20 Feb

“I love stories of resilience and tenacity, and I look for hopeful stories everywhere”


As promised, my Q&A for the February edition of my Bartography Express newsletter is with my friend Rose Brock. Formerly a school librarian in the Dallas area, Rose is now assistant professor in the Department of Library Science at Sam Houston State University. She’s an expert in young adult literature, and she’s the editor of the soon-to-be-published Hope Nation: YA Authors Share Personal Moments of Inspiration (Philomel).

Hope Nation is a Junior Library Guild selection, and it includes stirring contributions by Libba Bray, Angie Thomas, Marie Lu, Alexander London, Christina Diaz Gonzalez, and many other accomplished members of the YA community. The authors are all donating their fees to charity, with the publisher matching those contributions.

In the book’s introduction, Rose talks a bit about her own story, including her family’s immigration from Germany when she was in elementary school, the hardships her new life entailed, and what helped her get past them.

“In my childhood home, finding hope was a directive,” she writes. “It was expected that the world’s lemons would be made into fresh lemonade. Perhaps that is the reason I’m an optimist. A dreamer. A hoper. And whether it’s in my genetic makeup to see the glass as half full or it’s a product of conditioning, I love stories of resilience and tenacity, and I look for hopeful stories everywhere—in books, in movies, and most importantly, in real life.”

I’m giving away one copy of Hope Nation. If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want the winner to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on February 28, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Rose Brock.

Chris: I don’t know if the parameters you provided to your contributors were anything more specific than “Write something hopeful,” though I imagine you must have had a general idea of the sort of pieces they would create. But what did you receive in their essays that you weren’t expecting?

Rose: That’s a great question, Chris. I feel like when I first approached my contributors, I did give them a great deal of latitude in regard to the personal story/essay they wanted to share, but I did ask them to make dig deeply into their own experiences and share about those moments where hope felt elusive.

Since you’ve read the collection, you know that each author tackled this call differently. The one thing each selection in Hope Nation has in common with the others is that what each of these writers shares is simply a piece of a collective human experience. Each of them (and us) has been a teen, and we know that teens are as passionate as people come about the things that matter most in their lives. That’s why hard times for them feel so stinking hard. Without a bit more of what I call “butt time on Earth”, it’s difficult and sometimes impossible to have perspective—you need life experience for that. These writers have that in spades, and these personal stories capture that—abuse, family financial ruin, death, lost body parts, immigrant experiences—it’s all there and more.

So with that said, what was I not expecting? I didn’t expect these contributions to be so personal even though that’s what I asked for—my first idea of this book was that this would be a modern Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, and in some ways it is, but I believe it’s much more than that, too. It’s raw and it’s real, and the thing I love most is that these brave writers of YA (who love their readers the way I’ve loved the thousands of teens I’ve worked with over the years) is that they have opened themselves up in such intimate ways, allowing all of us to see the scars they’ve endured and wear as badges of honor. The stand on the other side of those experiences saying, “I’m still here, and I’m here for you.”

Chris: Hope Nation would be a terrific book to get into the hands of young people eligible to vote for the first time in 2018 or 2020. Are there other particular audiences that you hope will read this book, take it to heart, and get motivated by it?

Rose: In my mind, ALL readers can benefit from this book—I think regardless of age, I want teens to know that they can make hope a decision, one that is definitely rooted in advocacy for themselves and for others.

The inspiration for this book really goes back to two young women in my life who were pretty devastated by the outcome of the 2016 elections. For them, they hated that their voices as marginalized young women went unheard. They wanted a shot to speak up and out, and I think that’s the case with many teens.

As for how that plays out in regard to politics, I think a heightened awareness of the need to never be apathetic or complacent in regard to all types of leadership is essential; certainly that’s the case for our high elected offices, but it’s even a battle cry for us all in our personal worlds and local government.

Truly, it is my hope that this book will inspire all the young people who read it to fight for what they want and what they believe is right—shouldn’t we all do that?

13 Feb

Authors are not rock stars

I want to talk about rock stars.

Schools often go to great lengths to get their students excited about an upcoming presentation by a visiting author. That makes sense to me — after whipping up that enthusiasm, educators can then harness it for thoughtful, mind-expanding explorations of that author’s work, and for all sorts of creative undertakings by the students themselves.

Sometimes, though, the anticipation-stoking tactics include the use of certain words or phrases that make me uncomfortable. I feel uneasy when I see them on a sign in front of a school or hear them as part of the introduction right before I start talking to the students. The main ones are:

Famous.

