29 Aug

Bartography Express: “Something vast and dazzling, something constantly unfolding”


The Q&A for the August edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here) is with author Paige Britt and illustrators Sean Qualls and Selina Alko. The three of them have collaborated on Why Am I Me? (Scholastic), which is being officially published today.

This month, one newsletter subscriber will win a copy of Why Am I Me?, which The New York Times included in this past weekend’s book-review roundup, “You Can’t Teach Kids Empathy, but These Picture Books Inspire It.

Chris: What can you tell me about the inspiration for the book? I think my readers would be interested in knowing how the concept came to you and took shape, Paige, and how you arrived at the specifics of the characters and the setting, Sean and Selina.

Paige: The inspiration for Why Am I Me? came straight out of my own life. When I was four years old, I was like most kids — curious about everything. I was constantly asking questions. What’s this? What’s that? Who are you? Who am I?

The last question was the one closest to my heart … and the most baffling. Who am I?

Sometimes I would look at a person — a boy or girl, a man or woman (it didn’t really matter) — and wonder why I was me and not them. The question was way too big for my little brain. It went round and round inside my head — whyamIme? whyamIme? whyamIme? — until my mind gave up. And in that moment of giving up, everything gave way and I felt that I was part of something BIG — something vast and dazzling, something constantly unfolding. That’s when it dawned on me. Maybe there actually wasn’t a “me” and “you” after all. Maybe there was just us.

Even though I’m grown up now, the question “Why am I me?” is still rattling around in my head. That’s why I wrote the book. To this day, I’ve never come up with an answer, but I do have a hint. The answer is in the asking. Certainty creates labels, but curiosity creates space — space for empathy and connection, for wonder and delight. So … stay curious!

Selina: When Sean and I first read the manuscript for Why Am I Me? we fell in love with the idea of creating a picture book asking life’s biggest questions by our littlest people. Right away we connected with the themes of empathy and wonder. But, we knew it would be a challenge to create a narrative to go along with the simple — yet profound — words.

Our first task was thinking of a setting where a variety of very different people would naturally come together. It took some brainstorming before we came up with the subway, but when we did it was an “Aha!” moment for us. It just felt right.

As Brooklynites we frequently ride into the city along with people from all walks of life. Each subway car can seem almost like a microcosm of the world; so many people from all over coming together (often uncomfortably close to one another) to ride to their destinations in peace.

On the subway platform our protagonists (a biracial African American/Caucasian boy and biracial Asian/Caucasian girl) gaze at each other and simultaneously wonder the same things. The crowded setting is ripe for the two to indulge their curiosities beyond each other, as more and more people join them on their journey home.

At a certain point we decided to have them look beyond their subway car to parks and outdoor concerts, places where we could show even more people mixing together — demonstrating that this is the diverse and beautiful world we live in. We wanted the main characters to look very different from each other initially only to realize by the end, after they have gazed up at the sky and then into each other’s eyes, that essentially they are made from the same “star stuff” and are not so different from one another after all.

Why Am I Me? author Paige Britt (left) and illustrators Sean Qualls and Selina Alko (right)

Chris: Advance copies of Why Am I Me? have been out in the world for a few months now. Of the early responses to the book, is there one that’s been especially memorable or meaningful to you?

Sean: What I like about the reviews overall is that they each discuss the book as a whole unit, focusing on how both the words and illustrations work together to tell the story. As Selina has already said, we immediately fell in love with Why Am I Me?, and one of the reasons for me was that Paige left plenty of room for the illustrations. Her words created an ideal backdrop for us to imagine and bring to life the characters and world that her words suggest, in a way that is unique and personal to us.

I see the book as one indivisible whole, words and art unified by its universal themes. It makes me happy that reviewers seem to think the same.

Paige: I absolutely agree with Sean! Why Am I Me? has received multiple starred reviews and in each case the reviewer has acknowledged how the words and pictures work together to evoke these universal themes. My favorite early response, however, didn’t come from a reviewer. It came from my 86-year-old aunt with Alzheimer’s disease from Sulphur Springs, Texas.

Chris, you’re from Sulphur Springs, so you know that it’s a small and extremely conservative town in East Texas. My aunt has lived there for 60 years. When I showed her Why Am I Me? she pored over it, commenting on the colors, turning it this way and that to examine the collage, and reading the words out loud. The questions made her laugh and every so often she’d look at me and ask, “What’s the right answer?” I told her to keep on reading.

When she got to the last page and saw the image of the boy and the girl with their faces overlapping, she said, “They each have one eye of their own and one eye shared.” I held my breath and then asked, “Do you have an answer now?” She thought about it a long time and then said, “White people think they are all there is, but they’re not. We need to think about that.” I burst into tears.

This book is about unity and diversity. It’s about that one eye of your own and the one we share. And if an 86-year-old woman with dementia can realize this, then it means the words and pictures are working together on multiple levels. Because, after all, these aren’t lessons of the mind, so much as the heart.

24 Aug

Speaking of Victo Ngai’s art in Dazzle Ships


(as I was just the other day)

…today there are two generous posts showing off her illustrations for our book.

Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion will be published next Friday, September 1, by Millbrook Press, which is an imprint of Lerner Publishing. The Lerner blog is featuring 5 Questions for Dazzle Ships illustrator Victo Ngai, a post that includes two full spreads from the book in addition to the one you see here. And you’ll get to hear from Victo herself:

[W]hen I showed an advance copy of the finished book to my friends, most of them thought I’d made up the wild patterns on the ships! I had to show them the historical photos at the end of the book to set them straight.

And at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Julie Danielson treats us to The Art of Victo Ngai — specifically, another three spreads from Dazzle Ships.

Many thanks to Jules, Lerner, and especially Victo.

