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.

26 Jul

“…I am glad that *you* are here today with me.”

This spring, I changed the way I greet students at the beginning of each of my school presentations. It seemed necessary, and it seems even more so today.

Here’s what I say:

“My name is Chris Barton, and whoever *you* are… whatever your family looks like… wherever your parents, or your grandparents, or your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents are from… I am glad that *you* are here today with me.”

I miss giving kids that affirmation. I’m looking forward to getting back to it in September.

17 May

I’m visiting schools in the Mid-Atlantic states in 2018!

My largest school audience ever. I’m pretty good with smaller groups, too.

Details are still coming together, but I’m going to be making my first-ever author visits to schools in the Mid-Atlantic states in spring 2018. If you’re in Delaware, Maryland, eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, northeastern Virginia, and thereabouts and would be interested in booking me, I’d love to hear from you.

My Author Visits page has more information about my presentations. I can expand or condense my “Write What You’d Love to Learn” presentation to suit a wide range of audience ages and sizes, and I’ll be tailoring it for each of my upcoming books (Dazzle Ships, Book or Bell?, and What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?, my 2018 picture book biography of Barbara Jordan).

I’ve also got lots more photos of me in action at my school visits. Those all represent great memories for me, and I do my best to make that true for the schools I visit, too. How about if we make some more of those memories together?

22 Mar

In which I am interviewed by students from Bradfield Elementary

Following my most recent batch of school visits, I received a bundle of cards from Bradfield Elementary in Dallas. Including these:

In addition to a lot of nifty artwork, they had a few questions that I hadn’t addressed in previous installments of In which I am interviewed…, so I thought I’d answer those. Thank you, Bradfield, for the creativity and the questions!

How does it feel to be an author of fiction and nonfiction books?

It feels like I’ve lucked into having the best job in the world, and I love that I haven’t had to choose between writing fiction vs. writing nonfiction, because they both make me happy.

What’s it like writing books for the world?

I haven’t thought of it that way. My books go into the world, and the whole world is welcome to enjoy them, but I write my books for a more specific audience — readers your age!

Are you ever under any pressure while you write?

Most of the pressure on me comes from myself. I have high expectations for the books that I create and the work that I do, and I’m always striving to meet those expectations and make the best books I can.

What’s it like being a famous author?

I wouldn’t say that I’m famous, but being an author has meant that I get to spend my life interacting with people who love books or have stories to tell, and that makes me feel like I’m right where I’m supposed to be.

Were you scared of going on stage?

Nope! I was well prepared, and I also knew that everyone else in the room I wanted me to do well. That’s a pretty good combination. What was there for me to be afraid of?

What was your childhood like?

Slow-paced, safe, generally happy. Not perfect, but populated with good people who kept an eye out for me.

Do your children read the books first?

My kids used to be the first audience for my newest stories, but the youngest is now 13, and he and his siblings seem happy to wait until the book is finished. Now, Jennifer is usually my first reader, and it’s always exciting for me to show her a new story nobody else has seen yet.

How old were you when The Day-Glo Brothers came out?

On its publication date, I was a a few days away from my 38th birthday.

At what age did you truly decide to become an author?

I was 29 when I realized I wanted to write children’s books. I’m glad nobody told me it was going to be eight and a half years before my first book was published, though the wait sure turned out to be worth it.

Any tips for escaping writer’s block?

Go for a long walk, pay attention to the world around you, and when you get home, write about something you saw, heard, smelled, imagined, etc., while you were out.

When will you write another book?

I plan to work on one tomorrow. Or maybe right now, since I’ve answered the last of these questions…

09 Mar

On segregating author-visit audiences by gender

I’ve never had a school segregate my presentation audiences by gender, but I know of authors who have experienced that.

I’m not aware of schools keeping girls out of presentations by male authors, only of hosts keeping boys out of female authors’ sessions.

For any author who wants to use it, I’m going to share the wording I include in the letter of agreement for my school visits. It is:

“Also, please note that I will not speak to an all-male or all-female student audience at a school that enrolls both boys and girls.”

21 Aug

In which I am interviewed by fourth graders from Graham Elementary

When I visited with the fourth graders at Graham Elementary here in Austin this past April, they followed up with many questions — and artwork. Such as this recreation of one of Don Tate’s illustrations in The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch:

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That drawing of John Roy Lynch is just an example of the great stuff they sent. I believe I’m overdue in answering their questions. So…

Do you enjoy making children’s books?

Yes, I do. I think it’s the perfect job for me.

Do you like animals?

Not all of them, but I like a lot more animals than I dislike.

What inspired you to become an author?

My toddler son wanted me to tell him over and over the story of how I installed a smoke alarm in our house. I wrote that story down, and it was awful, but it got me going.

How long have you been writing?

Almost as long as I’ve been reading. The first story of mine that I know of is one that I wrote in second grade, “The Ozzie Bros. Meet the Monsters.”

Will you make chapter books?

