I love a good historical picture book biography that finds an angle I’ve never heard of before. That is exactly what happened with today’s Simply 7!
Beth Anderson has visited my blog once before. She is a former English as a Second Language teacher who 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.
TAD LINCOLN’S RESTLESS WRIGGLE is about Abraham Lincoln’s son Tad who wouldn’t sit still long enough to learn (and he also had a speech impediment). He would race through the white house and soldiers’ camps alike, which led to a lot of chaos. There was also an army of animals: cats, stray dogs, and goats to name a few! Did this annoy his father? No. Did Tad’ parents try to force him to learn? No. Abraham Lincoln loved his son with all his heart. I found this topic fascinating. Here was a slice of history that I’d never heard before! And the story is told with such patience and love, always love. Tad was allowed to be himself and that was more than enough in the dark times he lived through. I love that so much.
Me: I haven’t seen another book about Lincoln told from quite this angle. It sounds like it wasn’t your original idea either. How did the idea for this story come about?
Beth: Initially, I was inspired by a reference to Tad Lincoln being responsible for the first presidential turkey pardon. When I looked at that, I found a bit of the Lincoln you see in this book, but as I dug deeper, I found a larger story that hit me in the heart on several more levels. I loved the tender father-son relationship and how Abe guided Tad and his relentless energy.
The clincher was that Tad and Abe both gave each other exactly what each needed most. Papa needed Tad’s sunshine and didn’t want to shut him down like so many others tried to do. It was the agency and potential of Tad, a misunderstood child who had so many personal challenges of his own that drove me forward. And as I researched, that idea became even more profound when I learned details about Tad’s partial cleft palate, speech impediment, and learning difficulties. Abe and Tad understood each other as no one else did. I think pairing the public-facing Lincoln with this personal side makes him even more fascinating.
Me: I agree! There were many interesting years of Lincoln’s life in the White House with his son Tad. Why did you choose to focus on only the year 1863?
Beth: The events of 1863 provided a natural focus to witness Tad’s transformation. I didn’t want to get into the assassination or the death of Willie. I wanted to be able to share the joy, generosity, and humor of life with Tad. Life with Tad was rich! There are just too many possible tangents with a story about Lincoln, and I think trying to do a longer period of time would have diluted the impact of Tad and all he dealt with. As it is, I didn’t get into the Emancipation Proclamation or Gettysburg or other historical events which happened that year. It’s really all about a father and son whose lives are complicated by life in the President’s House during a time of war and national crisis.
Me: This book could have been about all of the animals in the White House during Lincoln’s time. It could have even been told from a different point of view. When you are digging into research for a nonfiction picture book, how do you decide what angle to take with telling the story?
Beth: I have looked at White House pets…and that may be how I stumbled upon Tad and Jack the turkey. A story about pets in the White House could be…interesting. But for me it all comes down to “heart”—something that can be nebulous and take a very long time to nail down (as with Lizzie Demands a Seat!), or other times might hit me over the head (as with Tad’s story). I have learned so much from Barb Rosenstock, who calls it the “so what?” and Candace Fleming, who calls it the “vital idea.” For me, “heart” is not theme, but that unique way I see a story as a result of my own life experience, questioning, and exploration. That idea then sets the frame for the story and guides every choice I make in the telling, including point of view.
As I researched Tad’s story, the idea that a boy that everyone else found “troublesome” could be the “saving grace” of a president was really powerful. And with that came the idea of “seeing goodness,” including one’s own, especially for a child.
If something doesn’t move past “interesting” to strike an emotional chord with me, I pass it by. This story, like An Inconvenient Alphabet, hit me in my teacher heart. 🙂 When I find an emotional connection, I dig to see if I can find something special. Lots of pieces of history are interesting. If you’re interested. But then…so what? To me, the value of history is in the humanity—real people facing real challenges making real choices. Like us. It’s about being able to “step into someone’s shoes.” For a story to be meaningful, we have to be able to connect with it on an emotional level. That’s the universal that carries through time and place to resonate with readers.
Me: I love that. There are a lot of sources listed in the back matter (and I’m sure that’s not even all of the resources you used). How long did you research before you began writing? Can you tell us a bit about the research process for this story?
Beth: My initial dive into research for this book took about ten days before I began drafting. I started with the turkey pardon, then expanded to Tad, and then went to Lincoln sources that contained something about Tad. I went after primary sources, especially from people who had spent time in the White House when the Lincolns were there. Then as I wrote and revised, I researched for a tighter focus on specifics I needed, such as Tad’s speech problems and learning difficulties. Other details required additional digging too, such as info about the gardener and the cook, the layout of the White House and the grounds, maps of the area where Tad and Lincoln went on errands, the Old Soldiers’ Home, the Sanitary Commission, the animals, Lincoln’s “public baths” when people came for favors, and more. Some of this research was for details for text or illustration, much of it didn’t make the final cut, but all this is also to understand the times and to get my head into the story logistically (I have to put myself there). This manuscript probably wins my “quickest from idea to contract” award. I’d say partly because there is so much available about Lincoln, and also that the “heart” was so clear to me.
Me: Wow! That’s incredible. “Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle” is wonderfully written and heart-warming in so many ways. How many revisions did it take to get to this state? Or was it pretty much like this once you found the right story to tell?
Beth: From the start, it was a heart-warming story—humor and heart is irresistible for me! The revisions mostly worked scene choices to structure the arc, and intensifying and clarifying Tad’s emotional arc. But pacing and word choice are always a big part of revision, too. This story had to move with the energy of Tad. Word choice was crucial as I didn’t want, as the author, to label him for the reader. I wanted the reader to react on their own to his actions. I included the conflicts with other characters and how they saw him, but wanted the reader, as a fellow child, to have their own view about whether he was spoiled, selfish, disobedient, or out of control. This manuscript was submitted at revision #25—sooner than most of my stories.
Me: S. D. Schindler’s illustrations in this book are fantastic. They are so detailed. I love all of the animals throughout, as well has how Tad races from spread to spread. Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Beth: I see more and more amazing details in the illustrations every time I look! One of my first surprises was the “hearing aid.” I love Abe’s look that slyly breaks the fourth wall on the spread with the opening quote. And the expressions on the cabinet secretaries’ faces are priceless! But my absolute favorite spread is near the end…when Tad bursts into the kitchen…no spoilers here!
Me: LOL! I agree, no spoilers. I’m sure there are many children like Tad with a learning disability or a restless wriggle that can relate to this book. Why is it important to you to tell this particular story to young readers?
Beth: I’ve had some of those kids in my classrooms. I’ve seen how they’re underestimated by others—and themselves. I think the story offers a chance to see how patience and understanding the varied challenges a person faces can help us see past what we consider annoying or inappropriate behaviors to find humanity, potential, and goodness inside. I especially hope kids with relentless, rambunctious, restless wriggles will experience opportunities to recognize their own gifts.
I love that too. Thank you so much Beth for stopping by my blog again to share your latest story.
Dear readers, if you haven’t yet had a chance to read this book, you simply must track it down. This was an angle to Abraham Lincoln that I had never heard before, as well as a loving highlight of Tad. It’s a fast paced biography that keeps pace with Tad’s energy all throughout. I suspect many young readers will love and identify with Tad’s many “issues” as well as his loving heart. This is a story you won’t want to miss.