14 Apr

Encouraging words and recommended reading

I’m pausing just a moment to catch my breath between last week’s whirlwind (my first school visit for The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch

Reilly visit cropped

— the Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival, and the San Antonio Book Festival) and this week’s excitement of the Texas Library Association annual conference here in Austin.

While I’m pausing, I’m happy to share a few things published elsewhere recently either about my new book or written by me, starting with this generous review by Margie Myers-Culver at Librarian’s Quest:

The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch written by Chris Barton with illustrations by Don Tate is a remarkable biography. This is a man with whom we should all be familiar. The blend of narrative and pictures is compelling from beginning to end. After the two pages of his speech a single page shows an older John Roy Lynch with a continuation of his beliefs about this country. There is a single page Historical Note about Reconstruction, a Timeline of important dates in John Roy Lynch’s life alongside historical dates, an Author’s Note, an Illustrator’s Note, sources For Further Reading and two maps. This is a back matter goldmine.

School Library Journal also has good things to say about The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch:

Tate’s illustrations, rendered in mixed media, ink, and gouache on watercolor paper, are extraordinary and carry the lengthy story well. The excellent cartoon-style paintings soften potentially disturbing details, such as the Ku Klux Klan burning a church. The book concludes with a thorough historical note. Teachers will find this remarkable story of hope and perseverance a valuable supplement to social studies lessons on the Civil War and Black History Month.

Meanwhile, I’ve been busy with a couple of guest posts. At The Little Crooked Cottage, I was asked to write about my favorite picture book biographies:

There are too many excellent picture book biographies — and too many excellent authors and illustrators working in this field — for me to narrow them down to my all-time favorite five. But there are a handful that have been especially meaningful to me at one time or another, so I’m going to limit my list to those.

And Austin Reading Mama asked for my reading recommendations for grown folks. I was happy to offer up a handful — all of them nonfiction, as it turned out. And the list doesn’t event include the book I’m in the midst of loving right now, Tomlinson Hill, Chris Tomlinson’s fascinating exploration of the histories of his white Texas family and of the African-American Tomlinsons whose ancestors had once been owned by the author’s forebears. It’s eye-opening and well worth your while.

15 Feb

The stunning cover of ‘The Nutcracker’ Comes to America

Sometimes my dog will be sitting in my lap, being hugged and petted on, and he will begin to whine and whimper as if there’s still not enough affection getting expressed, as if it’s impossible that there could ever be any demonstration that would measure up to the love he feels.

It has long seemed absurd to me, but I think I finally get it. I do.

Because, y’all, I just can’t love this enough:

Nutcracker_frontcover

This is what the front of my upcoming book with Millbrook Press, ‘The Nutcracker’ Comes to America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition, will look like. It’s illustrator Cathy Gendron‘s first picture book, and I think she’s done just an astounding job.

I love how Willam, Harold, and Lew Christensen pop right off the page even amid the terrific onstage action. I love the shade of blue that the scene is bathed in. I love the swords. I love everything about this cover.

The book will be out this coming fall, and I hope to be able to share with you some of the interior illustrations soon. (If you’re at the Texas Library Association conference in April, maybe you can even see an advance copy in person.)

But in the meantime, here’s what the entire jacket — front, back, and flaps — looks like:

Nutcracker_jacket

Whine. Whimper.

05 Nov

A much closer look at The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch

John Roy Lynch final cover

Eerdmans Books for Young Readers is offering quite a generous preview of the picture book biography by Don Tate and me that’s coming in April 2015.

The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is the true story of John Roy Lynch’s 10-year transformation from teenage field slave to U.S. Congressman during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Just yesterday, I got to see full-size printed pages of this book for the first time. I’ve never been more proud of anything I’ve written, and I can’t wait for you all to be able to see the whole thing.

29 Oct

Mr. Schu reveals the cover of The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch

John Roy Lynch cover tease

Over at his blog Watch. Connect. Read., librarian John Schumacher has unveiled the cover of my spring 2015 picture book biography, The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers).

So please go, feast your eyes on Don Tate’s artwork, and enjoy a few words from me about the unusual journeys of our subject and our book alike.

27 Oct

A new title for my next* next book

For a decade now, I’ve had a book in the works about Willam, Harold, and Lew Christensen, the Utah-born brothers who had a huge influence in the development of ballet in the United States. Among their many contributions are the first full-length production of The Nutcracker in the US, in 1944.

And for pretty much all that time, this project — which will be published by Millbrook in fall 2015, with illustrations by Cathy Gendron — has gone by the name Pioneers & Pirouettes.

But no more.

As of this week, my Christensen brothers book is called…

The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition

You would think that, after knowing the book by one title for so long, it would be hard to switch to a new moniker. But in this case, nope.

I love this new title — the book itself has changed over the years, the story it tells has shifted, and this new title fits perfectly what this book has become.

RIP, Pioneers & Pirouettes. And long live The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition!

*As opposed to my next book, which is still called The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, the picture book biography of a young man who in ten years transformed from teenage field slave to US congressman. The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch will be published this coming April by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, with illustrations by Don Tate.

