I’m excited today to talk about Beth Anderson’s debut picture book, AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET. This one had me at the cover.
But when I got a look inside, word nerd me was absolutely bowled over. What struck me about this book—other than the delightful story itself and the lively, detail-packed illustrations by Elizabeth Baddeley—was that a writer could take this vast, sprawling subject (the crazy and hard-to-remember spellings of our melting pot of a language) and figure out how to condense it to fit into a picture book format AND manage to make it feel like nothing is left out.
Here’s the flap copy:
Do you ever wish English was EEZEEYER TO SPEL?
Ben Franklin and Noah Webster did. Once upon a revolutionary time, two great American patriots tried to make life easier. They knew how hard English words were to spell. They knew that sounds didn’t match letters. They knew that the problem was an inconvenient English alphabet.
In 1786, Ben Franklin and Noah Webster teamed up. Their goal? Make English easier to read and write. But even for great thinkers, what seems easy can turn out to be hard.
Boy, that’s for sure. And this book captures that so perfectly.
I really appreciate what Anderson says in her backmatter (OH, THE BACKMATTER!) of Franklin, that “we seldom hear of his failures.” That’s so true about many of our heroes and inventors, isn’t it? I’d never heard of Noah Webster’s alternative spellings, either—only his dictionary. (Imagine the herculean task it was to complete that puppy!)
Back matter notes from both author and illustrator are jam-packed with more fascinating information. There are also research notes, quotation sources, and a meaty bibliography. (Bonus: If any of you are looking for nf pb mentor texts, THIS.)
Beth Anderson was kind enough to answer a few questions for us.
JE: After determining that this story was a viable one, was there ever a moment when you thought you may have bitten off more than you could chew?
BA: Oh my goodness! So many moments! My stalwart critique partners kept saying, “this is a tough one,” but they continued to encourage me to find a way.
The physical form of a book itself and reading aloud was one challenge. How do you share spelling issues that will only be seen by a reader? If I threw out C, J, Q, W, X, and Y as Ben did, how could I carry it out? Much of what I wanted to show required marking up or playing with text on the page, and that would be lost in a read-aloud.
And then there were the voices…This wasn’t the first manuscript in which I heard voices. Initially, it was the public protesting the inconvenience of spelling reform. Then a meta-reader voice began a contemporary commentary on the actions of the past, bringing a child’s perspective and lots of fun. But that became too much, and the story was becoming lost amidst the rabble rousing.
All sorts of ideas such as plays on revolutionary slogans, spelling tests for Ben and Noah, Ben’s ironic thinking that bad spelling was good spelling, and Franklin proverbs all fought to be part of the story. It becomes a lesson in detachment when you have to leave the things that tickle your creative spirit behind.
There was just so much to tell – how could I pare it down to the story of these two men without cutting out important information? I am so grateful to Elizabeth Baddeley, such a creative illustrator, who found ways to include many of the concepts in the art. (Be sure to pause on each page and enjoy all that’s packed into the illustrations.)
Along with so much to tell, there’s also the problem of holes in the historical record. So how does one get around the missing information? (There’s no record of what I called “plan A.”) I think the perpetual challenge with nonfiction is deciding what’s necessary to include and HOW to include it. For me, it comes down to experimenting with structure.
JE: Yes, all that! It’s what struck me, as a writer, as … well, before seeing your book I would have called it impossible. I can only imagine the sheer volume of research you juggled while writing this book. Tell us how you organized all that.
BA: YIKES! I had research on Ben, research on Noah, and research on Ben and Noah. I had the history of American English – etymology, all the borrowing, spelling of the time, pronunciation of the time. I had phonics – multiple ways to write each sound, multiple sounds for various letters. I had spelling rules, their exceptions, and old spellings.
