Beth Anderson is no stranger to the Grog Blog. She offers wonderful picture book biography wisdom. Her new book, "Smelly" Kelly and His Super Senses: How James Kelly's Nose Saved the New York City Subway debuts October 13th from Calkins Creek, & it is fabulous! Today Beth shares about setting in picture book biographies.
Setting is one of the basic elements of story, and when a story is set in a different time or place than our own, it calls for research. Searching out clothing, technology, buildings, transportation, and more, we aim to avoid anachronisms and make our characters’ world come to life. But setting is more than a “costume” or façade to make a story look right. Setting creates conflict, brings meaning, and is a vital part of point of view. So how can you “be there” as a character when you can’t travel to a place or time?
When I researched Elizabeth Jennings for Lizzie Demands a Seat, I pored over maps to get the lay of the land and locate her home, streetcar route, church, and courthouse. Putting myself in 1854 New York City, I imagined her footsteps clicking…wait…was there pavement? Basic questions like this lead us to seek out and examine images. Details on daily life, clothing, and weather help enhance scenes.
But as I got to the heart of Lizzie’s story, I needed information on social aspects of life like class, gender, race, traditions, “unspoken rules,” and attitudes. How did she fit in her time and place? How did setting clash with her character? We can understand segregation on transportation being unjust, but how did it impact black lives? And Lizzie as a teacher—an educated, African American female who likely loved children—isn’t unusual today. But when we embed that fact in setting, we see her as exceptional. And when we look deeper, Lizzie as educator indicates she’s part of the abolitionist movement to secure equal rights and end slavery. Looking at her world through her eyes intensifies the emotions and adds meaning. Learning about the social fabric came from reading widely beyond her immediate surroundings, and about what happened before and after her actions.
“Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses called for setting research with a different focus. James Kelly’s story was more dependent on understanding the physical setting. I studied photographs of New York City from the 1930s to 1950s. I pored over subway maps to find locations of various incidents. And to “be there” as a character with super senses, I had to perceive his world as he did—through his senses. What would he have smelled with his super sniffer? What sounds would’ve bombarded his ears? I found some amazing historical maps— stench, sound, and industry maps! The sound map linked to newsreel clips! Though I didn’t use much of what I discovered, I could immerse myself in his sensory world.
Skyscrapers went up…their foundations went down. The city grew. How did that impact Kelly? Broken lines and mains, more miles of track to inspect [museum records]. Drips and leaks threatened cave-ins and explosions. Kelly could be electrocuted by the third rail. Inherent dangers inspire fear, tension, action.
Different stories and characters require you to dig into different aspects of setting. In An Inconvenient Alphabet, I needed to delve into education, reading, writing, and language of the Revolutionary War period. Primary sources revealed traditions, attitudes, implications, and plenty of odd spellings which provided conflict and helped me take readers into the mix.
It’s important to get the details of setting right and present your character’s world accurately. Even if you’re writing fiction, setting details make your world real and enhance the telling. There are plenty of online tools to gain access to a character’s world: maps of all kinds, Google Earth, You Tube, photographs, images, personal narratives, first-hand accounts, town records, digitized archive materials, varied media of the time, and EXPERTS! But to get past merely “dressing” your story in setting, consider the impact of all you’ve learned about the time and place on your character and the deeper meanings that emerge. Setting isn’t a backdrop and props, it’s sort of a living entity that affects character decisions, actions, and emotions. Some of the most important parts of setting involve aspects you can’t see.
Thank you, Beth! To win a copy of "Smelly" Kelly & His Super Senses, please leave a comment for Beth by October 31. (U.S. addresses only)Beth Anderson, a former English as a Second Language teacher, 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. Author of AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET (S&S 2018), LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT! (Calkins Creek, 2020), and “SMELLY” KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES (Calkins Creek, Oct. 2020), Beth has more historical gems on the way.
Book Trailer for Smelly Kelly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfUyhYJbJBk