I’m a huge fan of Beth Anderson’s historical, narrative nonfiction picture books. They bring to light important figures who have been hidden (Elizabeth Jennings), “ordinary” people with extraordinary talents (James “Smelly” Kelly), and now, a very special relationship between a young boy and his very famous father.
Tad Lincoln’s restless wriggle just wouldn’t quit. Much to the delight of his father but not so much to anybody else. Abraham Lincoln guided Tad’s wriggle on visits to hospitals, to the telegraph office, and to army camps. Tad soon put his endless energy to good use. He helped his father through the tough times of the Civil War–greeting visitors, raising money for bandages, and keeping his father company late into the night. This special bond between father and son was plain to see, and people discovered that Tad had wriggled his way into their hearts as well.
Author Beth Anderson and illustrator S.D. Schindler follow Tad’s antics during the Civil War to uncover the generous heart and joyful spirit that powered Tad’s restless wriggle.~ From the front flap copy of Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle
“A vivid introduction to Tad Lincoln,” Booklist said in their review. Kirkus added, “A lively glimpse into the Lincoln home.” TAD LINCOLN’S RESTLESS WRIGGLE reveals just as much about Abe Lincoln as it does his son. It’s not just a heartwarming story, but also an incredible mentor text for anyone wondering how to write a PB biography of a famous figure from a fresh perspective. To find out more, I wriggled my way into Beth’s schedule to ask some questions about her latest book.
Andrea: Hi Beth! Thank you for joining me on Picture Book Builders today! I know you enjoy writing about historical events. But there’s so much history to choose from! What are the elements that you consider necessary for building a strong narrative nonfiction picture book? At what point did you decide that Tad Lincoln’s story needed to be told?
Beth: Thank you so much for inviting me to Picture Book Builders! I’m a big fan of this blog and all the talented creators associated with it! I’m attracted to stories about people and events that open up our hearts to others and also open our minds to different ways of thinking about the world. There has to be something in it for kids that’s meaningful and relevant. I also have to connect deeply enough on an emotional level to find an engaging way to tell it. And, I need to be able to build the main character’s emotional arc with interesting and active scenes.
Tad’s story hit me in my teacher heart. He reminded me of students I’d had who were different types of learners, faced personal challenges, and struggled to find success in school. He was the kind of kid that makes you want to bust out laughing, but you know you’re supposed to be showing disapproval. He was joyful and generous and well-intentioned. People couldn’t see past their own annoyances to consider his point of view and what he was dealing with. Many kids are seen as less capable due to differences, disabilities, and an inability to meet expectations. Tad’s story offers young readers a chance to see and appreciate the goodness of all kinds of kids, and to recognize themselves as capable people.
Andrea: Tad was definitely dealing with a lot, and it’s a great reminder that kids who are different are no less capable, intelligent, and human than the rest of us. Your full book title, Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle: Pandemonium and Patience in the President’s House, expertly captures the conflict, heart, and humor of the story. How did you come up with the phrase “restless wriggle” to describe young Tad?
Beth: Though a few titles have been easy, mostly they’re torture. Brainstorming titles, I filled two pages in my spiral—one prior to submission (24 title attempts), and one after working with the editor who wanted a new title (37 more). I played with ideas like “a house divided,” wriggles and twinkles, and chaos. Some of the titles had the terms people used for him like “troublesome” and “mischief-maker” until I realized I didn’t want to label him negatively or impose grown up judgements. I wanted the reader to be the judge and see how their impression changed through the story.
I had used the word “wriggle” since the first drafts for the opening when Abe compares him to a tadpole. Sources tended to use squirm, but I liked “wriggle.” It was stronger than wiggle, more intentional and energetic. I think “restless” came after working with the story and understanding his character better. I liked the sounds of restless and wriggle, too. After months of titles swirling in my head, I hit the final version, and it felt totally right. The subtitle was Pandemonium, Patience, and Protest in the President’s House until close to the end when “Protest” was cut to shorten it. Though it came out of the title, there’s plenty of protest in the story—from the staff and from Tad!
Andrea: I love that Tad spoke up even when people couldn’t understand him. He doesn’t let that deter him in the slightest. You didn’t have many of Tad’s actual words or writing due to his speech impediment and language-based learning difficulties. But he grew up in the White House, in the public eye. Did you find a lot of information written specifically about Tad, or did you have to deduce much of it from what was written about his father?
