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.

26 Jul

Bartography Express: “We couldn’t actually have murder in the mystery”


The Q&A for the July edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here) is with Jason Gallaher, my fellow Austinite and the debut author of Whobert Whover, Owl Detective, and with the book’s Belgian illustrator, Jess Pauwels.

This month, one newsletter subscriber will win a copy of this wordplay-packed picture book (published just last week by Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster), which Kirkus Reviews could not resist calling “A cracking whooooo-dunit.”

Chris: Every thriller needs a twist, and the fate of Perry the possum provides that twist in Whobert Whover. Considering the age of your audience, what were the challenges in making the case solvable by readers without that twist being too obvious?

Jason: Your question totally hits on the unique situation that this book at its heart is a murder mystery, but since this book is for young readers, we couldn’t actually have murder in the mystery.

My first clue that everything was going to turn out fine was by making the victim a possum. Among older readers, it’s known that possums who appear to have met an untimely end often times are a-okay.

So I thought with that knowledge, adults could read Whobert’s story with assuredness that Perry is going to walk away in the end, and have this bonding moment with youngsters in which they get to learn about possums and their physical hijinks.

I also did what so many writing workshops tell you not to do: I included illustration notes in the manuscript that my agent (Tricia Lawrence of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency) submitted to editors. But this was only because the text of what Whobert says does not match what is being shown on the page.

And those illustration notes weren’t “Jess, you must illustrate this scene this way or else,” but more, “Here’s what I’m thinking is going on so it’s clear that Whobert’s perceptions are off.” At least, that’s how I hope those notes came across to Jess!

Jess: Usually, my job is to bring a shift between the text and the illustrations, avoiding redundancy.

Here, as Jason said, there is already a shift between the text and the scenes. It’s the whole concept. Everything happens unsaid.

Jason’s notes were super important for me to get exactly the plot. They were part of the story, as the text was.

His point was absolutely not to “direct” my work but to help me to draw what was essential.

Respecting his notes, everything was still open for me to bring my ideas about composition, ambiance, expressions, details and fun.

I saw my job here as an opportunity to bring my “visual touch” to Jason’s fantastic humour.

I just did a kind of a funny “Usual Suspects” casting to an already well-constructed movie.

Whobert Whover, Owl Detective illustrator Jess Pauwels (left) and author Jason Gallaher


Chris: Jess, Whobert Whover is your first U.S. picture book, and Jason, this is your first book, period. It’s a milestone for each of you. How did you each decide who to dedicate this book to?

Jess: Whobert Whover, Owl Detective is indeed my first USA picture book, and I’m so proud of it! I couldn’t have hoped for a better story to try my luck over there. In the USA you have a total different way of telling stories. I found it — and Jason’s writing — fabulous.

I dedicated it, “For Julien ‘Harfang,’ best owl detective ever.” Julien is my husband, He has supported me a lot since I decided to focus on illustration. And thanks to his passion for stories, images, and investigations he coached me to direct the forest drama Jason has created.

The funny part is that Whobert is a owl, and Julien’s Boy Scout name was “Harfang,” which is a snow owl. I couldn’t miss the occasion to thank him.

Jason: My dedication in Whobert reads, “To Grandma Joan, who, who always knew I would be a writer.”

And it’s true! G-Ma J knew I was going to be a writer even before I did. I was always telling her stories and always making her take me to the library when we would go visit her in Billings, Montana.

I distinctly remember the day one summer when I was about 8 and we arrived at her house where she had a typewriter and a huge stack of blank paper waiting for me. She said, “Now get writing, John Grisham.” She set that typewriter up for me from then on every time we would see her.

While I went more the Dr. Seuss route than the Grisham route, she never stopped encouraging me to write. She got to hear the news that I was getting published about six months before she passed. Even though she’s gone, I can still feel her reading over my shoulder every now and then while I’m writing, and I know she’s cheering me on.

11 Jul

The long and Nerdy road

Jennifer and I have a guest post up today at Nerdy Book Club, Two (or More) of Us: How Writing Communities Shaped the Authors We’ve Become.

It begins with Jennifer saying:

Long before Chris and I got married, I used to double-date the Beatles.

As a bonus to those readers who are nerdy about one of the same things that Jennifer and I geek out about, we sprinkled a few references to Beatles songs throughout the piece.