Previous manuscripts taught me that I needed to find a way to organize myself better. I had tried charts, note cards, and all sorts of methods. (I like to be able to see a lot of things as I write so putting it all on the computer hasn’t worked well for me.) It wasn’t only the research, but the need to SORT bits of research and also record all the random thoughts that pop as I’m writing—a title, a pitch phrase, a teacher idea, a character tidbit, backmatter info, an image, and on and on. Just grabbing a piece of paper to jot something down or looking for that list of titles, now where was it….really wasn’t working. So, I began using an author version of a writer’s workshop notebook. Basically, I use a 70-page spiral with a table of contents containing page/s for everything I could possibly need (structure, titles, quotes, setting, characters, timeline, sources, contacts, etc.). As I got into the writing, I discovered more and more topic pages to add. And even after signing the contract, I found it helpful to add more—editor notes, more research, acknowledgements, complimentary copies, etc. Now, as I deal with the promotional end, I discover more things to keep track of. ☺ Each manuscript has its own needs. I did a blog post on my organization method, so if anyone wants to know more, HERE it is. (Note from Jill: Whoa. Don’t miss this!)
JE: I think I would have thrown up my hands long before finishing, Beth. I read in another interview that this book went through 40 drafts. I can see why! So, quick question, just for fun: What was the highest word count you hit before paring the information to its current form?
BA: Looking back at the revisions, they range mostly from 800 to 1000 words, but revision 28 looks like the highest word count at 1380 plus 220 in illustration notes! It included speech bubbles and the meta-voice that broke the 4th wall, but no backmatter.
A brutal battle raged throughout with illustration notes vs text. I was trying to cut words and use illustrations, but it was really more about what concepts I could cut.
JE: A battle…I believe it! Let’s talk backmatter. VERY impressive and so, so fascinating for your fellow word nerds. Was including it a decision you made while putting together the manuscript, or was it added at the request of your editor?
BA: The backmatter was included in the original submission. I like to know how and why authors come to write a story, and there was just so much fascinating content I had found along the way. (I just couldn’t let it all go!) I could anticipate some of the kids’ questions – like “Why does C have so many sounds?” I wanted to connect Ben and Noah’s efforts to kids today, help them understand the organic nature of language, and give them food for thought.
(Here’s an additional small confession about me and my backmatter…I’ve learned it’s really important for me to do the backmatter early on because, often, an editor or critiquer finds that I’ve expressed a key idea in the backmatter, loud and clear, but it needs to appear more strongly in the story.)
JE: What can we look forward to next?
BA: I’ve got two completely different stories coming in 2020 from Calkins Creek, both dealing with transportation in New York City.
LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT, ELIZABETH JENNINGS FIGHTS FOR STREETCAR RIGHTS (spring 2020) is being illustrated by the amazing E.B. Lewis. Lizzie’s story provides a glimpse into the lives of free African Americans in the North before the Civil War when free was far from equal. One hundred years before Rosa Parks took her stand, this young schoolteacher stepped onto a streetcar in New York City. When she was refused entry due to her race, she decided to fight back. Her story not only embodies the power of individual initiative, but also illustrates the vital role of collective action in social change. Her court case, the first in the nation to test discrimination on public transportation, inspired others to continue the fight.
I recently got to see preliminary sketches by Jenn Harney for “SMELLY” KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES, THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF AN ORDINARY MAN AND HIS EXTRAORDINARY NOSE (fall 2020). I can’t wait to share this story with kids! After immigrant James Kelly gets a job in the subway, his powerful senses astound everyone as he tracks down leaks from the dangerous to disgusting and comical to bizarre, saving the subway from cave-ins, explosions, and obnoxious odors. But when the subway legend is faced with a crisis in which his super senses are useless, he’s forced to dig deep for something even more powerful.
I have another manuscript under contract for spring 2021, but it’s still top secret. ?
Thank you, Picture Book Builders! It’s truly an honor to be featured on your fabulous site!
JE: You’ve been busy, Beth! Thank YOU for taking time for us today. Best of luck on your upcoming books! Readers, I know how you like to see workspaces, so here’s a shot of Beth in her office. Note Ben himself keeping an eye on things.
Comment below, and you’re automatically entered to WIN your very own AUTOGRAPHED copy of Beth Anderson’s AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET! Good luck!
Very interesting about the spelling–a nice picture book brings the subject alive !
Great interview, Beth & Jill. Love the office picture of you, Beth! I liked learning new things about your writing process in this interview.
Jill asks hard questions! But that’s good because when I have to go back into the file and think about what I did, I realize what I learned from the process.
This is amazing. I am completely and utterly astounded and mesmerized. I LOVE THE CONCEPT. Beautifully written and created. I once read that a truly good book is one that you wish you had written yourself. It is true. I wish I had written this myself.