Celebrity.

Rock star. (Yes. As in, “He’s a rock star!”)

I’d guess that most creators of books for young readers aren’t even celebrities in their own neighborhoods, let alone the “world famous” types they sometimes get described as to impressionable students.

But even allowing for a little hyperbole, I’m bothered by these characterizations because they run counter to what I see as the main purpose of my presentations to students: 1) making myself relatable to them, and 2) making a career like mine seem attainable to them.

My introductory slide from my recent visit to Cambridge Elementary in San Antonio.

Right after my greeting to them, I go straight into listing several other things — many of which will be recognizable and familiar to audience members — that I am in addition to “Author.”

These include “Former Kid,” “Texan,” “Son,” “Brother,” “Dog Owner,” “Spanish Learner,” “Researcher,” and “Rewriter,” which I say three more times because I want them to understand the effort that goes into becoming a published author.

Over the course of my presentation I try to replace any air of mystique about my career with a sense of awareness of what this fun, challenging job entails and how happy this hard work makes me.

Then I leave them with my hope that when they’re grown they will find something they love just as much — not an easy job, not a job that brings them fame, and certainly not one that bestows “rock star” status — but rather a calling that suits them.

And not only a calling that suits them, but also one that they can fully participate in without unfair and unnecessary restrictions, distractions, or impediments.

Which brings us to the subject of sexual harassment in children’s publishing, a phrase that I never imagined would find its way onto Bartography when I started this blog nearly 13 years ago. That mostly just shows how privileged and naive I was.

Harassment isn’t new. But the attention it’s getting in this industry — “ecosystem” is more like it, with libraries and booksellers and conferences playing vital roles — is not just new but raw, painful, chaotic, long overdue, and rapidly developing.

As of this afternoon, the best overview I’ve seen of where things stand is this article published this morning by Publishers Weekly. Long story short, a number of men in children’s publishing — guys who I bet have heard themselves described as “rock stars” more than a few times — are being accused of unacceptable behavior. Names are being named.

But what does all of this have to do with you and the young people who look to you for books and guidance? Three things.

First, I believe that young readers will wind up with better books when the creative process and literary life aren’t sullied or ruined for so many by male misbehavior.

Second, as the children’s literature community succeeds in its efforts to become a more hospitable place, there will be fewer obstacles to success for student writers who get encouragement from authors such as me.

And third, the book I’d been preparing to feature in my giveaway in this month’s Bartography Express newsletter includes an essay by an author who, in recent days, has been named in allegations by several anonymous accusers. I do not doubt these women’s stories. But I decided to proceed as planned with the featured book, as even under the current circumstances I believe it offers much more cause for hope than for despair.

I’ll soon post my Q&A with the editor of the anthology featured in the February issue of Bartography Express.

25 Jan

An observation (not mine) about Attack! Boss! Cheat Code!

For my school visits, I often have a variety of my books displayed on a table so that students will notice them when entering the library. I figure it’s a good way to get them to start thinking about questions they may have for me.

Usually, the table is behind me while I’m presenting, but at a visit earlier this week, the table was on one side of the room next to the audience. (You: “Chris, please tell me more about how the furniture was arranged!”)

For one of the sessions that morning, an autistic student happened to sit right by the spot on the table where my book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet was displayed.

He was *very* interested in Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! From the front of the room I noticed that he had taken the book from the table, and that some of his classmates were trying to put it back.

I didn’t mind him having a look at the book. What worried me were the other kids’ efforts to intervene, even if well-intentioned. “Please,” I thought, “let’s not make an issue of this.”

The librarian then sat down next to this student, and she handed him the book. (Me: “Whew!”) For the first part of my presentation, he was captivated by my book in his hands. Eventually, Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! went back onto the table.

Then came Q&A. The autistic student’s hand went up — emphatically — and I soon called on him. But he didn’t have a question — he had an observation.

His observation was that the fonts used for “Attack,” “Boss,” and “Cheat Code,” respectively, corresponded to the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.

I thanked the boy and said that the significance of the fonts had not occurred to me, but that it didn’t surprise me.

I told him that the illustrator, Joey Spiotto, knew a lot more about video games than I did and had inserted plenty of gaming references that went over my head. Joey’s art added so many dimensions to this book.

But (and I didn’t say this to the student) I didn’t know for sure whether his observation was accurate. I knew who to ask, though.

