28 Mar

“What happened to John Roy’s brother?”

I get that question a lot after talking with students about — and reading to them — The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch. And I guess I should have anticipated that question, considering that William figures prominently in the book’s first few pages, not only in my text but also in Don Tate’s art:

But the answer I’ve had for that question must be as unsatisfying as they come: “I don’t know.”

A slightly more elaborate answer would be, “I never did learn much, and it’s been long ago enough since I researched this book that I’ve had time to forget a lot of things I knew.” Which, let’s face it, isn’t any more satisfying to a kid with a burning — and, at least to them, obvious — question.

So, I’ve dug back into some of my research materials, and here’s what I can tell you about William Lynch.

John Roy Lynch’s autobiography, Reminiscences of an Active Life, mentions William by name only three times.

After his father’s death, John Roy Lynch recounts an initial conversation between his mother, Catherine, and the family’s new owner, Alfred Vidal Davis, at Tacony Plantation. In that conversation, Davis tells Catherine, “Upon my return I shall have you and your children live with me and my family — you to be one of our housemaids and your oldest boy, William, to be a dining-room servant, and the other boy, John, I shall take for my own valet.”

In Natchez after the family’s emancipation, John Roy writes, “My brother had secured employment at army headquarters, as an attendant upon General W. Q. Gresham, the general in command of the Union troops there at that time. … My mother was an excellent cook and in that capacity she frequently earned a good sum of money in the course of a month, but the employment was not continuous and permanent, hence the income from that source was uncertain and doubtful. It was absolutely necessary, therefore, that my brother and I should do something to assist in meeting the expense of the home.”

The other reference is in historian John Hope Franklin’s introduction to the book, when discussing John Roy Lynch’s real-estate transactions in the Natchez area between 1869 and 1905: “Lynch’s brother, William, was involved in some of the transactions and perhaps served as his attorney and business manager.” A footnote explains further, “In several of the transactions William Lynch is the grantor, the ‘agent and attorney’ for John R. Lynch, or the plantation lessor.”

I don’t see a US Census record for William Lynch after this one from 1880, in which he was listed as an unmarried, 36-year-old planter in Natchez.

But if I were going to research The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch all over again, knowing how curious many readers are about William Lynch, I would want to know how far his trail extends beyond 1880. My first step would be to spend some time with those property purchase and sale records. And for that, I would start with the office of the chancery clerk in Adams County, Mississippi.

If any student projects result from that tip, I’d love to hear what they find.

20 Feb

Whoosh!, race, and “ALL students”


One day last month (it happened to be Inauguration Day), my friend Alia Jones posted this on Facebook:

Something interesting happened today. A school visited our store on a field trip & the teacher read a story to her class (4th graders?). She picked Whoosh! from our shelves. In the story, Lonnie takes his robot to a 1968 Science Fair at Univ. of Alabama “where only five years earlier, African American students hadn’t even been allowed.” You can feel the tension in the illustrations…Anyway, this teacher, on the fly, edited the book to “where only five years earlier ALL students hadn’t even been allowed.” I turned my head real quick!! She made a decision not to mention race. As she discussed the book with her students, she said Lonnie overcame a lot, but did NOT mention racism/segregation. She was white and her class was mostly white students. I just thought this was fascinating…

A couple of weeks later (it happened to be Groundhog Day), I followed up with Alia:

I have been thinking about your anecdote about Whoosh! at the bookstore for two weeks now — a sure sign that my brain needs to write something about it. Would you allow me to share your original Facebook post on my blog, and/or would you be willing to have a conversation with me via email that I could publish?

Alia said yes to both. What follows is our ensuing email conversation (lightly edited for clarity).

Chris: Thanks for being willing to give some more time/thought to that strange episode with Whoosh! in your store. My mind is still reeling. And I’ve got questions!

First off, do teachers often bring their students on field trips to the store? And did Whoosh! just seem to be a random selection on the teacher’s part?

Alia: No problem at all!

Field trips aren’t a regular thing at our store but when they happen, classes get a special story time.

