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.”

08 Feb

A book about a girl, a book for a boy


Two exchanges I had with students last week in the booming town of Prosper, Texas, have remained on my mind back at home this week.

The first exchange was right before one of my elementary-school presentations, with a girl who handed me a letter that read in part:

I wonder if you have a book about a girl? If you don’t can you please make one? Sorry if I’m wasting your time. But I want you to please make a book about a girl. p.s. I have a french name.

The Texas girl with the French name was absolutely was not wasting my time.

I told her about my book coming out next year about a real girl from Texas, Barbara Jordan, who grew up to be a Congresswoman and teacher of ethics in public service. While we wait for What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?, I wish I could have told this student that I had more books with female lead characters. There have been manuscripts of mine that have focused on girls and women but which haven’t (yet!) gotten acquired by a publisher, and books of mine with a mix of male and female characters. But those aren’t of much use to a young reader who would like to read a book, right now, that’s primarily about a girl and written by the author visiting her school. This is something for me to work on.

I did ask the librarian to make sure the girl with the French name received one of the bookmarks I’d brought for Jennifer Ziegler‘s warm, funny series about the fictional Brewster Triplets, 11-year-old Texas sisters who aspire to be President, Chief Justice, and Speaker of the House, respectively. Especially for this girl, I signed my name and wrote Jennifer’s URL on the bookmark. I also asked the librarian to please emphasize that I was not delegating responsibility for writing female characters to my wife — it’s just that Jennifer’s books about girls already exist, and mine don’t yet. But I’m working on them, and I suspect I’ll be working harder at them from now on.

I mentioned two exchanges with students, and that was the first. The second was right after another of my sessions. Toward the end of my presentations, I share the cover of Jennifer’s first Brewster Triplets book and let my audience know that not only am I an author, but I’m married to one, too.

So, it was a few minutes after that revelation that a boy came up to me and asked, “What was the name of your wife’s book?”

“It’s called Revenge of the Flower Girls,” I told him. “I think you’d like it.”

26 Jan

La mejor noticia I’ve had all week


Monday afternoon, right between two school presentations, I checked my phone and received news that I’ve been hoping for for a long time: There’s going to be a Spanish-language translation of Shark Vs. Train!

There have been editions of Shark Vs. Train in Korean and Portuguese, as well as two different Chinese translations, but none in Spanish, a language spoken in the homes of so many students I see here in Texas.

Spanish is also the language that I learned in high school, promptly began forgetting, and started relearning in the past year. So now I’ve got myself a goal: By the time Scholastic Reading Club begins offering this new translation of Shark Vs. Train in September 2017, I want to be able to perform the book with all the confidence and enthusiasm that I’ve had when reading aloud the original version for all these years.

¡Deséame suerte!

As for how this came about, at my request last fall, my agent reached out last fall to Little, Brown to ask about the possibility of an edition in Spanish. Boy, did my publisher act fast, as did Scholastic. I cannot thank them enough — nor emphasize enough that my fellow authors are well within reason to ask their own publishers about Spanish-language translations of their own books. You don’t ask, you don’t get.

06 Jan

John Roy chose to stay

Texas students in grades 3 through 6 will be voting this month for their 2016-17 Texas Bluebonnet Award favorites, and one of the many blessings of having The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch on this year’s list is that it has given me the opportunity to talk about the book at scores of schools in my home state.

I often read the book in its entirety to audiences, and when I’ve finished the text on this page —

When the Altamont chugged away, taking its crew home to the North, John Roy could have gone along. He had the choice to stay or go, and he chose to stay. Natchez was his home. Fellow former slaves reveled in the promises of freedom — family, faith, free labor, land, education. John Roy wanted to be part of that.

— I stop.

“How many of you,” I ask, “knowing only what you know now at this point in the story, and knowing only what John Roy Lynch himself knew at this point in his life, would have gone on to the North with the crew of the Atlamont?”

Sometimes two or three hands go up. Sometimes, it’s only one. Often, no one in the audience says they would have headed north.

“And raise your hand if you would have chosen to stay — to participate in those promises of freedom: family…”

By this point, at least some hands are already held high.

“…faith…”

More hands.

“…free labor…”

More
hands.

“…land…”

More.

“…education.”

Pretty much every child in the room has a hand aloft by this moment. And each and every time, I take that as a sign of hope.

You see, I know what happens next in the story. I know what became of these “promises of freedom” in the South immediately after the Civil War.

As I put it in the text on the very next page, “Freedom, however, soon turned sour. Mississippi whites passed laws to make Mississippi blacks into slaves under different names: ‘Apprentices.’ ‘Vagrants.’ ‘Convicts.'” Don Tate’s art on that next page depicts a whipping in progress, and a lynching about to occur.

Students often gasp when we get to that next page.

But on the page before, as the Altamont heads off into that beautiful sunset, the children in the room are guided by their optimism, by their sense of fairness and what’s right, by an innate belief in what should happen next. Of course it should be freedom. Of course.

I am, by nature, an optimist. I think I’m a realist, too, but when viewing that reality I tend to err on the side of expecting good and hopeful things to happen. For many people I know, however, this year has begun with such expectations deeply challenged.

Maybe that describes you, too.

I wish you could experience that feeling I get when I share the “When the Altamont chugged away…” spread of The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch with children. When I see by the show of hands their expectations of progress, justice, and equality, how could I not be optimistic?

And at the same time, how could I not be determined to do what I can in my life — to do the work — to help make their expectations more often come to pass?

Jennifer surprised me last month with an early Christmas present. And she had help from Don. Unbeknownst to me, she got a piece of his original artwork from The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch framed and snuck into our house.

It now resides on our living room wall, where it will serve as a daily reminder of what the young people in Texas and elsewhere in this country expect from me, from you, from us, and from our future.