So I messaged Joey, passing along the details of the student’s discovery. Then I asked, “I’d never thought of that before – is that how you see it? Was he onto something?”

The reply from Joey: “That was a VERY astute observation on his part!

Joey continued, “I wish I could have said that I planned it that way, but I didn’t. Maybe in my subconscious somewhere, but that’s one of those happy accidents. Amazing that he pointed that out!”

That whole thing has been the highlight of my week. I gotta arrange the furniture that way more often.

24 Jan

Q&A and giveaway for Write to Me


The Q&A for the January edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here) is with author Cynthia Grady and illustrator Amiko Hirao, creators of the new nonfiction picture book Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind (Charlesbridge).

Write to Me is a true — and all-too-relevant — account of the correspondence between California librarian Clara Breed and the young patrons who were displaced when their families were imprisoned during World War II. The book immediately brought to my mind the recent rise in the United States of openly expressed xenophobia and the dubious constitutionality of government actions that have been taken in that spirit.

A starred review from Booklist notes that, “The personal story … is full of warmth emanating from Hirao’s radiant, softly shaded color-pencil artwork, from Miss Breed’s relationship with the children, and from the actual quotes from their notes, appearing on small postcards superimposed on the illustrations. A beautiful picture book for sharing and discussing with older children as well as the primary audience.”

I’m giving away one copy of Write to Me. If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want the winner to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on January 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Cynthia Grady and Amiko Hirao.

Chris: Write to Me feels especially timely, but I know that this book has been in the works for a long while. What can you each tell me about your interest in and history with this story — and about your dedication to getting it told and getting it right?

Cynthia: I first learned of Clara Breed — and the children she served in her San Diego library — in 2002. The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles had created a video documentary about her, and I had read an intriguing review of it.

There is a long and rich history of librarians as advocates for intellectual freedom and social justice, and as effective agents of change. I strongly believe in literature’s ability to dissolve the socially constructed barriers [that some people] are so intent on creating. I wanted to learn more about this Clara Breed.

I was a new middle school librarian in Washington, DC, at the time. I scoured the local public library catalogs, the university libraries, and finally California libraries. I couldn’t find any books written about this amazing woman at all, though I did find a book she had written and a few magazine and newspaper articles by her.

So, I took the advice to heart that many established writers and editors give at conferences: “Write the book that you want to read.”

I had lived most of my life in California and was very familiar with the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, but I had never heard of Clara Breed. I spent the next three years researching the war and the incarceration of Japanese Americans, and I finally spent a week in Los Angeles, reading the letters that the children and teens from San Diego had written to their librarian during the three and half years they were imprisoned.

As I finished my first draft of the manuscript in 2005, I emailed a former library professor to tell her what I was working on, and she said, “You have to read this book!” She had in her hands an advanced copy of a book called Dear Miss Breed, written by Joanne Oppenheim. A detailed, fascinating book for older readers about Clara Breed, the children she knew, and the propaganda of World War II.

I was devastated.

But I thought there was still a place for the same story to be told for a younger audience. I sent my manuscript out to many, many publishers over the years and finally sold it in 2015 to Charlesbridge. It took ten years. Then another year of revisions with my editor, which was most rewarding. During those ten years I kept writing. I published numerous poems and essays, and two books before Write to Me made its entrance.

I’m so pleased with the work Amiko has done to bring the story to visual life, and I’m glad Write to Me is finally here. But yes, it is indeed, timely.

Amiko: Thank you so much for the interest in this book. And to Cynthia, I really enjoyed reading your story and it was a great honor to have taken part in this project.

I was struck by the simplicity of Cynthia’s manuscript when I first read it. The story is a great way to communicate what happened in that particular time and place, and to tell the story of this outstanding lady, Ms. Clara Breed.

It is very interesting to read about the librarians in America. I have personal memories of growing up in [Japan and the United States] and going to elementary school in both nations — and the very cozy libraries in the American schools really struck me.

The very enthusiastic librarians had every trick to get us interested in this book or that. In the Japanese school there was no librarian. Just books (and some attendee to sign books in and out).

I do have an interest in World War II history, but as the narrative of war is so vast and complex I do not think it is possible to hope for history to be told in the “right” way.

The postcards seem to show the right way to approach that issue — to observe, and to live the time through real voices.

Cynthia’s restrained prose does great justice to the story of Ms. Clara Breed and to telling the story of World War II.