07 Oct

Boing Boing, Polygon, The Escapist, and N3rdabl3 on Attack! Boss! Cheat Code!

Attack Boss Cheat Code - May 2014

Boy, has there been a lot of coverage of Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet these past few days. It’s all been great to see, and you can see for yourself at Boing Boing

My 11-year-old daughter, an ardent gamer, was familiar with more of the words in Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! (e.g., griefer, instance, mod, sandbox, unlockable) than I was, but we both appreciated Joey Spiotto’s cute and colorful illustrations that accompanied the terms.

and Polygon

Here’s a new book, gorgeously illustrated, that takes a lighthearted look at the lexicon of game culture. Ostensibly aimed at kids


The Escapist

Hoping to give parents, children and curious would-be gamers alike a new tool to learn about gaming and its wider culture, author Chris Barton wrote Attack! Boss! Cheat Code!: A Gamer’s Alphabet. Due to release later this month, it combines common gaming terms and lingo with colorful illustrations by artist Joey Spiotto to create an introductory book that people of all stripes can learn from and enjoy.

and N3rdabl3:

It’s an adorable take on ABC’s and will likely be a must-have inclusion to the library of any gamer’s new-spawn.

03 Aug

Picture book biographies coming in 2015

Illustration by Adam Gustavson from Fab Four Friends

Illustration by Adam Gustavson
from Fab Four Friends

Inspired by Greg Leitich Smith’s annual list of books from our Austin writing community, I thought I’d start compiling the picture book biographies scheduled for publication in 2015 (including a pair of mine).

I know there are lots more picture book biographies on their way from publishers recognized by SCBWI, so if you’re interested in helping keep this list reasonably complete and up to date, please let me know in the comments which ones ought to be added. I’ll update and republish this post on a regular basis.

The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Eerdmans), written by Chris Barton and illustrated by Don Tate

Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), written by Margarita Engle and illustrated by Rafael Lopez

Earmuffs for Everyone!: How Chester Greenwood Became Known as the Inventor of Earmuffs (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books), written and illustrated by Meghan McCarthy

Elvis: The Story of the Rock and Roll King (Henry Holt), written and illustrated by Bonnie Christensen

Emmanuel’s Dream (Schwartz & Wade), written by Laurie Ann Thompson and illustrated by Sean Qualls

Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles (Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt), written by Susanna Reich and illustrated by Adam Gustavson

The Founding Fathers! Those Horse-Ridin’, Fiddle-Playin’, Book-Readin’, Gun-Totin’ Gentlemen Who Started America (Atheneum), written by Jonah Winter and illustrated by: Barry Blitt

The Hole Story of the Doughnut (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), written by Pat Miller

The House that Jane Built: A Story about Jane Addams (Henry Holt/Christy Ottaviano Books), written by Tanya Lee Stone and illustrated by Kathryn Brown

In Mary’s Garden (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), written and illustrated by Tina and Carson Kugler

The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition (formerly known as Pioneers & Pirouettes: The Story of the First American Nutcracker; Millbrook), written by Chris Barton and illustrated by Cathy Gendron

One Plastic Bag (Millbrook), written by Miranda Paul and illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon

Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton (Peachtree), written and illustrated by Don Tate

Step Right Up: The Story of Beautiful Jim Key (Lee & Low), written by Donna Bowman Bratton and illustrated by Daniel Minter

Trombone Shorty (Abrams), written by Troy Andrews and illustrated by Bryan Collier

Vivien Thomas – The Man Who Saved the Blue Babies (Lee & Low), written by Gwendolyn Hooks

10 Jun

The Writing Process Blog Tour

Melissa Wiley asked if I’d like to participate in this rolling series of authors’ monologues about their current projects and writing processes, and I thought…

Well, from the title of this post, it’s pretty obvious what I thought. So here goes:

What are you working on?

I’ve got a couple of things going on at the moment, both of them picture books under contract.

One is a biography whose ending my editor and I are still trying to nail down — we want to make sure that we hit the final note just right. Do we leave the reader with one last impression of the subject himself, or encourage the reader to view the bigger picture beyond this one person’s life, or invite the reader to look inward and consider how the subject resonates with them individually, or attempt to accomplish something else? The runaway for figuring this out is growing pretty short.

The other book is all made-up fun, or will be. Right now, I’ve got characters and a vague sense of what the conflict is going to be, but so far there’s neither a story nor, frankly, much fun. (Though I’m enjoying myself.) What I’m working on, then, is figuring out the specifics of what happens, or might happen, or could happen, or should, or ought to, etc. Opening lines popped into my head late last night, so I need to revisit those and see if they still seem to set the right tone and get the story going in a good direction.

How does your work differ from others in its genre?

I don’t know that my picture books individually differ drastically from other narrative picture books, but collectively they stand out a bit by falling into two distinct camps. I love writing seriously researched nonfiction, and I love just making up silly stuff, and I feel just as comfortable doing one (The Day-Glo Brothers) as the other (Shark Vs. Train). Enough people have asked me some variation of “How do you do that?” that I understand that enjoying both types of writing is not the norm, but it feels perfectly natural to me. Writing for this audience wouldn’t be nearly as fun if I didn’t or couldn’t do both types of books.