You may well think of some other titles we could have mentioned or alluded to. If you do, feel free to leave those in the comments here, there, and everywhere.

Why don’t we take our writing community on the road? Great idea! Hope to see some of you at ILA in Orlando this weekend.

06 Jul

How to begin a new year with a good night’s sleep

It’s my birthday today, and my most recent journey around the sun ended with a piece of welcome news:

That I have missed out on a good-paying speaking gig at a children’s literature event.

Wait, why is that welcome news?

It’s definitely not because I am burdened with a surfeit of money, or because I lacked any desire to appear before that audience. This news is welcome because the author/illustrator lineup that I would have joined was already disproportionately populated with white men. If I’d been added, the children’s-book creators featured at the event would have been even less representational of the readers we create books for.

After the organizer expressed an interest in having me join the roster, I got together with a non-white-guy friend of mine and talked through my options, which ranged from taking the gig (and fee) to publicly, indignantly declining the invitation with a bit of social-media grandstanding.

That conversation helped. When I replied to the event organizer, I privately, respectfully, and somewhat nervously brought up my discomfort with the situation. I suggested some non-white-guy authors/illustrators as alternatives. When those didn’t pan out, I suggested some more.

The organizer, to their credit, kept making inquiries — for longer, probably, than they expected to — but their efforts paid off. And late yesterday I learned that, because of my encouragement, the event will now include a terrific, creative person who not only will make an outstanding speaker but will also provide balance and diversity that I absolutely would not have. A little bit of progress got made.

I’ll miss that speaker’s fee, no doubt about it. But I sure slept well last night.

21 Jun

Bartography Express: “I hope I wasn’t the mean cousin Eddie!”

The Q&A this month in my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here) is with my friend Debbi Michiko Florence, whose Jasmine Toguchi chapter book series debuts next month.

This month, I’m giving away to one subscriber a set of the first two books in the series, Jasmine Toguchi: Mochi Queen and Jasmine Toguchi: Super Sleuth, both of which will be available July 11. The books have illustrations by Elizabet Vukovic and are published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

I’ve already read Mochi Queen, which Booklist‘s review describes as “an adorable and heartwarming story about a kid who wants to feel special and do something first for once, along with a nice overview of a Japanese New Year celebration.” I’m eager as can be to get my hands on Super Sleuth.

Chris: To what extent are your Jasmine Toguchi books in general — and Mochi Queen in particular — rooted in your own experiences? Did you have a “mean cousin Eddie”? Were you the mean cousin Eddie?

Debbi: Your question about mean cousin Eddie made me laugh out loud, and gave me pause. I hope I wasn’t the mean cousin Eddie! And no, he is not based on anyone in my family. I will admit, however, that I was like Sophie and was a bossy big sister to my younger sister. In my defense, my sister always seemed happy to go along with any of my games and ideas.

There is much in the Jasmine books based on my own childhood. Little things, like I grew up in Los Angeles in a neighborhood very much like Jasmine’s. I really did have a neighbor who let me climb her apricot tree. My mom, like Jasmine’s, did make a lot of rules. (My daughter who is grown will tell you I was the same kind of rule-maker when she was a child.) We used chopsticks for many meals. My maternal grandmother (who lived with us) spoke broken English and my paternal grandparents lived in Hiroshima like Jasmine’s obaachan does.

Growing up in my family, I enjoyed Japanese traditions. While we never made our own mochi, we did have big New Year celebrations with extended family with a lot of food (including store-bought). Food has always been a big deal in all our celebrations. In book 2, Super Sleuth, just like Jasmine and her sister, my sister and I celebrated Girl’s Day at home by setting up the special dolls and taking photos. When we got older, my mom invited our girlfriends over to celebrate — much like a birthday party. I loved Girl’s Day!

Author Debbi Michiko Florence. Photo by Roy Thomas.

Chris: The Toguchi family’s mochi-making reminded me a lot of the tamalada that my in-laws host each year, and Mochi Queen makes me want to pay enough attention next time we make tamales to be able to view that process through the eyes of an eight-year-old like Jasmine. Since your family didn’t make your own mochi, what were the challenges in researching that part of the story and telling it right?

Debbi: Oh, I love tamales! What fun! I’d never heard of a tamalada and I’m very intrigued now.