I sure hope so. I’ve written a nonfiction book called Can I See Your I.D.? that had ten chapters, and I wrote a short story for a YA collection, and I hope that I will have more longer-than-a-picture-book fiction published.

How many books have you written?

88 Instruments, which was published just yesterday, is my tenth published book. I’ve written many more that have not been published.

Where do you get your ideas from?

All over. Things I see, things I read about, ideas that pop into my head while I’m running, suggestions from friends and editors — these are just some examples.

How old were you when you started to do books?

I was 29 when I realized I wanted to write books for kids, and almost 38 when my first book was published.

What inspired you to write the book “The Ozzie Bros. Meet the Monsters”?

Star Wars, the Muppets, and Abbott and Costello movies where they meet famous Hollywood monsters.

Do you have any books about your dog?

Not yet, but there are dogs in some of my manuscripts that sure remind me of Ernie.

Do you talk in a different language?

I’ve started relearning the Spanish that I began forgetting after my sophomore year in high school. Duolingo says I’m now 4% fluent.

Have you ever visited different countries?

I went to Mexico and Canada when I was growing up, and this past spring I traveled to Singapore to visit the Singapore American School. That trip included some time wandering around an airport in Qatar.

Have you been on tour?

Yes — to schools in Utah last December to celebrate my nonfiction book The Nutcracker Comes to America, and to cities in Texas and Oklahoma this past spring, in support of my book Mighty Truck.

Have you ever experienced difficult, frustrating times?

I sure have. I’ve been lucky to have family and friends to lean on during those times.

How many awards have you won?

I don’t know how many, but I can tell you the biggest: My first book, The Day-Glo Brothers, won a Sibert Honor from the American Library Association.

And that’s it! Thank you for the great questions, fourth graders — now FIFTH graders! — at Graham Elementary.

07 Jun

My 18 days in Singapore

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Until the very end of April, I’d never been outside North America, but I corrected that in a big way when I took a 14-hour flight from Dallas to Doha and then another flight — this one a mere seven hours — to Singapore.

The occasion was my 12-day stint as author-in-residence at the Singapore American School. I conducted two-day writing workshops for the second- through fifth-graders and got to read a book or two to the schools first-graders, kindergartners, and pre-K students.

My view from SAS each morning as I made my way from the cafeteria to the elementary library.

My view from SAS each morning as I made my way from the cafeteria to the elementary library.

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Among my hosts was librarian Kate Brundage. I brought her a gift from back home -- a copy of Sarah Bird's A Love Letter to Texas Women -- without having any idea that Kate herself is technically a Texas resident.

Among my hosts was librarian Kate Brundage. I brought her a gift from back home — a copy of Sarah Bird’s A Love Letter to Texas Women — without have any idea that Kate herself is technically a Texas resident.

A few glimpses of what one of those writing workshops looked like.

A few glimpses of what one of those writing workshops looked like.

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One of the students laminated my autograph!

One of the students laminated my autograph!

The school days were full, but there was much I wanted to see in my downtime, so I got out and about a lot. Besides, I figured I could sleep on my long flight home. (This turned out not to be true.)

On my first Saturday there, I had lunch in Little India, visited the Sultan Mosque —

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— took a break for Japanese ice cream and coffee, went to a festival at the Thai embassy, and ended the day with an IMAX screening of Captain America: Civil War with Chinese subtitles.

Singapore offers a marvelous mix of cultures, history, natural beauty, and adventurous architecture. Here are a few of my favorite sights:

Marina Bay Sands from the south in midafternoon

Marina Bay Sands from the south in midafternoon

Me on the 55th floor of Marina Bay Sands, looking south

Me on the 55th floor of Marina Bay Sands, looking south

Another view from the top of Marina Bay Sands, of Gardens by the Bay

Another view from the top of Marina Bay Sands, of Gardens by the Bay

A few up-close views of Gardens by the Bay

A few up-close views of Gardens by the Bay

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(Yes, those are made of LEGO.)

(Yes, those are made of LEGO.)

Inside the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown

Inside the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown

The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in Little India

The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in Little India

Inside the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator

Inside the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator

Most of the signage was in English. Some was less familiar to me.

Most of the signage was in English. Some was less familiar to me.

I picked the right day to follow my mom's suggestion and go to the modernism exhibit at the National Gallery Singapore.

I picked the right day to follow my mom’s suggestion and go to the modernism exhibit at the National Gallery Singapore.

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What else? Let’s see — there was a wet market:

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The MacRitchie Reservoir Park, with Kate Brundage…

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…and monkeys:

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The Singapore Botanic Garden, with an Evolution Garden that I especially liked:

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Though this guy was also a highlight:

But my favorite place to photograph was, without a doubt, Haw Par Villa:

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The centerpiece of Haw Par Villa is the Ten Courts of Hell, the representations of which are a bit extreme. There are serious punishments for more infractions than I knew existed. Trust me, you don’t want to suffer the consequences of misusing books.

But I can’t end there. I’ve got to go back to SAS and one of the campus cats. Because campus cats.

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