Author Q&A with Deborah Kalb
I’ve had a really nice time lately getting to know some authors through these short Q&A sessions, and today I’m excited to share more about author Deborah Kalb, who writes about time travel and presidents for children.
Thomas Jefferson and the Return of the Magic Hat (The President and Me #3)
Published September 28, 2020
After almost six months in Maryland, fifth-grader Oliver still misses his friends back in New Jersey. But things start to change one day, when his neighbor–and possible new friend–Sam lends Oliver a magic hat that takes him back to the 18th- and 19th-century world of Thomas Jefferson. Oliver and his sisters–Cassie, the nice one, and Ruby, the annoying one–end up learning more about Jefferson than they’d expected. And Oliver finds that his new neighborhood might not be so terrible after all.
Thomas Jefferson and the Return of the Magic Hat is the third in The President and Me series that began with George Washington and the Magic Hat and John Adams and the Magic Bobblehead. This new adventure brings back previous characters Sam, Ava, J.P. (blink and you might miss them, though!), and of course the cantankerous talking hat itself.
Author Q&A with Deborah Kalb
I find that a story or series was often inspired by a question. Was there a question that inspired you to write the President and Me series?
A: Thanks so much, Kasey—I’m really glad to do this interview! Probably the question was whether I could combine history, magic, and current-day issues into a children’s book series. It took a while to figure it out, but it seems to have worked! Thomas Jefferson and the Return of the Magic Hat is the third book in The President and Me series, following George Washington and the Magic Hat and John Adams and the Magic Bobblehead. The main characters are actually not the presidents, but instead a group of fifth graders at an elementary school in Bethesda, Maryland, who end up having time travel adventures with the early presidents while also dealing with modern-day concerns like being in a newly blended family or being the new kid in town.
Can you tell us a little bit about something you know about the story that the reader may not know? Maybe a historical element you researched for a particular scene?
A: I spent a lot of time researching Thomas Jefferson’s life, but I also researched the life of Madison Hemings. He was one of the children of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman at Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation. Madison Hemings grew up at Monticello, eventually gaining his freedom once he reached adulthood. In his later years, he wrote a short memoir about his family history. I wanted to include his story in the book, and my present-day character Oliver meets Madison Hemings as well as Thomas Jefferson on Oliver’s trips back in time.
What’s your favorite moment in Thomas Jefferson and the Magic Hat?
A: It’s so hard to say! If I had to pick a few, first I’d choose the moment when Oliver ends up in the room where Thomas Jefferson is struggling to write the Declaration of Independence and is trying to incorporate all the changes various other legislators want included in the document. Oliver, who is fascinated by history but also enjoys Jefferson’s scientific mind, is intrigued not only by the fact that Jefferson is in the middle of writing this incredible document—but also by Jefferson’s one-of-a-kind self-designed portable desk.
Also there’s the time Oliver and his neighbor Sam travel back to the early 19th century and witness an eclipse with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. And the time Oliver and his two older sisters end up in the midst of the British incursion into Virginia during the Revolutionary War. I could continue but I’ll stop here!
What was the hardest scene in the book to write, and how did you finally get it on paper?
A: Actually, the hardest thing to write wasn’t a particular scene, it was my character Oliver himself. The books are each told from one kid’s perspective. George Washington and the Magic Hat is told from the perspective of Sam, who is no longer speaking to his longtime best friend; John Adams and the Magic Bobblehead unfolds from the viewpoint of Ava, Sam’s across-the-street neighbor, who’s dealing with her newly blended family. Oliver was already a known quantity from the previous books: a somewhat annoying genius-like boy who’s new in town. How would I get myself into the head of this character and make him relatable? I spent a long time pondering that. Then, suddenly, it all clicked into place. I now am just as fond of Oliver as I am of my other characters!
Is there a scene or moment in your story that really sticks with you? Can you tell us a little bit about it?
A: I’ve been writing these books during the years that Hamilton, the musical, has gripped the attention of so many people—for good reason! It’s an amazing show. So I was trying to figure out a way to get Alexander Hamilton into one of my books. I knew that Thomas Jefferson had a long, contentious relationship with Hamilton, and thought this book would be the best opportunity for a Hamilton cameo appearance. Where should this scene be set? In the “room where it happens,” where Jefferson invited Hamilton and James Madison to dinner to negotiate details about the new nation’s capital! I enjoyed fitting that scene into the story.
What do you most hope that readers take away from your novel?
A: I hope readers take away an appreciation for the history surrounding the lives of the early U.S. presidents and their families. The book deals with serious topics, including war and slavery. But the books also have a lot of humor in them, and I hope readers enjoy the books and identify with the present-day kids and their concerns.
What is one question about your novel you are often asked by readers?
A: Will I continue writing about every president? And I’d like to, but the odds are that won’t happen unless I live to be 120!
About Deborah Kalb
Deborah Kalb is a freelance writer and editor who spent more than 20 years working as a journalist. She is the co-author, with her father, Marvin Kalb, of Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama, and has always been interested in presidents and history. She lives with her family in the Washington, DC, area.