelly in the window studying?….that’s where I cracked the layout. Once I sketched that spread, I was able to see the rest of the book.
Me: I absolutely loved the color palette you chose and the way you portrayed the wisps of smoke. Especially the way you managed to bring the story back full circle visually, just like the text! I almost missed the elephant wisps the first time I saw them! Was this in the plan for the design you had all along? Was the use of these colors intentional for you? Can you talk about those choices a bit?
Jenn: YES! As soon as I read about the fossilized elephant dung I knew I was going to have draw stink elephants…because ELEPHANTS…and the wisps just worked so well for their trunks and much more visually appealing than fossilized dung. (Although poop is always funny!) Bringing it full circle was all Beth. I just followed her lead on that.
The colors were very intentional. I wanted to make sure the subway tunnels were interesting…dark, but colorful. The street view and city scenes are sepia tones like old photos and duller than the underground world of Kelly. I put Kelly in blue tones so that he stood out in the sepia tone scenes, like he didn’t quite fit above ground, but matched the blue of the underground. Then, I wanted to contrast all of that with the jarring yellow artificial light. Stink is always gross green in my mind, so that was a given. <laughing> and Kelly has the bright orange hair so you can always find him in the scene. Color is just so much fun to play with and I love limiting the number of colors I use…makes you make some unexpected visual decisions.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in illustrating SMELLY KELLY?
Jenn: Honestly, nothing. I read the story and jumped right into the research. I research everything and Beth’s story let me indulge my research nerd. So, no, there were no surprises because I had so much reference in front of me.
Me: Any advice for other picture book illustrators?
Jenn: You’re going to have bad drawing days. Bad drawing days do not mean that you can’t draw. Sometimes the best thing you can do is put the pencil down and walk away for a little bit and come back later. I have to remind myself of this all the time…especially on those “it looks like I drew that with my foot” kind of days. We all have those days. I promise, they go away.
Oh man did I need to hear that. I feel like I’m having a BAD drawing month! Thank you for stopping by my blog Jenn.
Dear readers, if you haven’t yet tracked down “Smelly Kelly,” I can promise that this is a story you won’t want to miss. Not only is this a story about someone with “super” powers that kids will go ga-ga over, but there’s heart, invention, and perseverance. Plus really amazing art work!
And if you want to support indies? You can order signed copies with swag by visiting Old Firehouse Books HERE, or Boulder Book Store HERE, and let them know any personalization you’d like in the comment box.