September 24, 2016
“Adventure, history, and the drama of school life intertwine in this engrossing tale of a fifth-grade boy struggling to find his place after his best friend abandons him. Find out what happens when Sam’s class takes a trip to Mount Vernon, where he accidentally buys a bossy three-cornered hat that sweeps him off to the eighteenth century and a warm friendship with George and Martha Washington.” Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.
Q&A with the author
Kathleen: I admire how you weave historical facts into the narrative that features Sam, a modern day fifth-grader from Bethesda, Maryland, as he travels back in time to meet George Washington at various stages of his life. How did you come up with the concept for this story that is targeted toward middle grade readers but is clearly enthralling for adult readers as well?
Deborah: Thanks so much, Kathleen! I thought it would be fun to look at various presidents—starting from the beginning, with George Washington–in a way that combines history and fiction. This is the first in what I’m hoping will be a series, called The President and Me, featuring modern-day kids who end up taking amazing time-travel journeys to the past, while also dealing with their 21st century problems. For example, Sam is no longer on speaking terms with his lifelong best friend, Andrew, which is clearly very painful for him. So the story goes on parallel tracks, I guess, with the time travel interspersed with the modern-day interludes. I’ve heard positive reactions from both kids and adults who have read the book, which makes me very happy!
KMR: As a middle-age woman and reader, I found myself totally caught up in the story. How did you get into Sam’s head to create such a believable character?
DK: I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed the book! To answer your question, it probably helps that I have an 11-year-old son! (The book’s wonderful illustrator, Rob Lunsford, based the pictures on my son—although my character Sam is not based on one person in particular.) Being around kids that age is certainly a plus. But part of it also probably comes from having been a voracious reader my entire life, and remembering so many wonderful books I read when I was younger.
KMR: The magic hat is an important “character” in the story. When I think of the hat, I visualize a wise but slightly grumpy old man leading Sam on a journey. Did you know from the beginning that you would use personification to make the hat come alive?
DK: Yes, I figured it would be fun to have a somewhat curmudgeonly talking hat as one of the main characters. I think some of my inspiration came from magical creatures in various books, particularly the Half Magic books by Edward Eager (some of my favorites!), which often included grouchy magical beings of various kinds.
KMR: The story held my interest from the opening line to the clever ending. How long did it take you to finish the book, say from the earliest concept to publication?
DK: I’d say overall it took a few years from beginning to end. Lately I tend to think about book projects for a while before actually starting to write them. While this is not my first book, it’s my first children’s book—and my first published fiction book! I have various unpublished mystery novels hidden away in my closet. Maybe I’ll go back to them at some point!
KMR: I admire how you introduced an important moral question in the story when young Sam asked his teacher, Ms. Martin, “How could George and the founders of this country have had slaves, anyway, when they were writing things like the Declaration of Independence?” Have you heard from any of your readers about this? And if you the author could travel back in time, what would you say to George Washington about slavery?
DK: Thank you for asking that. I’ve heard from readers that they really appreciate my including the issue of slavery in the book. Honestly, it never occurred to me not to include it. It’s such an important topic, and it’s one that I think about all the time. I would certainly want to ask George Washington—and other early presidents like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison–that very question.
KMR: What were you like in the fifth grade? Did you daydream much or were you super studious? Have you always been interested in history and politics and what was your favorite subject in school?
DK: I spent a lot of time in fifth grade reading, playing kickball, and attempting to do gymnastics. I guess I would say that I daydreamed AND was studious, although I’m sure the two conflicted at times! I have always liked history. My favorite subjects when I was in school were English, history, and languages, and I majored in history in college. So it goes way back!
KMR: You are an accomplished journalist and author. Did growing up with a famous father, renowned journalist Marvin Kalb, have an influence on your career choice? As a kid, what was it like watching your father and your uncle, Bernard Kalb, on national television?
DK: Oh, definitely! My father and my uncle have always been role models for me, both personally and professionally, and it was an incredible experience to work on the book Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama with my father. As a child, it was oddly natural for me to see my father on the CBS Evening News and wave goodnight to his picture on the TV. As I recall, the two shows I was allowed to watch back then were the CBS Evening News and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood!
KMR: Your book is dedicated to both of your parents. Can you tell us a little bit about your mother, Madeleine?
DK: Yes, she’s also a writer, so I got that gene from both sides! She is an incredibly meticulous editor, and clearly another one of my role models as a person and as a writer.
KMR: I admire your generosity in supporting countless authors through your blog, Book Q&A with Deborah Kalb.
How do you juggle your writing, reading, and author interviews while also raising a young son?
DK: It’s a challenge to balance everything, but I’m really enjoying it! I often find that I get so caught up in reading other people’s books and interviewing authors that I forget to write anything of my own. I need to set some deadlines, I think! And my husband and son are very understanding and supportive about all my hours at the computer. I want to thank you, as well, for your own generosity in getting the word out about your fellow writers!
KMR: What was it like to have a book signing at Nationals Park, the ballpark where the Washington Nationals play baseball, especially since a key scene in the book takes place there?
DK: So much fun, especially when George the Racing President, one of the Nationals’ mascots and a character in the book, showed up in the store and spent half an hour reading the book and holding it up for everyone to see!
KMR: What are you working on now?
DK: Book 2 in the series, which features Sam’s neighbors, Ava and J.P., who travel back in time to meet John and Abigail Adams. The tentative title is The President and Me: The John Adams Bobblehead.
About the author:
Deborah Kalb has worked as a journalist and freelance writer in Washington, D.C., for more than two decades. She has focused on covering Congress and politics as a writer and editor for various news organizations including Gannett News Service, Congressional Quarterly, The Hill, U.S. News & World Report, and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. She is the co-author (with her father, acclaimed journalist Marvin Kalb) of Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama. Deborah also has a blog, deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com, where she interviews authors about their books.
A graduate of Harvard University, where she majored in history, Deborah received a master’s degree in American Studies from Yale University. With this book for young readers (with crossover into the adult market), she is drawing on her knowledge of presidential history and taking it in a different direction.