Beth: There were quite a few anecdotes reported by various people who were in and around the President’s House. It was hard to ignore Tad. 🙂 But all these accounts were, of course, written by adults. A few people enjoyed Tad’s spunk and initiative, like Stanton who gave him an army uniform, but most disapproved and probably wished they could take matters into their own hands and discipline him. Research revealed some examples of his speech, like “Papa-day” for Papa Dear and other names he couldn’t pronounce correctly, enough examples for experts to analyze and study in an attempt to figure out what Tad was dealing with personally. Evidence points to a partial cleft palate, speech disorder, and most likely language-based learning disabilities. When I had all this to consider, it helped put me in Tad’s shoes and see his world through his eyes to find the other side of what the adults reported.
Andrea: I can’t imagine what it was like for Tad to be under such scrutiny at a time when learning disabilities weren’t well understood and children were expected to behave like little adults. In the back matter, you state that the story takes place in 1863. Could you share your thought and research process for choosing that particular slice of Tad and Abe’s life?
Beth: So much information is available on the Lincolns that one of the challenges is narrowing focus. Once I found the father-son relationship, the vital joy Tad provided for his father, and how Abe guided Tad, I knew that’s what I wanted for the heart of the story. As I looked at what I’d collected from the research, I found an emotional arc for Tad in the events of 1863 that moved him from an “out of control” boy who desperately needed his father, to a child who’d found his voice and agency. Limiting the story to that year also gave me a way to avoid the death of Willie and the assassination—and let Tad and his sunshine take center stage.
Andrea: Figuring out what to leave out of a biography is just as important as deciding what to include. I can see how including the loss and grief that Tad experienced would have made this a far different and heavier book. It would’ve overshadowed the important themes that the book conveys. Could you talk a little about what those themes are and how you balanced them?
Beth: I found so much in Tad’s story. There were interesting themes about expectations and rules, house vs. home, seeing goodness in others, family, and the personal side of public figures. The truly unique thread that became the heart of the story was how a child could be so important to the well-being of a president—especially a child seen as in-the-way, inappropriate, and incapable. When I dug into the research about Tad’s learning differences/disabilities, that idea deepened. My agent, Stephanie Fretwell-Hill, suggested that I make that piece even stronger and frame the story around Tad as a differently-abled learner. That helped that heart thread pop and drive the story, with the other themes playing a supporting role.
Andrea: You are amazing at finding the heart threads in all your books! (Everyone, Beth has a wonderful feature on her own blog called “Mining for Heart” that I highly recommend.) With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I’m reminded of how Malia and Sasha Obama famously rolled their eyes when their father pardoned two turkeys named Mac and Cheese in 2014. Just for fun, what would you (or Tad or Abe) say to them? What would you like readers to take away from Tad’s story?
Beth: I think Tad would have told them to take the turkeys in as pets like he did. The turkey pardon is a cute story in and of itself, but you don’t see the depth of it until you know more about Tad. Tad saw animals as pets, as beings. He believed in their intelligence and trained them. He showed mercy. When he asked Papa to let him keep the turkey, Tad defended Jack, proclaimed his innocence. Tad spoke for those who didn’t have a voice. I saw an echo of how his father had quietly defended Tad’s goodness by guiding him so that others might appreciate his sunshine, too. Tad saw the turkey as more than dinner. And in the end others saw Tad as more than a disrupting force.
Andrea: Thank you so much for writing about Tad and showing us his true nature, as well as the parental side of Abe Lincoln. This is such a great book–not just for its historical information, but also for social emotional learning, and I hope educators everywhere incorporate it into their curriculums!
What’s next in the publishing pipeline for you?
Beth: Lots of busy-ness in 2022 with three releases. I’ve got two stories of women in the Revolutionary War. Revolutionary Prudence Wright releases Feb. 1, and Cloaked in Courage, the story of Deborah Sampson, releases Nov. 15. On May 3, the whimsical Franz’s Phantasmagorical Machine comes out. That’s a STEAM tale based on the life of Franz Gsellmann, an Austrian “inventor” who followed his incessant urge to tinker, putter, and build.
A fun story about Thomas Jefferson is with illustrator Jeremy Holmes right now, due out in 2023. I’m looking forward to seeing that story come alive! And there’s one more in the pipeline, as yet unannounced.
Andrea: Wow, you are busy! I can’t wait for all your upcoming releases. Thank you so much for stopping by Picture Book Builders and congrats on your latest book!! 😊
Beth is generously giving away a copy of Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle to one lucky winner! Please leave a comment below by November 19th to enter. Continental U.S. addresses only.
**Winners of NIKI NAKAYAMA from my last post are: David Snyder (book and artwork from Yuko Jones) and Stephanie A. (book and bookmark from Jamie Michalak & Debbi Michiko Florence). Please check your email for a message from me. Congrats! **
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. Beth lives in Loveland, Colorado where she laughs, ponders, and questions; and hopes to inspire kids to do the same. 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 historical picture books on the way, including three more stories of revolution, wonder, and possibility in 2022.