The teacher decided to read a book while her students took bathroom breaks. 4th/5th graders maybe? I saw her walk over to our Non-Fiction/History bookshelf. I always display select books on top of the shelf and she picked Whoosh!

I think it was a random selection; she didn’t seem familiar with the story as she read it aloud.

Chris: So she got to the page in Whoosh! where the text alludes to the infamous — and historically well documented — episode in 1963 when Gov. George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door to try to prevent two Black students from entering the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. And this teacher spontaneously reworked the text so that, what — the governor of Alabama had been trying to keep any students from attending the state university?

Alia: Exactly. I don’t think she expected your book to have a “racial element” and when she got to the line:

“where only five years earlier, African American students hadn’t even been allowed,”

she made a quick decision to change it even though it makes no sense. Maybe she wasn’t expecting her impromptu story time to be a lesson on “race issues.” I think she made the story into what she needed it to be, one that didn’t mention racism/discrimination explicitly.

Chris: This makes no sense to me. I mean, none. Am I missing something?

Alia: I don’t think you’re missing anything. At first glance, your book doesn’t “look” like it will be historical; it just looks like a fun story about inventions and a guy with a water gun. She didn’t see it coming…

Chris: Did any of the kids ask about her nonsensical edit?

Alia: No they didn’t. She keep moving on with the story.

Chris: Were you tempted to say anything, or is this the sort of thing they cover in “The Customer Is Always Right” training for booksellers?

Alia: Oh yeah, I considered asking her why she did it as she walked by the counter on her way outside. I didn’t though…and got busy with something else.

After almost three years of bookselling/customer service, as a woman of color, I’ve learned to pick my battles. People often walk up to me and ask “Do you know a lot about the books here?” I’m starting to be more vocal about obvious bias/gatekeepers shutting down diverse books. Respectful…but more honest.

Chris: “Respectful…but more honest.” I like that.

My discussion of race and racism with student audiences has been much more blunt with regard to The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, since race and racism are central to the story that book tells of his life, both before and during Reconstruction. And they’re central to the echoes of that era found in Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement on up through voter-restriction laws enacted in America in the past few years. I talk about all of that when I talk about John Roy Lynch.

The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch and Whoosh!, both illustrated by Don Tate

Alia: Yeah. In The Amazing Age, racism in the story is more “obvious,” so I doubt this teacher would’ve picked it up to begin with.

The cover of The Amazing Age tells the audience right away that “This is historical and therefore, IT MIGHT INVOLVE RACISM.” What people do with that visual information is their choice. Whoosh!‘s cover is deceptive when it comes race; a contemporary setting with rockets & water guns. It’s always interesting to see how people interact with covers…Will they pick up the book or walk away? If it has a brown person on the cover, it’s more likely they’ll walk away..BUT I’ve noticed that kids are more open-minded than adults.

Chris: In considering how the teacher in your store avoided the issues of race and racism, I see an opportunity to engage with them all the more — honestly, and with respect for my audience — when I share Whoosh! with students. I can pause at the science fair page, and take a moment to talk a little about George Wallace and that particular episode that occurred in Lonnie Johnson’s home state when he was around the same age as the students I’m talking to. [Note to Bartography readers: I did this for the first time last Wednesday, showing a few photographs from that June 1963 day that ended with Vivian Malone and James Hood enrolled as students at the University of Alabama. The second- through fifth-grade students I was presenting to seemed to handle that additional historical context just fine.]

So, I’ve got to thank you, Alia, for bringing that episode in your store to my attention. And I guess I’ve got to thank that teacher, too — her avoidance of any talk of race or racism is going to have the unintended effect of putting it front and center for a lot of other readers.