While I’d never made mochi in the traditional way, I have eaten a LOT of mochi over my lifetime. I’m kind of a mochi snob and don’t like the pre-packed ones sold in markets (not that I can find any here in coastal Connecticut). I love fresh mochi best and when I lived in the Bay Area in California, I would drive to the specialty shops that made fresh mochi in J-Town (Japantown) in San Jose and San Francisco. I miss that! My favorite mochi is the one with azuki (red bean) in the middle.

But that certainly didn’t prepare me for writing Jasmine’s story. My research consisted of interviewing my mom about her memories and experience making mochi, watching a LOT of YouTube videos, and going to a mochi-tsuki event. I had hoped to be able to have a turn pounding mochi, but it was an event for kids so only kids were invited up. It helped to watch a little girl close to Jasmine’s age try to pound mochi. The hammer was heavy and she needed assistance from an adult.

I haven’t given up the dream of being able to pound mochi, though. I’m keeping my eye out for mochi-tsuki events and someday maybe I’ll get a chance to pound the steamed sweet rice into mochi!

16 Jun

Good news from Kirkus — and from Kirkus!

Yesterday I went looking for the just-published Kirkus review of my next book, Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion, and to my surprise I also found a review of Book or Bell?, my other upcoming 2017 title.

To my delight, too, as both reviews have favorable things to say. Whew!

From the review of Book or Bell?:

[T]he text and artwork become silly to the point of laughter, as Henry’s refusal to leave his book causes a messy chain reaction… One elected official after another each demands louder bells, which cause increasingly more mayhem. … Finally, Ms. Sabio, who was rudely interrupted by the mayor when she tried to explain why Henry stayed put, saves the day with a simple solution. A zany, rollicking story with hilarious illustrations.

I’m glad to see that the reviewer loves Ashley Spires‘ art in Book or Bell? as much as I do, and the same goes for Victo Ngai‘s illustrations in Dazzle Ships.

From the Kirkus review of Dazzle Ships:

Ngai uses analog and digital media to great effect, from the dazzling cover (which will attract many readers all by itself) to the range of designs employed, applying an appropriate period aesthetic throughout. [I]t’s a fascinating volume about a little-known side of the war. An eye-catching title sure to dazzle.

Dazzle Ships will be published by Lerner Publishing/Millbrook Press September 1, and Book or Bell? is due out from Bloomsbury on October 17.

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?

30 Apr

Proud-husband alert: Revenge of the Happy Campers is out now!

Revenge of the Happy Campers, the third book in Jennifer’s Brewster Triplets series, was published this past Tuesday. In this follow-up to Revenge of the Flower Girls and Revenge of the Angels, her 11-year-old protagonists venture away from their home in Johnson City, Texas. The sisters go on a camping trip with their beloved Aunt Jane, during which they square off against a trio of similarly competitive boys.

Writing in yesterday’s Austin American-Statesman, reviewer Sharyn Vane says:

Ziegler’s young democratic-process aficionados are as appealing as ever, brimming with confidence and problem-solving savvy. They’re empathetic enough to notice that their aunt is saddened by the state of the campground she remembers visiting each summer with the triplets’ mother. And they’re also “almost 12,” which means there are hints of tween-appropriate realizations that these boys could be more than just foes to vanquish … “Campers” is very much like the triplets themselves — full of real-world adventures, both wise and witty.

And like its predecessors, this book is as funny, warm, and big-hearted as the woman I married — and that’s saying a lot. Congratulations, love of mine!

19 Apr

Bibliography for Dazzle Ships

The back matter for Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion includes a two-page timeline with archival photographs, my author’s note, Victo Ngai’s illustrator’s note, and suggestions for further reading.

With all this material that Millbrook Press did include in those final pages, there wasn’t room for a bibliography of the sources I found most helpful in writing the text for the book.

So, I’m presenting them here, and the book includes the URL for the Dazzle Ships page on my website, which in turn links to this post.

Anderson, Ross. Abbott Handerson Thayer. Syracuse, New York: Everson Museum, 1982.

Ball, Philip. Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen. New York: Random House, 2014.

Behrens, Roy R. Camoupedia: A Compendium of Research on Art, Architecture and Camouflage. Dysart, Iowa: Bobolink Books, 2009.

Behrens, Roy R. Camoupedia (blog). Available at http://camoupedia.blogspot.com. Accessed March 21, 2017.

