Interview with New Smack Dab Blogger Deborah Kalb (Author of Thomas Jefferson and the Return of the Magic Hat) - Holly Schindler
Today, I'm delighted to introduce new Smack Dab blogger Deborah Kalb to our readers with an interview. Her latest book, Thomas Jefferson and the Return of the Magic Hat, just released from Schiffer Kids, and it seemed the perfect place to start:
HS: Please tell us about The President and Me—elevator pitch.
DK: A series of middle grade novels about fifth graders in present-day Bethesda, Maryland, who have amazing time travel adventures and meet the early presidents—while also dealing with modern-day concerns.
HS: Where did the idea for the time-traveling hat come from?
DK: I went to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, some years back, and noticed the tricornered hats that colonists used to wear. When it came time to create a magical being that would take my present-day characters back to the 18th century, a talking hat seemed perfect! The hat first appeared in book 1, George Washington and the Magic Hat.
When I considered what to do for book 2, which focuses on John and Abigail Adams, I fastened onto the John Adams bobblehead that my family got from the John Adams historical site in Quincy, Massachusetts. A crotchety, talking John Adams bobblehead! From that emerged John Adams and the Magic Bobblehead.
With this new book, I thought the hat might have more to say, so I brought it back in Thomas Jefferson and the Return of the Magic Hat, the new addition to the series.
HS: Tell us about your journalism background. How did it help with this project?
DK: I spent many years as a journalist covering politics and government. I also was a history major in college, and worked on reference books over the years about history and government. My journalism background is part of my ongoing interest in trying to understand how the government works, and how this country’s history affects what’s going on today.
In addition, as a journalist I was usually on very tight deadlines, which helps motivate me now when I’m researching and writing my books!
I’ll say more about journalism and a free press in response to one of your later questions…
HS: In this current political climate, I’ll admit that I was more than just a little intrigued about your choice to write about Thomas Jefferson. How long was this project in the works? Did you ever have any second-thoughts about the project? How did current events help shape the book? (For example, you do mention Charlottesville in the text.)
DK: That’s a great question. The quick answer is that I started working on this series about six years ago, and I’m writing about the presidents in order, so Thomas Jefferson came after George Washington and John Adams and it was his turn.
Of course there’s a lot more to it than that. I knew going into the project that slavery and Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings--an enslaved woman at Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello--would play a big role in the story. In book 1, I also discuss slavery in relation to George Washington, and invite readers, along with my present-day characters, to contemplate how the country’s first president could have enslaved other people.
But in this new book, I decided that one of the main characters my present-day protagonist, Oliver, would meet back in time would be Madison Hemings, the son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Madison Hemings grew up as an enslaved person at Monticello. While his mother never gained her freedom, Madison Hemings and his siblings did become free as adults.
As an older adult, Madison Hemings wrote a short memoir describing his childhood at Monticello and his family history. I used that and other research on him to make his story an important part of the book.
I didn’t have second thoughts about the project because I wanted to write about this issue and describe Jefferson in all his facets. And let my characters contemplate that paradox: how the author of the Declaration of Independence could have held other people in slavery.
You’re right that I mentioned Charlottesville. I don’t want to tie my books to a specific year, given that it’s a series and the characters stay in fifth grade, so I try to avoid time-specific references, but I felt it was important to mention given that my characters were visiting Monticello and the University of Virginia, and that the book itself deals with issues that are very timely.
HS: You address Jefferson’s “conflicting beliefs”—and yet, as much as the young characters want definitive answers from Jefferson, about how he could, as you say, “write the Declaration of Independence and yet own other people, including people who were related to him,” they really don’t get any. I’m assuming this is because you can’t put words in Jefferson’s mouth, but it also seems to be to encourage further discussion and research. Can you address that?
DK: Yes, thank you for asking that. You assumed correctly. I try to stick to what Jefferson said rather than come up with ahistorical non-facts that I would make him say in the book. I did a great deal of research for each book, and I do my best to make the sections of the books set in the 18th and 19th centuries be as accurate as possible. (If you take the time-travel element out!)
And of course, I would like to encourage discussion and research. Just as the fifth graders in my books wonder about these conflicting beliefs, I hope my readers think about that too, and try to find out more. It’s important to recognize all facets of historical figures, both the positive things they did and the horrendously negative.
HS: In an MG, it had to be somewhat tricky to navigate which details to include regarding slavery—especially the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings. How did you make that decision?
DK: I knew I needed to include their relationship in the book, as I’ve discussed above. But yes, it was tricky to decide how to approach the subject in a middle grade novel. I remember talking with my son’s wonderful former fifth grade teacher for some advice.
I came to the conclusion that the best way to approach it was through Madison Hemings, rather than Sally Hemings. Madison Hemings had written his memoir, so there was a historical record of his life, and I think it’s always good to include historical figures shown as kids. In book 2, John and Abigail Adams’ kids play a major role in the story, for example. It makes the history more relatable.
HS: This plays off an earlier question, but you also address issues of free press here. I especially appreciated the quote about preferring “newspapers without a government,” should a decision between the two have to be made. That quote seems especially pertinent today. Can you speak to that a bit?
DK: Yes, this is an important issue. As a former journalist myself, I really appreciated Jefferson’s willingness to praise newspapers—in contrast to what’s going on today. I am appalled by this administration’s attitude toward a free press, an attitude that smacks of dictatorship rather than the precepts in the U.S. Constitution. The press is not the “enemy of the people.” It scares me that so many people today believe such things.
Also, I decided to make one of my present-day characters, Oliver’s older sister Ruby, an aspiring journalist. She has her own adventures back in the 18th century, where she tries to employ modern-day journalistic techniques during the Revolutionary War.
HS: What was the most surprising tidbit you learned about Jefferson as you were researching the book?
DK: One of the most fun things I learned was that Jefferson and James Madison may have watched a solar eclipse together in the early 19th century. I found this on the Monticello website, which contains vast amounts of historical information. I really liked the idea of the two of them, with Jefferson’s telescope, peering at the eclipse, and decided I needed to include that in the book!
HS: You include quotes throughout. I think my favorite is “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” What’s your favorite and why?
DK: Given my background as a journalist, and coming from a family of journalists, I’d have to go back to “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” It says so much, especially today. I can only hope that in the future, journalism will gain more respect from those who distrust it now.
HS: What do you hope young readers take away from this book?
DK: I haven’t said that much so far about the present-day experiences my characters have. The books go back and forth between the time-travel adventures and the characters’ everyday 21st century lives.
In book 1, my character Sam is dealing with the fact that he and his best friend are no longer speaking. In book 2, my character Ava is coping with her newly blended family, complete with an annoying younger stepbrother. And in book 3, Oliver, who doesn’t have the greatest social skills, is facing difficulties as the new kid in town. I hope readers can relate to those issues.
Also, I’ve been told that although the books deal with difficult historical topics, that they have a lot of humor as well. So I hope readers enjoy that aspect of the story!
And I hope they become curious about these historical figures and want to know more.
HS: What’s next for you?
DK: Various projects. I have a book blog. Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb, where I interview authors about their books. I’m working on new adventures for my fifth-grade characters. And I’m also working on some novel manuscripts for adults.
You can keep up with Deborah at her author site (which includes buy links for her books). And, of course, you can keep up with her here at Smack Dab as well! She'll be blogging her each