Thank you for saving me the work.
Ha! Hope you enjoy the book!
I love all the backstory on structure, back matter, voices, etc. Thanks so much for giving me a deeper appreciation of a book I already loved!
Thanks, Traci! It’s good to look back and remember all the components and how the book came about. A bit of a reward for all those times I was so stuck in the midst of all the information.
I love all the buzz around this book! It seems to be one of the most clever and informative picture books released in 2018! I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy. I know this would go beautifully in my daughters third grade classroom as well… (hmmmm teacher gift maybe?) Thanks, Beth, for sticking with it and sharing the story with the world!
Buzz? Really? Be still my heart! So thrilled that the book might stir up conversation! A teacher gift with a free Curriculum Guide [http://d28hgpri8am2if.cloudfront.net/tagged_assets/4301211/9781534405554_cg_an%20inconvenient%20alphabet.pdf ] and Skype visit ?!
Love all the bits in this interview! All the ways you pulled this together from gathering information to meandering off the path and resetting what stayed and what had to go plus the wonderful link on organizing with notebooks. Congratulations and Thank you Beth and Jill!
As always, Jill asked some great questions! Every manuscript is a new learning experience!
My pleasure, Kim!
Wow, what a process! Thank you for sharing, Beth and Jill. I look forward to reading this to my students!
Thank you for your interest, Katie. I hope the book stirs up your students’ curiosity, interest in history, realization that they, too, are great thinkers! If you ever want to do a Skype visit, just let me know.
Beth, what an undertaking! Congratulations. Can’t wait to read it. Thanks, Jill!
This book sounds so fun and interesting! What a great interview, Jill. Thanks for the peek into the process, Beth!
Your welcome, Andrea! Hope you enjoy the book!
You sold me! This book sounds perfect for me.
Yay! Hope you enjoy it, Rosemary!
Love all the insight on the behind-the-scenes idea squishing, word rearranging, illo-vs.-backmatter wrangling, & (painful) fun factoid shedding that went on.
I tend to naively get myself into things and then realize later that maybe it was a crazy idea. 🙂
This was an awesome interview! I really want to read this book, and I would love to win a copy. Thank you for sharing this interview today.
Fingers crossed…. hope you get yours hands on a copy somehow someday!
This looks like a must-read. Kudos for tackling it. I’m working on a similar challenging project and you give me hope and energy to persist! Congratulations.
Thank you! It’s better not to know all the complications that await. After you’re in so deep and become so committed to the idea, it’s hard to drop it! Onward! Good luck!!
Looks like fun, engaging, and informative. A triple header! Would love to win a copy.
Thanks, Mitchell! That triple header was my goal!
History and language! Two of my favorite subjects! Count me in!
Yep! WooHoo! Me too!
Cant wait to read this one. Words and history..cant get much better.
Thanks, Susan. Words and history – the never ending treasure trove!
Fascinating story behind this story. Looking forward to reading it!
Thank you, Valerie!
Looks like a lot of hard work, Beth! I look forward to reading this gem!
It definitely was! But now it’s so rewarding to see the book out there in the hands of kids, teachers, librarians, and parents!
Wow! You’ve managed to entertain, delight and educate in one extraordinary book! Congrats, Beth on a stellar job! I’m so looking forward to reading this book. 🙂
Thank you, Danielle! Those 3 are always my goal!
This looks like a fabulous book. Looking forward to reading it soon!
Thanks, Marlene! Hope you enjoy it!
I’ve always wondered why English hasn’t been simplified. Now I’ll know! Can’t wait to read it!
It was just too darn inconvenient! But don’t we wish those revolutionaries had!
Sounds wonderful! Love books that bring history alive for kids.
Me, too! I love historical narratives that make history fun and let me learn almost accidentally as a byproduct of enjoying the story.
What fun…thanks for sharing!
Wow! What a process. I’m with you about seeing the whole and not putting it away in the computer. Thanks for sharing your process. I’ll check this out and look forward to your future books.
Thank you, Cassie! I think we all find develop own process along the way. I learn so much from other authors who share their process.
For someone who’s interested in beginning to write non-fiction, this interview was invaluable. Thanks so much! Can’t wait to read all of the books!
Thanks, Michele. Glad you found it helpful!
Oh, wow. I’m a history major and major “history nut”. I’ve got to get a copy of this book!!
Yay for history nuts!! This story is a quirky little nugget that even most history nuts have never heard of! ?
Can’t wait to read this book! It sounds fascinating.
Thank you, Susan!
Thank you! As a fellow “word nerd”, I really appreciate this book!! It’s very cool!
Thanks, Sharon! I’ve been hearing from a lot of word nerds!!
Fascinating interview, Jill and Beth. I can only imagine how complex a subject the Inconvenient Alphabet was to tackle. Thank you for sharing how you researched, organized, revised and considered your illustrator and readers when creating this book. Looking forward to reading it!
Thanks for reading, Judy!
The research was all so fascinating, it just sucked me in! Hope you enjoy it!
This is the ultimate word book and a must read for me. I love word origins as well as word play so this is going to be fun to read.
Thank you so much, Danielle! I love all that stuff, too!
This sounds like quite a process to write, but I’m sure so gratifying at the end! And Beth, I love the stand you keep your laptop on!
Ha! That little rolling laptop table raises up so I can stand and use it too! I really like it. It allows me to stretch the legs 🙂
Jill this was a great interview. Even though I was behind the scenes for some of the revisions, I learned so much about Beth’s process and decisions. Thank you both for an amazing insight into the creation of this book!
You’re very welcome, Maria!
Thanks, Maria. You saw the mess on the page. There was also a mess on the desk! Jill has so much experience in all areas of this kid lit stuff, I have to think she knows about those piles!
Oh, if you could see my desk right this very minute…
Forty drafts! I admire your persistence, Beth!
That was less than half of the the manuscript I worked on prior to it so that didn’t seem bad to me – I guess it’s all relative. 🙂 Lots of learning in the process! But I think when you deal with so much info it just ends up that way. I’m always in the twenties or higher.
As we say in Minnesota, “Uff dah!” What a daunting project! Congratulation!
Thank you, Mary!
I can not wait to add Thid to my mentor shelves! Love anything written by Beth!
Thanks so much, Julie!
Oh, this looks really interesting!
Such a complicated topic. Bravo!
But oh so fascinating! Thanks, Susan!
Excited to read this one, Beth! Congrats!!
Wow, Beth! What an incredible undertaking! I loved reading about all of the possibilities that the book could have been, and then being able to read what made it into the final manuscript. Congratulations of this book and your upcoming ones, too!
Thanks so much, Patricia! So many possibilities -it’s a curse and a blessing!
This looks like a must read for me. Thanks for such a fascinating interview and a peek at the book.
Hope you enjoy it, Rosi!
This book is in my “to be read” pile, and I’m waiting on my library to acquire it. I’m getting impatient, especially after this fascinating interview.
And I like big back matter, so this book is now extra tantalizing. Thank you for sharing it. I can’t wait to use it as a new, best mentor text.
Oh, Erin! Just wait till you see the back matter. *swoon*
Hope you get your hands on it soon, Erin!
I love words so this sounds like the perfect book for me!
Hope you enjoy it!
What a fantastic interview!!! I love words and their history. So looking forward to reading this. Congratulations!!!
Thank you, Vijaya!
Wow, I’m exhausted just reading about the work involved in this undertaking. But the end result looks fantastic–can’t wait to read it! Beth, thanks so much for sharing your process here, and congrats to you and Elizabeth on this beautiful book. And thanks for the great interview, Jill!
Thank you, Linda!
What a fascinating challenge! And your next books are going to be on my TBR list, too.
Awww, Thanks for your support, Annette!
I love how words are woven into all the illustrations creating a sense of drama about a topic most people view as boring. Writ or Write? Shippe or Ship? Lively approach helping to answer the question, why do we spell words like we do? My students and I were discussing this very topic just the other day which added to my delight in reading your interview.
Wow – how timely! I hope you can share the book with your students!
What a nice, work-inspiring office! (I’m writing from our RV at the current time, so I have office envy…). Wow, I love how you’ve figured out how to get organized. All the details. I organize better in real life as well, not virtual life. Thanks for the tips and congratulations!!!
Thank you, Angie! I’m thinking I might need a giant white board on the wall to write on and organize sticky notes…. but then I might just play with it…the window is enough distraction!