On her website, Beth Anderson describes writing as mining — “digging deep for memories, emotion, and meaning.” Her essay below about creating her latest picture book feels like a miner’s headlamp, illuminating the path to rich story-telling. If you want to learn more about Beth and her newest book, Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle: Pandemonium and Patience in the President’s House (Calkins Creek/Boyd’s Mills and Kane), illustrated by S. D. Schindler, hop over to my Instagram channel and watch the replay of our conversation!
Most picture book bios, and many nonfiction picture books about historical figures, begin with the subject’s childhood, giving young readers a way into a story about an adult. While Lizzie Demands a Seat is an exception that begins with Elizabeth Jennings at twenty-three, I used the childhood intro with “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses, and all three of my 2022 releases. In all of these picture books, I was writing stories for kids about adults who affected the world around them. Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle (Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills & Kane)hit me as a refreshing departure from the usual. Rarely do kids get to see a nonfiction historical story about the goodness and potential of a child as a child.
A story about a child in history who didn’t have to grow up to make a difference!
And…even more powerful…a child who was seen as “less,” disruptive, and “spoiled.”
Tad Lincoln’s story had so much to offer with its themes, setting, and characters. Poring through articles and books, I slowly uncovered a story I had to tell.
It all started with Tad Lincoln and the story of the first presidential turkey pardon. Cute. Fun. Interesting. But I needed more. So I dug into Tad and life in the President’s House (as the White House was called at the time). I found a tender father-son relationship, an interesting bit of history, AND…..the clincher…a “heart” that grabbed me—that Tad and Abraham Lincoln each provided what the other most needed. While we expect that from parents, this story was about a boy, a very unruly boy, who was the “saving grace” of a president! I loved the reversal and the power it gave a child. I also loved that Tad wasn’t a “perfect” child.
Kids often don’t see their own goodness and potential, especially when nearly everyone around them is trying to shut them down. Memories of “challenging” students, forever stuck in my heart, kept me company as I wrote. I found all my favorite elements of story: humor, heart, history, a relationship to explore, and characters who saw possibility. Tad had it all!
The year 1863 showed a transformation in Tad. At age 9 he was, in the staff’s words, “madam’s wildcat.” He couldn’t read or write. His curiosity and creativity created havoc. His mother called him their “troublesome sunshine.” But by the end of that year at age 10, he surprised those around him with his joyful and generous heart. One year—a timeline kids could understand. A main character that was a lovable, boisterous, relatable child throughout. A different side of a famous historical figure, Abraham Lincoln. And I didn’t have to make anything up to make it work. What a gift!
Just like with others who have been sidelined in history, we seldom find an historical record which includes children. Without his famous father, we wouldn’t have the bounty of Tad Lincoln’s story. Living in the White House, always in the public eye, many people noted his behavior. Due to the eternal fascination with Abraham Lincoln, experts have analyzed the historical record to learn more about Tad’s speech disability, learning differences, and behavior issues. I’m grateful for all the research that allowed me to tell Tad’s story—of an energetic child and a patient father during a crucial time, and to help kids understand the human side of history.
Instead of a picture book about an adult with lessons for kids, TAD LINCOLN’S RESTLESS WRIGGLE is about a child with lessons for all.
Beth Anderson, a former English as a Second Language teacher, has always marveled at the power of books. With linguistics and reading degrees, a fascination with language, and a penchant for untold tales, she strives for accidental learning in the midst of a great story. She’s the award-winning author of TAD LINCOLN’S RESTLESS WRIGGLE, “SMELLY” KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES, LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT!, and AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET. Beth has more on the way in 2022: REVOLUTIONARY PRUDENCE WRIGHT: LEADING THE MINUTE WOMEN IN THE FIGHT FOR INDEPENDENCE, illustrated by Susan Reagan; FRANZ’S PHANTASMAGORICAL MACHINE, illustrated by Caroline Hamel; and CLOAKED IN COURAGE: THE STORY OF DEBORAH SAMPSON, PATRIOT SOLDIER, illustrated by Anne Lambelet. Visit her at https://bethandersonwriter.com.