(I can only hope I was able to match that even halfway…)

Chris: Were either of you letter-writers when you were the age of the children in Write to Me — and if so, is there a particular correspondent or recipient of your childhood letters that comes to mind?

Amiko: I was not much of a letter writer but I did make drawings to correspond with friends in Japan and US every time I moved to each country.

That was actually what surprised me about the letters — that they had only handwriting — and I thought perhaps people were more formal then.

So in a way working on the drawings to go with these letters did feel like a natural thing for me to be working on. I wondered about if the kids wanted to draw on these cards, too.

But in retrospect I probably still wrote many more physical letters than if I was in the same situation as a child today, with email available.

Cynthia: I remember writing letters to my grandmother when I was quite young. This is my earliest memory of writing at all. I have a few of those letters that she had kept and that my mother had given to me some years later. They are hilarious! In one, I thought I was writing to her in cursive, and it is just row after row of loops! Why she kept that one is a mystery. :)

Sometimes my grandmother put a dollar bill in her letters to me, which seemed like a tremendous amount of money then. And she often gave me stationery for my birthday, which made letter writing even more fun. My mom followed in that tradition — in a way — not with stationery, but with postage stamps. Every Christmas, for as long as I can remember, we found stamps in our stockings.

I still love to write letters, but don’t do it as much as I wish, and I love to receive them, too. Such a novelty anymore, as Amiko mentioned, with email and everything else.

14 Jan

All the college kidlit conferences (as of January 2018)

Or, more formally, “A Comprehensive List of U.S. College- and University-Sponsored or -Hosted Children’s and Young Adult Literature Conferences, Festivals, and Symposia.” (All of them that I could find, anyway).

Several years ago, I was looking for such a list, wondered why I couldn’t find one, and decided to just go ahead and make one myself.

Book or Bell?, written by me and illustrated by Ashley Spires

Since then, I’ve periodically updated and reposted it, and I plan to continue doing so. If I’ve missed any, or included some that no longer exist, won’t you please let me know in the comments section?

Arizona
University of Arizona Tucson Festival of Books

California
University of Redlands Charlotte S. Huck Children’s Literature Festival

Colorado
Metropolitan State University of Denver and University of Colorado at Denver Colorado Teen Literature Conference

Connecticut
University of Connecticut Connecticut Children’s Book Fair

Florida
Stetson University M. Jean Greenlaw Children’s Literature Conference

Georgia
Kennesaw State University Conference on Literature for Children and Young Adults
The University of Georgia Conference on Children’s Literature

Indiana
Anderson University Elizabeth York Children’s Literature Collection & Festival

Indiana/Kentucky/Ohio
Northern Kentucky University, Thomas More College, University of Cincinnati, and Xavier University Ohio Kentucky Indiana Children’s Literature Conference

Kentucky
Asbury University Children’s Literature Conference

Maryland
Frostburg State University Spring Festival of Children’s Literature
Salisbury University Children’s and Young Adult Literature Festival

Massachusetts
Framingham State University Swiacki Children’s Literature Festival
Lesley University What’s New in Children’s Books Annual Conference
Simmons College Children’s Literature Summer Institute and The Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium

Minnesota
University of Minnesota Kerlan Award Ceremony and Chase Lecture
University of St. Thomas Hubbs Children’s Literature Conference

Mississippi
The University of Southern Mississippi Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival

Missouri
Missouri State University Children’s Literature Festival of the Ozarks
Truman State University Children’s Literature Festival
University of Central Missouri Children’s Literature Festival

Nebraska
Concordia University Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival

Nevada
University of Nevada, Las Vegas Gayle A. Zeiter Young Adult and Children’s Literature Conference

New Jersey
Montclair State University New Jersey Council of Teachers of English Spring Conference
Rutgers University One-on-One Plus Conference

New York
Nazareth College Greater Rochester Teen Book Festival (Thank you, Meghin Roberts, for bringing this one to my attention!)
Stony Brook University – Southampton Southampton Children’s Literature Conference

Ohio
Bowling Green State University Literacy in the Park
Kent State University Virginia Hamilton Conference
The University of Findlay Mazza Museum Summer Conference and Weekend Conference
Youngstown State University English Festival

Pennsylvania
Kutztown University Children’s Literature Conference

Tennessee
Middle Tennessee State University Southeastern Young Adult Book Festival