Why do you write what you do?

I write my biographies because something about the arc of an individual’s life — regardless of whether anyone I know has ever heard of this person — fascinates me. I like writing about people who end up in vastly different circumstances from those in which they entered the world, and about how inner drive and outer happenstance work together to change the course of a person’s life, and about the impact that person’s life has on the rest of us. And I like writing about people whose fields of achievement offer lots for me to learn about along the way and lots to distill and convey to my readers.

I write my fiction because I’ve always enjoyed getting people to laugh — or at least taking a shot at getting them to laugh — through the words I string together. It’s no fun when my efforts fall flat, but the times when my audience (even if that audience consists of just one person) does laugh — those keep me going.

How does your writing process work?

For biographies, with the very first piece of research I consult, I generally start creating a timeline of key events in the subject’s life. From that timeline, the period of the person’s life that most intrigues me will begin to emerge — I don’t generally write cradle-to-the-grave biographies, so I’m on the lookout for a significant place to start my telling of their story and a meaningful, resonant place to end my telling. Then I’ll research and research and research until I’m not running into much new information, or not finding any information that alters the story arc that’s taking shape. By then, I’m feeling sort of full and antsy, and I can’t help but start writing, though I’ll probably continue doing research of some sort until the illustrator is entirely finished with the art.

That’s a fairly amorphous process, but it’s even more so for my picture book fiction. Sometimes, I bang out a full draft the first morning an idea occurs to me, or the first day I pull a previously-jotted-down story idea from a pool of candidates. Other times, there’s a lot of mulling — weeks and weeks of mulling — about how to approach a character or theme or plot point before I ever actually start writing what anybody else would consider to be a draft.

For both types of books, I tend to revise a lot as I go. I turn in very clean drafts — not that they necessarily get returned from editors in quite the same condition.

Who’s next?

Who am I going to ask to answer these questions after me? Well, Melissa has already gone to my go-to author.

So, I was thinking that instead I would ask the most recent commenter, which would be Tina Kugler. But I see that Tina has already taken a crack at these questions.

So, how about you? If you’d be up for keeping the Writing Process Blog Tour going — or if you’ve already done your bit — won’t you please leave a comment letting me know where the rest of us can find your answers?

02 Jun

This is your parental brain on Minecraft

Who knows why author Melissa Wiley‘s children chose Minecraft as the vehicle through which to educate her about a major scientist? What matters is that they did, and that the whole thing is adorable:

One day I accidentally fed [Minecraft dogs] Darwin and Newton too many pork chops at the same time, and you know what that means: a puppy. I couldn’t wait for this new pooch to grow up, so I could see what name the girls would give it.

When I came home this afternoon, half dead after a skeleton ambush, the pup was waiting beside the front door, all grown up and sporting a new blue collar. Her name was Annie, the hover-text informed me. I was a little surprised that the girls hadn’t continued the scientist theme.

Shows what I know.

The parental affection is just as obvious, though expressed just a little bit differently, in James Parker’s recent essay in The Atlantic, “The Game That Conquered the World“:

Can it be true that in Minecraft, to apply a line of Philip Larkin’s, how we live measures our own nature? An octopus’s garden, a whirling hall of knives … Choose, minecrafter. Build. It’s all you. My son, to my astonishment, is building an international airport. Me, I’ve killed a couple of cows. I made a start on a crafting table, and then gave up. And now I sit in obscurity, in my roofless house of dirt.

And in case you’re wondering, the “M” in my upcoming book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet does not stand for Minecraft. But the game adored by Parker and Wiley’s offspring is in there somewhere. My own 10-year-old wouldn’t have it any other way.

11 May

Two lessons in keeping an eye on your files

In my school visits, I often shock audiences by revealing that it took THREE AND A HALF YEARS from the day I got the idea for Shark Vs. Train until the official publication date. And then I tell them that The Day-Glo Brothers took EIGHT years, and they all lose their minds — especially those who haven’t yet hit the eight-year mark themselves.

But some upcoming books of mine — and projects that might become books — will end up having gestation periods that make The Day-Glo Brothers look positively possumlike.

The two picture books I’ve got on tap for 2015, The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch and Pioneers & Pirouettes: The Story of the First American Nutcracker, made their first appearances in my computer files in 2006 and 2003, respectively. And the picture book manuscript I’m working on revising this week dates back to October 7, 2002, but it has a way of getting new life breathed into it periodically. Maybe this latest version is the one that will take, but even if it’s not, there’s something immensely satisfying in having an editor point out potential in it that I’d never noticed before in all these years.

The thing is, such projects continue having potential for me only when I continue paying attention to them, or at least when I routinely check in on my files to see if anything about them grabs me anew. There’s a project I had pursued — a biography of trombonist Melba Liston — that I took my eye off of for too long, and I learned this week that someone else has beaten me to it. My consolation is that this summer I get to read Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, the version of Liston’s story that Katheryn Russell-Brown and Frank Morrison have created for Lee & Low, and that’s something for me and you both to look forward to.

In the meantime…