Oh, and a reminder: I’ll be sharing Dazzle Ships with Central Texans at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 7, at BookPeople in downtown Austin. If you think you might be there, please let me know, and if you know someone who should be there, please spread the word!

22 Aug

Victo Ngai’s art in Dazzle Ships: “breathtaking,” “fascinating,” “incredible,” “stunning”


But don’t take my word for it. Let’s see what readers of advance copies of Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion (Millbrook Press) have had to say about Victo’s illustrations in her first picture book.

Unadulterated:

[D]on’t let me out of here without performing some kind of obeisance to Victo Ngai — this is her first picture book but her editorial, product, cover, and advertising work demonstrates a breathtaking breadth of skill. I’m thinking of getting a new tattoo.

Mrs. Knott’s Book Nook:

The illustrations by Victo Ngai are fascinating. I really like the choice of media and although done digitally, it almost looks like it was done in colored pencil. I felt like this spotlighted the artistry of the camouflage.

Miss Magee’s Reads:

Ngai’s incredible illustrations are dazzling in and of themselves.

Jen Robinson’s Book Page:

Visually, Dazzle Ships is stunning, particularly Victo Ngai’s rendering of the dazzle ships themselves. [She] uses a mix of digital and analog media that works particularly well in conveying backgrounds, like the waves of the ocean, and golden skies. A page spread illustrating the concept of camouflage is sure to both entertain and educate young readers, while a futuristic image at the end is inspiring.

Folks in Central Texas can get an up-close look at Victo’s art at BookPeople on Thursday, September 7, at 6:30 p.m. I’ll be reading, discussing, and signing Dazzle Ships — and showing off its magnificent illustrations — and would love to see you there.

20 Aug

Don Tate and me, together again!

Well, in yesterday’s Austin American-Statesman, anyway.

Don and I don’t have a third book together, but we do both have new books, and our home city’s daily newspaper featured them both, along with several other new titles.

And Don and I both have events coming up in Austin.

Next Sunday, August 27, Don will be launching Strong As Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became The Strongest Man On Earth at 3 p.m. at the University of Texas’ Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports.

Then, at BookPeople at 6:30 p.m. on September 7, I’ll be reading from and signing Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion.

We’re both hoping for a strong showing, and we’ll each do our best to dazzle our audience. (Sorry.)

18 Aug

Starred reviews and other good news for Dazzle Ships

I’ve already mentioned the coverage in Kirkus this review, and this interview — of Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion, written by me, illustrated by Victo Ngai, published by Millbrook Press, and available on September 1.

Now I’m happy as can be to point you toward what some of the other major review publications have had to say about the book.

Booklist calls the book “an inspiring story of creativity and adds:

Ngai’s swirling, art nouveau–style illustrations replicate some of the bold shapes and designs on the so-called “dazzle ships,” and the soft colors and stylized figures nicely soften the wartime theme and focus attention to the ships. Barton adds plenty of historical context, illuminating other naval defense schemes of the period, as well as the role of women in creating dazzle patterns.

Dazzle Ships received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which said in part:

“Sometimes desperate times call for dazzling measures,” writes Barton in conclusion, underscoring the importance of creative problem solving. Reflective author and artist notes, a timeline with b&w photographs, and a reading list wrap up a conversational, compelling, and visually arresting story that coincides with the 100th anniversary of its subject.

And our book earned a second starred review, from School Library Journal:

The well-written, intriguing text is complemented by Ngai’s vibrant and surreal illustrations that skillfully recreate the glittering water and the striking camouflaged vessels. … With the commemoration of the centenary of World War I, this book is a fascinating selection that will captivate readers, especially war story enthusiasts.

I hope you’re intrigued enough to get the word out — and show up in person, if you can — for my September 7 reading, discussion, and signing of Dazzle Ships at Austin’s BookPeople.

17 Aug

My first extended conversation about Dazzle Ships*

*with someone not a) directly involved in its creation, or b) married to me

Julie Danielson recently interviewed me for Kirkus Reviews about my upcoming picture book Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion (Millbrook Press), illustrated by Victo Ngai. Here’s a taste:

Jules: So, what was it like for you to see Victo’s illustrations for the first time?

Chris: My reaction to the first cover sketch my editor shared was (and I have the email to prove it): “Oooooh!!!” And I was at least somewhat prepared for what Victo’s art in this book might look like, because I had seen samples of her work before she was selected as the illustrator. I knew it was going to be a visually fantastic book.

But even then, when I saw the first color art for Dazzle Ships — it was the two-page spread for “Britain, the United States, and their allies turned things around…” — my response was, “[H]oly moly, is that artwork astounding! I’m looking forward more than ever to seeing the rest.”

I had fun chatting with Julie, and I hope you’ll enjoy it, too.

If you like the sound of this book, here are a couple of dates to keep in mind:

September 1: Publication day! Buy Dazzle Ships from your most beloved independent bookseller.

September 7: If you’re in Austin, come hear me read and discuss Dazzle Ships that evening at my most beloved independent bookseller.

09 Aug

A video playlist, an educator’s guide, and a new honor for Whoosh!

Last week I received the news that Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions was a finalist for the 2016 Writers’ League of Texas Book Awards.

The WLT announced winners and finalists for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, middle grade/young adult, and picture book, with that latter category won by my friend Donna Janell Bowman’s terrific Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness.

I’m honored to be in such good company, and I appreciate all the effort that went into coming up with those short lists, considering all the writing talent that my home state has to offer.

There’s more good news for Whoosh! enthusiasts. The book’s publisher, Charlesbridge, has put together this downloadable discussion and activity guide, which I hope will come in handy in many libraries and classrooms this school year.

And here’s a little something more for fans of the Super Soaker as well as of the scientist who invented it: a Lonnie Johnson video playlist.

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.