“Seeing the human side of the past”: An Interview with Nonfiction Writer Beth Anderson

Author Beth Anderson and illustrator S.D. Schindler bring to life the famous first son who coped with a disability and other challenges while showing compassion, intelligence, and wisdom beyond his years in their new nonfiction picture book.




Tad Lincoln's restless wriggle just wouldn’t quit, much to the delight of his father, President Abraham Lincoln—if not so much to anybody else! Author Beth Anderson and illustrator S.D. Schindler bring to life the famous first son who coped with a disability and other challenges while showing compassion, intelligence, and wisdom beyond his years in their new nonfiction picture book, Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle: Pandemonium and Patience in the President’s House. Here, Beth talks about her inspiration for the book, and why young readers today should get to know Tad Lincoln.

What was it about Tad Lincoln’s life that inspired and intrigued you, and made you want to learn more about him?

I started out looking at the story of Tad Lincoln as the originator of the presidential turkey pardon. That sparked my interest in Tad as an interesting child in history, but when I got into it and looked at why he did it, I found so much more behind that incident. He was energetic, creative, generous, and wise beyond his years. His antics were funny and touching. In addition, his relationship with his father was truly special. At a time when both were struggling due to the Civil War and personal loss, they each became the saving grace for the other. Abraham Lincoln was essential in guiding Tad, but Tad became the President’s relief, his source of hope and joy. It was so profound to think of this rambunctious child, who seemed to annoy most everyone, as the person who helped a President through such challenging times.

Tad became even more fascinating and endearing as I delved into his character. I found general information on Tad’s speech impairment and aversion to school. He was unable to pronounce some sounds, his sentences gushed, and his words were jumbled. But I was really surprised to find research that collected and analyzed information on him and determined with a high degree of certainty that he had a partial cleft palate, language-based learning disabilities, and might have been termed ADHD today. Add to that the loss of his brother Willie, no playmate, rejection by everyone who couldn’t understand him, bullying from kids when he’d gone to school, and White House staff who tried to shut him down. Well, all that information provided a new lens for understanding Tad’s behavior. The only person who could see past his “inappropriate” behavior to embrace his goodness was his father. For me the story is not only about Tad finding his voice, and being allowed to use it, but about all of us having the patience to look past the challenge to find the goodness, capableness, and potential of each person. What it really came down to was that Tad grabbed my heart. He reminded me of those students who didn’t fit the “school” mold, pushed me to be a better teacher, and stuck in my heart forever. I have to add that Tad also tickled my funny bone—and the combo of heart and humor is totally irresistible for me!

Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle shows a gentler side of Abraham Lincoln, and also gives young readers a "lively glimpse into the Lincoln home" (Kirkus Reviews). Do you think kids will be surprised by what they learn after reading the book?

Learning about the private side of Abraham and Tad Lincoln took me through the full range of emotions. We tend to see historical figures from the outside, the public view of a participant in an important event. But it’s so interesting and refreshing to see the flip side, their behavior at home. Names from history become real people, and kids start to think about them in a new way. It opens up their world! (Kind of like when kids see their teacher in the grocery store and are totally shocked by this existence they hadn’t considered!)

I think kids will be touched seeing Abraham Lincoln as a patient and caring father. And I think they’ll be surprised by Tad and how he channels his energy. I sure was! I suspect kids will see that Tad wasn’t all that different from them. Many of the historical details in S.D. Schindler’s illustrations will catch young readers’ attention and get them thinking about what life was like in 1863. Some may also be surprised that Tad wasn’t more severely disciplined given where he was.

These days, many parents are working at home, and that’s what was happening for Tad—only the White House, called the President’s House at the time, was a public building, too. Kids are all too aware that there are different rules for behavior depending on where you are—home, school, meetings, public buildings, the White House. When all those are rolled into one, you have many clashing points of view and expectations. For Tad, it was home, where he should be able to run free and play. I loved being able to share Tad’s world and point of view during a crucial time in our history, because we tend to overlook what’s happening to children and families at times like this.

How and why do you think the kids today will relate to Tad?

Tad looks like a really fun kid to hang out with. He’s adventurous, compassionate, confident, a problem solver, and, you guessed it…bursting with joyful energy! Scenes feature some timeless experiences, opportunities for kids to connect to him across history—running errands, camping, pets, setting up a “store”… and haven’t we all gotten in trouble for something despite our “good intentions”? He does things we’d all like to do as children.

I think recognizing Tad’s unbridled goodness will help kids see their own. They’ll understand his struggle to earn acceptance and respect. They’ll cheer for him, and themselves, as the underdog. And they can be inspired when he finds his voice and his path through the gauntlet of rules and expectations.

Kids who have their own learning differences, as well as those who don’t, have a chance to see someone with learning and speech difficulties as capable and a leader within the context of a story. Tad might be a lot like them or kids they know.

Ultimately, I hope children (and all of us) are inspired to exercise patience with others who annoy us, and also find ways to spread our sunshine to brighten others’ lives.

Your previous books for children, including Lizzie Demands a Seat! and “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses, are also about intriguing and impactful people from American history.  Why do you like to write about people from the past?

I like to offer opportunities for kids to expand their world views by learning about unrecognized change makers and also expose them to historical events that deepen understanding of our world.  I want them to see how everyday people, like them, can inspire change and impact others. If they can see history through the experiences of real people rather than read a distant impersonal reporting of events, they can process it on a more meaningful personal level. They’ll see how history happens every day, and we’re all part of it. Looking at the past gives us a bit of distance that allows us to dig into uncomfortable topics before tackling them in our own lives. It also provides a way to see impact. When we look at what we do each day, we don’t have a perspective that allows us to see change and progress. By immersing ourselves in stories, we can examine decisions, challenges, and actions and vicariously think about what we’d do. We practice empathy, learn to see possibility, find inspiration and courage. Seeing the human side of the past from varied points of views helps us understand today, people from all walks of life, and how our actions and decisions affect others.

For more information, watch the book trailer and access the educator guide.



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