Alia: Oh good! I’m glad to hear that! Touching on that more will stress just how much Lonnie had to overcome. Kids of color in the audience, especially, might understand how he felt not being welcome in a white space (even after desegregation). I wonder what his experience was like at NASA. Hidden Figures has me thinking about POC [people of color] experiences there! :)

Thanks for having this discussion with me. Rarely do I get to talk about my bookstore experiences in such a thoughtful and detailed way! :)

17 Jan

Thank you, POTUS, and thank you, BrainPOP


I’ve been asking librarians and educators for insight into how they teach The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, and especially how they provide contextual information on the Reconstruction era. One suggestion involves a resource many schools and classrooms already have access to: the duo of Tim and Moby at BrainPOP.

Thanks for the suggestion, Bethe!

I’m also grateful to President Barack Obama, who this past week issued a proclamation establishing the Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort County, South Carolina. The proclamation begins:

The Reconstruction Era, a period spanning the early Civil War years until the start of Jim Crow racial segregation in the 1890s, was a time of significant transformation in the United States, as the Nation grappled with the challenge of integrating millions of newly freed African Americans into its social, political, and economic life. It was in many ways the Nation’s Second Founding, as Americans abolished slavery and struggled earnestly, if not always successfully, to build a nation of free and equal citizens. During Reconstruction, Congress passed the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth constitutional amendments that abolished slavery, guaranteed due process and equal protection under the law, and gave all males the ability to vote by prohibiting voter discrimination based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Ultimately, the unmet promises of Reconstruction led to the modern civil rights movement a century later.

That’s some pretty helpful context right there, with plenty more in the rest of the proclamation. And I’m just so glad that this place — this acknowledgement of an essential part of American history — will exist. I can’t wait.

06 Jan

John Roy chose to stay

Texas students in grades 3 through 6 will be voting this month for their 2016-17 Texas Bluebonnet Award favorites, and one of the many blessings of having The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch on this year’s list is that it has given me the opportunity to talk about the book at scores of schools in my home state.

I often read the book in its entirety to audiences, and when I’ve finished the text on this page —

When the Altamont chugged away, taking its crew home to the North, John Roy could have gone along. He had the choice to stay or go, and he chose to stay. Natchez was his home. Fellow former slaves reveled in the promises of freedom — family, faith, free labor, land, education. John Roy wanted to be part of that.

— I stop.

“How many of you,” I ask, “knowing only what you know now at this point in the story, and knowing only what John Roy Lynch himself knew at this point in his life, would have gone on to the North with the crew of the Atlamont?”

Sometimes two or three hands go up. Sometimes, it’s only one. Often, no one in the audience says they would have headed north.

“And raise your hand if you would have chosen to stay — to participate in those promises of freedom: family…”

By this point, at least some hands are already held high.

“…faith…”

More hands.

“…free labor…”

More
hands.

“…land…”

More.

“…education.”

Pretty much every child in the room has a hand aloft by this moment. And each and every time, I take that as a sign of hope.

You see, I know what happens next in the story. I know what became of these “promises of freedom” in the South immediately after the Civil War.

As I put it in the text on the very next page, “Freedom, however, soon turned sour. Mississippi whites passed laws to make Mississippi blacks into slaves under different names: ‘Apprentices.’ ‘Vagrants.’ ‘Convicts.'” Don Tate’s art on that next page depicts a whipping in progress, and a lynching about to occur.

Students often gasp when we get to that next page.

But on the page before, as the Altamont heads off into that beautiful sunset, the children in the room are guided by their optimism, by their sense of fairness and what’s right, by an innate belief in what should happen next. Of course it should be freedom. Of course.

I am, by nature, an optimist. I think I’m a realist, too, but when viewing that reality I tend to err on the side of expecting good and hopeful things to happen. For many people I know, however, this year has begun with such expectations deeply challenged.

Maybe that describes you, too.

I wish you could experience that feeling I get when I share the “When the Altamont chugged away…” spread of The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch with children. When I see by the show of hands their expectations of progress, justice, and equality, how could I not be optimistic?

And at the same time, how could I not be determined to do what I can in my life — to do the work — to help make their expectations more often come to pass?

Jennifer surprised me last month with an early Christmas present. And she had help from Don. Unbeknownst to me, she got a piece of his original artwork from The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch framed and snuck into our house.