Texas
Texas State University 2018 Children’s Literature Association Conference (ChLA 2018)
The University of Texas at San Antonio National Latino Children’s Literature Conference, co-sponsored by The University of Alabama School of Library and Information Studies

Utah
Brigham Young University Symposium on Books for Young Readers
Utah Valley University Forum on Engaged Reading

Virginia
The College of William and Mary Joy of Literacy and Literature Conference
Hollins University Francelia Butler Conference
Longwood University Summer Literacy Institute and Virginia Children’s Book Festival
Shenandoah University Children’s Literature Conference

Washington
Western Washington University Children’s Literature Conference

Wisconsin
Northland College Children’s and Young Adult Literature Conference

10 Jan

All of a Sudden and Forever

I’ve got a new nonfiction picture book in the works with Lerner Publishing’s Millbrook Press imprint, publisher of my books on The Nutcracker and on dazzle camouflage. This new project was announced just yesterday in PW Children’s Bookshelf, and here are the details:

All of a Sudden and Forever has been a challenge to write, but I’m so glad for the conversations it’s allowed me to have with people whose lives were forever changed in 1995 by the Oklahoma City bombing. And I love Nicole Xu’s art. I think she’s just right for this project.

03 Jan

Stretch your to-read list to its breaking point with 3 more sets of “Best of 2017” recommendations

In the past few weeks, A Fuse #8 Production, the Nerdy Book Club, and the Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Awards have collectively created and shared more than fifty — that’s 50, five-zero — lists of recommendations of books published in 2017.

I was already looking forward to these lists for suggestions of what I might add to my pile of books I want to read. (Note: It’s no longer an actual, physical pile due to concerns about stability — the pile’s, and my own — but the digital list I now keep amounts to the same.)

Having Dazzle Ships included on some of those lists — Fuse’s Favorite Nonfiction Picture Books and American History Books for Kids, the Nonfiction Picture Book Nerdies, and the Cybils’ Elementary/Middle-Grade Nonfiction — only makes me appreciate all the more the effort and generosity involved in compiling and distributing them.

Whether your tastes (or the tastes of the young reader closest to you) run toward board books or speculative YA fiction, there’s something here for you in these lists. Don’t miss out on them. But hurry: Another year’s worth of great books started making their way out into the world this week.

10 Dec

Another “Best of” for Dazzle Ships!

HuffPost has issued its list of the Best Picture Books of 2017 (Most Touching, Most Charming, Best Surprise, etc.), and the honor of Best History has gone to my collaboration with illustrator Victo Ngai, Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion (Millbrook Press).

It’s hard to imagine the staid military agreeing to such a plan, but this quirky slice of history is true: in World War I British and U.S. decorated warships in psychedelic patterns to confuse the enemy. A feast for the eyes, this book (much like the ships themselves) is substance cleverly disguised by wondrous art. Even readers who are typically averse to non-fiction will find themselves captivated by this delightfully bizarre moment in history.

Congratulations to the creators of the Honorable Mention books in the Best History category (Margarita Engle, Mike Curato, Monica Clark-Robinson, Frank Morrison, Vashti Harrison, Emma Otheguy, Beatriz Vidal, Debbie Levy, and Gilbert Ford) and to all of the other honored authors and illustrators whose titles are among the Best Picture Books. This gives me quite the to-read list for the next few weeks!

06 Dec

Signed books by authors galore in downtown Austin this Saturday!


If you’re in Central Texas this Saturday, come join Jennifer, me, and all these authorly folks —

Monte Akers, Michael Barnes, Olga Campos Benz, Patricia Bernstein, Daina Ramey Berry, John B. Boles, George Bristol, Chad S. Conine, Michael Corcoran, David Courtney, Mike Cox, Greg Garrett, Joe Holley, Joseph Huerta, Michael Hurd, Alison Macor, Donna Marie Miller, Carmen Oliver, William E. Reaves, Kathleen Shafer, Jeremi Suri, Don Tate, Deb Olin Unferth, Mark K. Updegrove, and Eddie Wilson

— for the 2017 Humanities Texas Holiday Book Fair.

Spread the word like you’ve got some holiday spirit, or just put these details into your own private scheduling apparatus:

Saturday, December 9th, 2017
10:00 am–1:00 pm
Byrne-Reed House
1410 Rio Grande Street • Austin, TX
Parking available in St. Martin’s Lutheran Church parking lot on the northwest corner of 15th Street and Rio Grande

The flyer says “Enjoy holiday treats,” which sure sounds to me like a command that one should obey.