Behrens, Roy R. False Colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage. Dysart, Iowa: Bobolink Books, 2002.

Black, Jonathan. “‘A few broad stripes’: Perception, deception and the ‘Dazzle Ship’ phenomenon of the First World War,” in Contested Objects: Material Memories of the Great War, edited by Nicholas J. Saunders and Paul Cornish. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Blechman, Hardy. Disruptive Pattern Material: An Encyclopedia of Camouflage. Richmond Hill, Ontario: Firefly Books, 2004.

Edwards, Paul, editor. Blast: Vorticism 1914-1918. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2000.

“First World War dazzle ships.” Merseyside Maritime Museum. Available at http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime/archive/displays/dazzle-ships/index.aspx. Accessed March 21, 2017.

Forbes, Peter. Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2009.

Friedman, Norman. Naval Weapons of World War One. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Seaforth Publishing, 2011.

Goodwin, Paul. “Dazzle Ships.” Mystic Seaport. Available at http://educators.mysticseaport.org/artifacts/dazzle_ships/. Accessed March 21, 2017.

Gordon, Jan. “The Art of Dazzle Painting,” Land & Water, December 12, 1918.

Hartcup, Guy. Camouflage: A History of Concealment and Deception in War. New York: Scribner’s, 1980.

Hurd, Archibald. The Merchant Navy, Vol. III. London: John Murray, 1929.

Hurst, Hugh. “Dazzle Painting in War-Time.” The International Studio, Volume 68, 1919.

Kaempffert, Waldemar. “Fighting the U-Boat with Paint,” Popular Science Monthly, April 1919.

Massie, Robert K. Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea. New York: Random House, 2003.

McRobbie, Linda Rodriguez. “When the British Wanted to Camouflage Their Warships, They Made Them Dazzle.” Smithsonian.com, April 7, 2016. Available at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/when-british-wanted-camouflage-their-warships-they-made-them-dazzle-180958657/. Accessed March 21, 2017.

Murphy, Hugh, and Martin Bellamy. “The Dazzling Zoologist: John Graham Kerr and the Early Development of Ship Camouflage.” The Northern Mariner, Volume 19, April 2009.

Naval Investigation: Hearings Before the Subcommittee of the Committee on Naval Affairs, United States Senate, Sixty-Sixth Congress, Second Session. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1921.

Overy, Paul. “Vorticism,” in Concepts of Modern Art: From Fauvism to Postmodernism, edited by Nikos Stangos. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994.

“Patterns in Practice: The Art of Conflict” (interview with James Taylor of the Imperial War Museum). Patternity, October 3, 2014. Available at http://explore.patternity.org/news/patterns-in-practice-the-art-of-war/. Accessed March 21, 2017.

Rankin, Nicholas. A Genius for Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Raven, Alan. “The Development of Naval Camouflage.” USN Camouflage 1941-1945. Available at http://www.shipcamouflage.com/development_of_naval_camouflage.htm. Accessed March 21, 2017.

“Razzle Dazzle.” 99% Invisible, October 5, 2012. Available at http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/episode-65-razzle-dazzle/. Accessed March 21, 2017.

Rose, Kenneth. King George V. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.

Wilkinson, Norman. A Brush with Life. London: Seeley Service & Co Ltd., 1969

Wilkinson, Norman. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 12th ed., vol XXX, “Camouflage: Naval Camouflage.” London: The Encyclopaedia Britannica Company, Ltd., 1922

Williams, David L. Naval Camouflage 1914-1945: A Complete Visual Reference. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2001.

Wilson, David A. H. “Avian Anti-Submarine Warfare Proposals in Britain, 1915-18: The Admiralty and Thomas Mills,” International Journal of Naval History, April 2006.

13 Apr

Revealing the dazzling cover of my next book!

This tiny little image of Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion is all I’ll show you here today, but if you’ll hop on over to A Fuse #8 Production, you’ll see librarian Betsy Bird’s post providing a first, up-close look at debut illustrator Victo Ngai’s stunning artwork for our book due out from Lerner/Millbrook Press this September.

Texas librarians, you can see more of Dazzle Ships next week at the Texas Library Association conference in San Antonio. A lot more — as in, hot-off-the-press copies of the entire book, which I’ll be signing in the Author Area at 10:15 next Thursday morning.