It now resides on our living room wall, where it will serve as a daily reminder of what the young people in Texas and elsewhere in this country expect from me, from you, from us, and from our future.

08 Dec

Your 2016 Carter G. Woodson Award panelists

I’ve been running in bunches of directions of late — 65 campuses visited since Labor Day will do that to a guy — and can’t do justice to them all. But one of those directions, briefly, was Washington, DC-ward last weekend for the National Council of the Social Studies conference.

I was there to receive the Carter G. Woodson Award for The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, an occasion that included a panel discussion with other honored authors S.D. Nelson, Winifred Conkling, and Don Tate. Here’s proof that I touched down at least briefly enough for a group photo:

carter-g-woodson-award-panel

27 Nov

How are educators using The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch?

mississippis-people-as-a-whole

I’d like to act as a clearinghouse for schools/educators who have taught/would like to teach The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch.

There’s already an educator’s guide that was made before the April 2015 publication date. Lots has happened since.

If you or someone else at your elementary, middle, or high school has taught and discussed the book with students, what has worked well? What other materials (books, videos, current news) were incorporated? What questions did students have? What would have been helpful?

A summary of the book, for those not familiar with it:

“From enslaved teenager to U.S. congressman in ten years…

“John Roy Lynch spent most of his childhood as a slave, but the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War promised African Americans in the South the freedom to work and learn as they saw fit. While many people there were unhappy with the changes, John Roy thrived in the new era. He was appointed to serve as Justice of the Peace and at age 25 was elected into the United States Congress, where he worked to ensure that the people he represented were truly free.

“This biography, accompanied by Don Tate’s splendid illustrations, gives readers an in-depth look at the Reconstruction period through the life of one of the first African American congressmen.”

Librarians and teachers, please share with me what you’ve got, and I’ll figure out a way to share that with those who could use it.

Thanks, y’all. The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is a story about an era in which great progress was made and then undone. I think it’s very relevant. I want kids to know it.

10 Nov

Whoosh! is on the brand-new Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List

john-roy-and-bluebonnet-and-whoosh
I’m happy as can be to spread the news that the 2017-18 Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List announced last weekend at the Texas Book Festival here in Austin includes Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions.

Whoosh! is my second collaboration with my friend Don Tate. Its predecessor, The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, is on the 2016-17 Bluebonnet list. Students and librarians often ask me how it feels — and what it means to me as an author — to have a Bluebonnet book, so I want to talk a little about that.

Put simply, the recognition has had a gigantic impact on my career.

How gigantic? Well, having a book on the Bluebonnet list created an opportunity for me — 15 1/2 years into my career as a children’s author — to make a leap of faith and leave my day job. For the past several months, I have gratefully, blessedly, enthusiastically been a full-time author.

I now spend many of my days visiting Texas schools. I’ve been to 52 campuses so far this school year, with many others in store during the next few months.

So, getting onto the list once has been marvelous. But to be back on the Bluebonnet list for a second straight year? I hardly know what to say except, to the Texas Bluebonnet Award committee, thank you for again including Don Tate and me in such fine company.

Readers, here’s the full list for 2017-18 — congratulations to all these authors and illustrators!

Ada’s Violin by Susan Hood, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)

The Best Man by Richard Peck (Penguin/Dial)

Follow the Moon Home: A Tale of One Idea, Twenty Kids, and a Hundred Sea Turtles by Philippe Cousteau and Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Meilo So (Chronicle)

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (Algonquin Young Readers/Workman Publishing)

The Great Pet Escape (Pets on the Loose!) by Victoria Jamieson (Macmillan/Henry Holt) [Special congrats to Victoria, author/illustrator of Roller Girl, for also returning to the Bluebonnet list for a second year in a row!]

The Great Shelby Holmes by Elizabeth Eulberg (Bloomsbury)

In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall, illustrated by James Mark Yellowhawk (Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS)

The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd (Scholastic Inc.)

