Robert Byrd took home the 2013 Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction Award for his picture book biography Electric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (Dial, 2012). As the author/illustrator of Leonardo: Beautiful Dreamer (Dutton, 2003) and illustrator of Kathleen Krull’s Kubla Khan: The Emperor of Everything (Viking, 2010) and Steven Kroll’s Barbarians! (Dutton, 2009), among many others, Robert is obviously well versed in “imagining the real” — a topic he’ll be exploring in his presentation at the October 5th Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium. Here we chat with Robert about picturing the real Benjamin Franklin.
Mr. Byrd will be accepting his Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction Award at the ceremony on Friday, October 4th, and speaking at the Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium on Saturday, October 5th. Register for Horn Book at Simmons now to see him at both events!
1. How did you decide which parts of Benjamin Franklin’s life to highlight and which to leave out?
RB: I tried to include things about Franklin’s life that would appeal to a younger audience and that would work well visually. With a complex life like Franklin’s and a limited format, you have to focus on the most significant events. I had a chance to have fun with some of the sidebars and smaller pictures.
2. Did you learn anything about Franklin that surprised you?
Robert Byrd: He wrote music, but didn’t seem interested in art. I wasn’t aware of his wealth and business enterprises. I didn’t know how influential he was with the Congress, and in the forming of the Constitution.
3. Did you have the book’s graphic novel-esque format in mind from the start?
RB: Yes. It seemed to work better having his life broken up into sections, in chronological order, with each two-page spread having a specific theme. This helps solve the design problem of a smooth sequential flow of text and image.
4. The cover art is larger-than-life in style compared with the more subdued interior art – why did you decide to switch it up?
RB: I wanted something really catchy. When we decided to call the book Electric Ben, it called for a dynamic, different kind of image.
5. Did Franklin really fly a kite in a thunderstorm? Or is that more legend than fact, like George Washington and the cherry tree?
RB: In June 1752, he conducted his kite experiment with his son. He wrote, in describing the electrically charged kite and key, “…thereby, the sameness of electric matter with that of lightning [is] completely demonstrated.”