18 Oct

Bartography Express: “Mommas would tell him, ‘just don’t kill him!'”

Every now and then, I like to throw my newsletter subscribers a curve – or, in this case, a spiral.

The Q&A for the October edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here) is with my friend Michael Hurd, author of the new nonfiction book Thursday Night Lights: The Story of Black High School Football in Texas (University of Texas Press). Michael is a longtime sportswriter as well as the director of the Texas Institute for the Preservation of History and Culture at Prairie View A&M University.

Thursday Night Lights is geared toward adults, but it’s accessible to high school- and middle school-aged lovers of football and history. It’s an eye-opener, and it definitely would have been a revelation to the adolescent version of me, who played University Interscholastic League football in Texas without ever giving a thought to the story or structure (overseen by the Prairie View Interscholastic League, or PVIL) of the sport as it was played at African American high schools in the decades before desegregation.

(I wonder if Michael’s book might inspire students in other states to research the history of pre-integration high school sports closer to home. Any educators out there want to take that idea and run with it?)

This month, one newsletter subscriber will win a signed copy of Thursday Night Lights. (If you’re not a subscriber yet, there’s still time.) In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Michael Hurd.

Chris: The influence on and involvement in students’ lives by their coaches was one of the most striking aspects of Thursday Night Lights. Was there a particular relationship between a coach and his player – or players – that was especially meaningful or moving to you?

Photo of Michael Hurd by Taylor Johnson

Michael: That’s a great observation. What immediately comes to mind is Houston Wheatley’s Frank Walker. In the book, his daughter, Frances, talks about how her dad was so committed to building the program and taking care of his players that it confused the family’s budget.

Out of his own pocket, Coach Walker would buy needed practice equipment, maybe provide a meal now and then, and for his graduating seniors going off to college, he’d purchase their bus tickets, clothing, and give them some pocket money.

But, I doubt he was the only coach in the PVIL who did those kinds of things for his players. There was a real symbiotic relationship between the players and coaches at the PVIL schools and those relationships extended well off the field as nurturing experiences. Many of the coaches were father figures for boys who may not have had a male parenting figure at home, and even some who did.

In regard to that, my favorite quote in the book is from Joe Washington, Sr. who coached in Bay City and Port Arthur. He talks about the trust that parents had in him, and black coaches in general, to discipline and essentially raise their sons. He said the mommas would tell him to take their son and do what they needed to do, “just don’t kill him!”

Chris: Your interview subjects were frank about the bittersweetness of integration as it affected black high school football programs and the people in those programs. How did what you learned from them square with your own recollections about integration and the waning days of segregation?

Michael: That was one of the things that I really enjoyed about researching and writing the book. A lot of my interviews turned into old home week discussions, reflecting on the Sixties and what that was like for black people as segregation slowly eased into integration.

One day there were all these places – theaters, restaurants, neighborhoods – that before, we couldn’t go here, we couldn’t go there, couldn’t do this or that, then the next day, no problem, more or less. So I talked about those kinds of things with a lot of my interview subjects, especially the Houston guys, and those conversations brought back a lot of memories for me.

An example: I had always gone to segregated schools, elementary and high school, and graduated in the spring of 1967. Then, in the fall of that year, black and white schools played against each other for the first time. So, when I went back for homecoming it had a totally different feel. We were playing at a different stadium and against a white team!

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.

17 Feb

H.M. Bouwman on writing A Crack in the Sea: “I am adding my words to a giant pile of kindling”

From the February 2017 issue of my Bartography Express email newsletter:

I’m delighted this month to feature A Crack in the Sea (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), the magical new middle-grade novel by my friend H.M. Bouwman, with beautiful illustrations by Yuko Shimizu.

The starred review the book received from Publishers Weekly began this way: “The Middle Passage and the fall of Saigon: two terrible events, separated by centuries, with seemingly nothing in common. But for Bouwman anything is possible, including the existence of a second world.”

Also, that second world? It includes sea monsters.

I’m giving away a signed copy of A Crack in the Sea to one Bartography Express subscriber residing in the US. If you’d like that winner to be you, just say so in a reply to this email before midnight on February 26, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, as always, I’ve got a brief Q&A with the author. But H.M. — I know her as Heather — did a terrific interview recently with Caroline Starr Rose. I recommend their conversation so highly that my feelings will not be one bit hurt if you go read that first and then come back for the one I had with Heather.