The Last Kids on Earth by Max Brallier, illustrated by Douglas Holgate (Penguin/Viking)

Little Cat’s Luck by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Jennifer A. Bell (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)

Lola Levine: Drama Queen by Monica Brown, illustrated by Angela Dominguez (Little, Brown)

The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Spirit Week Showdown by Crystal Allen (HarperCollins/Balzer & Bray)

Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee (Simon & Schuster/Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books)

The Princess and the Warrior by Duncan Tonatiuh (Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS)

Soar by Joan Bauer (Penguin/Viking)

Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart (Scholastic Inc.)

The Storyteller by Evan Turk (Simon & Schuster/Atheneum)

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Little, Brown)

Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung (Scholastic Inc.)

Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton, illustrated by Don Tate (Charlesbridge)

26 Oct

In which I am interviewed by students from Patsy Sommer Elementary

bookcover-johnroylynchStudents at Sommer Elementary in Round Rock, Texas, recently had some questions for me, so I thought I’d answer them here (just as I did a few months back with questions from Graham Elementary students).

Our class read your book The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch. It was so interesting! Where did you learn all of this knowledge?

Thank you! Here’s a list of the books, newspaper articles, scholarly articles, and other sources I used for my research into John Roy Lynch’s life and times, including Reconstruction. I also traveled to Mississippi and Louisiana to visit places where John Roy Lynch lived and worked before he became a Congressman.

Were you alive in his time period?

No, I wasn’t. John Roy Lynch lived a long time, but he died in 1939, and I wasn’t born until 1971.

What inspired you to write about him?

I first learned about John Roy Lynch from the PBS documentary Reconstruction: The Second Civil War. His story was one of the individual stories used to convey the big picture of Reconstruction. I knew right away that the story of his incredible transformation — from teenage slave to US Congressman in just ten years — was one that I wanted to tell for readers your age.

Why do you want to write biographies?

As interesting as history, art, science, and politics are, it’s the stories of the individuals involved — the twists and turns and joys and hardships of their lives — that truly fascinate me. Researching people well enough to accurately and honestly get across their personalities and experiences and legacies in few enough words to fit into a picture book is a fun challenge. I learn so much from each biography I write. They make me smarter, and I love getting smarter.

Do you have any more books in the public library?

I sure do — nine other books so far (you can see the whole list of them here), and eight more books on the way in 2017-18.

Are you friends with Don Tate?

Don and I are indeed friends. Here’s a brief history of our friendship and our history as collaborators.

Are you from the family of Clara Barton?

Not that I’m aware of, but if I research back far enough, who knows what I’ll find?

12 Oct

Happy anniversary, JRL and SVT!

This is a slide I show in my presentations to schools about The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (often right after students have speculated that I might have spent anywhere from two days all the way up to a year and a half working on that book):

shark-vs-train-vs-john-roy-lynch

Yes, I got the idea to write about John Roy Lynch (while watching a Reconstruction documentary) the same month I got the idea for Shark Vs. Train (while jogging). And that month was exactly ten years ago, in October 2006.

You can bet that I’m pointing that out — and the fact that one book took eight and a half years to get from idea to bookstores and libraries while the “fast” one took me merely three and a half — to schools that I visit this month.

Last week, though, I was able to go one better and let the kids at one school know that of all the elementary schools in the world, theirs is the closest — just a quarter-mile or so away — to the jogging route where Shark and Train first came to me.

I’m happy as can be to have made Shark and Train’s acquaintance, and that of John Roy Lynch, and of all the readers I’ve gotten to know thanks to the three of them.

06 Oct

Justice

“Justice. Peace. Black people saw reason to believe that these were now available to them.” — from The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch

I’m used to the subject of justice coming up when I visit elementary schools — it’s a central theme of The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, which I discuss with third grade and up (sometimes second grade, too). And when I sign copies of that book, the inscription I use is “Strive for justice and peace!”

But it was a new — and marvelous — experience this week when I was asked to personalize a book like this:

To Ms. X’s…

the-defenders-of-social-justice

It was the first time I’ve ever been asked to address a group of kids in such a way. Won’t it be great if it’s nowhere near the last?