Chris: You mentioned [in the interview with Caroline Starr Rose] that, after your writing of A Crack in the Sea began with the image of a giant raft and the story of the Zong slave ship, “More images and stories and real world events influenced the writing as the manuscript progressed.” Can you please talk a little more about that interplay between the fiction you were creating and the unfolding of real life around you?

Heather: It’s hard to remember exactly how things progressed in drafting and revising, Chris! I feel like I’m making up a story about how the book was written….

That said, I do remember very clearly revising this book as I was seeing and hearing news reports about boatloads of people fleeing Syria. There are particular photos and stories….

I know, too, that I felt then (and still feel) in some ways very helpless to change world events. I can give money to organizations that help others, I can vote and write letters to support change, I can show up at marches — but I’m not myself a lawmaker or a doctor without borders or an aid worker.

But I do write stories. I think that writing for young people is a long game — you are putting stories out there that have the power (as all stories do) to influence people’s hearts and lives, but you don’t see any evidence of that for years sometimes, if ever. I hope that 20 years from now there will be a teacher or politician or medical professional or store clerk who will be a better person because of something they read when they were a kid — maybe even something I wrote. I feel sometimes like I am adding my words to a giant pile of kindling, all these loving and thoughtful and creative works for kids, and that immense bonfire burns so bright, and I love thinking that I’ve contributed to it.

In this illustration by Yuko Shimizu, the characters Caesar and Kinchin ride on the head of a Kraken.

Chris: I see lots of ways in which A Crack in the Sea will have just that power for its audience — and many ways in which your book will seem especially timely to readers. I’m struck not only by the themes of escape, immigration, and refuge, but also by the ways that different cultures and abilities (in both humans and in sea monsters!) are appreciated, and in how citizens of Raftworld intervene when their leader is prepared to make a decision out of pure self-interest that would have a dramatic and damaging effect on his own people.

Do you yourself see any of that? Now that your book has been published while life around it goes on, are you still noticing new ways in which A Crack in the Sea may resonate with kids, new ways in which readers may interpret its stories, new ways in which educators can put your book to use?

Heather: With this book, I was thinking mostly about issues of escape, immigration, and refuge (as you put it so well). For sure.

But yes, there were other issues, too, that floated to the surface as I was writing. For example, I have a friend and the son of a friend who are both faceblind, so I was thinking about that — and about my own struggles over the years with chronic back issues — thinking about the ways that invisible (or somewhat invisible) differences are handled in our society.

And I was thinking a lot about villains as I wrote this book: What makes for a good antagonist, and how might an antagonist be also a basically good person — a person capable of growth and change and empathy just as much as a protagonist?

And I was thinking, from 2011 forward (in other words, not just in the past couple of months, though it might seem that way) about how political leaders should make decisions, and how they should govern — not through autocratic or dictatorial means, and not through condescension, but through careful listening to the people and tending of their best and most noble hopes and dreams. (In this sense, Jupiter the storyteller is the ideal politician…which is kind of interesting, yes?)

I’m sure there were other things I’m not thinking of right now. Oh! I was thinking about food; I get hungry when I write. I’m fairly sure that’s why Caesar is always hungry.

28 Oct

October 2016 Bartography Express: “They are amazed at what he accomplished.”

To get Bartography Express in your inbox each month — and to have a shot at the November giveaway of Space Dictionary for Kids: The Everything Guide for Kids Who Love Space, written by Amy Anderson and Brian Anderson — you can sign up on my home page.

20161021-bartography-express

29 Nov

Join Jennifer and me in supporting the Giving Tree

But you're on your own for the Taco Cleanse.

But you’re on your own for the Taco Cleanse.

On Saturday, December 5, Jennifer and I will celebrate the release of our new holiday-themed books — her Revenge of the Angels and my ‘The Nutcracker’ Comes to America — with an open-to-the-public event at Austin’s BookPeople benefiting the store’s Giving Tree charity program.

Giving Tree provides a way for BookPeople customers to provide books for children in need who are served by three locally based charities. Instead of an author Q&A this month, I’ve invited leaders of each organization to share with you a little bit about the work they do. Just follow these links to read about the Women’s Storybook Project of Texas, Saint Louise House, and BookSpring.

Guests at our December 5 event who buy any hardcover children’s book to donate to Giving Tree will be in the running for the giveaway of signed sets of Revenge of the Angels and ‘The Nutcracker’ Comes to America.

Two subscribers to my Bartography Express will also be winners. In addition to the BookPeople event, Jennifer and I are giving away a signed copy of each book. If you’d like one of those winners to be you, just 1) subscribe to Bartography Express, if you haven’t already, and 2) say so in the comments to this post, and we’ll enter you in the drawing.