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.

10 Nov

Whoosh! is on the brand-new Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List

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I’m happy as can be to spread the news that the 2017-18 Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List announced last weekend at the Texas Book Festival here in Austin includes Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions.

Whoosh! is my second collaboration with my friend Don Tate. Its predecessor, The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, is on the 2016-17 Bluebonnet list. Students and librarians often ask me how it feels — and what it means to me as an author — to have a Bluebonnet book, so I want to talk a little about that.

Put simply, the recognition has had a gigantic impact on my career.

How gigantic? Well, having a book on the Bluebonnet list created an opportunity for me — 15 1/2 years into my career as a children’s author — to make a leap of faith and leave my day job. For the past several months, I have gratefully, blessedly, enthusiastically been a full-time author.

I now spend many of my days visiting Texas schools. I’ve been to 52 campuses so far this school year, with many others in store during the next few months.

So, getting onto the list once has been marvelous. But to be back on the Bluebonnet list for a second straight year? I hardly know what to say except, to the Texas Bluebonnet Award committee, thank you for again including Don Tate and me in such fine company.

Readers, here’s the full list for 2017-18 — congratulations to all these authors and illustrators!

Ada’s Violin by Susan Hood, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)

The Best Man by Richard Peck (Penguin/Dial)

Follow the Moon Home: A Tale of One Idea, Twenty Kids, and a Hundred Sea Turtles by Philippe Cousteau and Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Meilo So (Chronicle)

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (Algonquin Young Readers/Workman Publishing)

The Great Pet Escape (Pets on the Loose!) by Victoria Jamieson (Macmillan/Henry Holt) [Special congrats to Victoria, author/illustrator of Roller Girl, for also returning to the Bluebonnet list for a second year in a row!]

The Great Shelby Holmes by Elizabeth Eulberg (Bloomsbury)

In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall, illustrated by James Mark Yellowhawk (Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS)

The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd (Scholastic Inc.)

The Last Kids on Earth by Max Brallier, illustrated by Douglas Holgate (Penguin/Viking)

Little Cat’s Luck by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Jennifer A. Bell (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)

Lola Levine: Drama Queen by Monica Brown, illustrated by Angela Dominguez (Little, Brown)

The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Spirit Week Showdown by Crystal Allen (HarperCollins/Balzer & Bray)

Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee (Simon & Schuster/Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books)

The Princess and the Warrior by Duncan Tonatiuh (Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS)

Soar by Joan Bauer (Penguin/Viking)

Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart (Scholastic Inc.)

The Storyteller by Evan Turk (Simon & Schuster/Atheneum)

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Little, Brown)

Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung (Scholastic Inc.)

Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton, illustrated by Don Tate (Charlesbridge)

06 Oct

Justice

“Justice. Peace. Black people saw reason to believe that these were now available to them.” — from The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch

I’m used to the subject of justice coming up when I visit elementary schools — it’s a central theme of The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, which I discuss with third grade and up (sometimes second grade, too). And when I sign copies of that book, the inscription I use is “Strive for justice and peace!”

But it was a new — and marvelous — experience this week when I was asked to personalize a book like this:

To Ms. X’s…

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It was the first time I’ve ever been asked to address a group of kids in such a way. Won’t it be great if it’s nowhere near the last?

07 Jun

My 18 days in Singapore

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Until the very end of April, I’d never been outside North America, but I corrected that in a big way when I took a 14-hour flight from Dallas to Doha and then another flight — this one a mere seven hours — to Singapore.

The occasion was my 12-day stint as author-in-residence at the Singapore American School. I conducted two-day writing workshops for the second- through fifth-graders and got to read a book or two to the schools first-graders, kindergartners, and pre-K students.

My view from SAS each morning as I made my way from the cafeteria to the elementary library.

My view from SAS each morning as I made my way from the cafeteria to the elementary library.

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Among my hosts was librarian Kate Brundage. I brought her a gift from back home -- a copy of Sarah Bird's A Love Letter to Texas Women -- without having any idea that Kate herself is technically a Texas resident.

Among my hosts was librarian Kate Brundage. I brought her a gift from back home — a copy of Sarah Bird’s A Love Letter to Texas Women — without have any idea that Kate herself is technically a Texas resident.

A few glimpses of what one of those writing workshops looked like.

A few glimpses of what one of those writing workshops looked like.

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One of the students laminated my autograph!

One of the students laminated my autograph!

The school days were full, but there was much I wanted to see in my downtime, so I got out and about a lot. Besides, I figured I could sleep on my long flight home. (This turned out not to be true.)

On my first Saturday there, I had lunch in Little India, visited the Sultan Mosque —

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— took a break for Japanese ice cream and coffee, went to a festival at the Thai embassy, and ended the day with an IMAX screening of Captain America: Civil War with Chinese subtitles.

Singapore offers a marvelous mix of cultures, history, natural beauty, and adventurous architecture. Here are a few of my favorite sights:

Marina Bay Sands from the south in midafternoon

Marina Bay Sands from the south in midafternoon

Me on the 55th floor of Marina Bay Sands, looking south

Me on the 55th floor of Marina Bay Sands, looking south

Another view from the top of Marina Bay Sands, of Gardens by the Bay

Another view from the top of Marina Bay Sands, of Gardens by the Bay

A few up-close views of Gardens by the Bay

A few up-close views of Gardens by the Bay

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(Yes, those are made of LEGO.)

(Yes, those are made of LEGO.)

Inside the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown

Inside the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown

The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in Little India

The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in Little India

Inside the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator

Inside the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator

Most of the signage was in English. Some was less familiar to me.

Most of the signage was in English. Some was less familiar to me.

I picked the right day to follow my mom's suggestion and go to the modernism exhibit at the National Gallery Singapore.

I picked the right day to follow my mom’s suggestion and go to the modernism exhibit at the National Gallery Singapore.

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What else? Let’s see — there was a wet market:

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The MacRitchie Reservoir Park, with Kate Brundage…

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…and monkeys:

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The Singapore Botanic Garden, with an Evolution Garden that I especially liked:

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Though this guy was also a highlight:

But my favorite place to photograph was, without a doubt, Haw Par Villa:

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The centerpiece of Haw Par Villa is the Ten Courts of Hell, the representations of which are a bit extreme. There are serious punishments for more infractions than I knew existed. Trust me, you don’t want to suffer the consequences of misusing books.

But I can’t end there. I’ve got to go back to SAS and one of the campus cats. Because campus cats.

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21 Feb

Mail call

Recently I’ve been on the receiving end of some pretty nifty cards and letters and artwork from students — some at schools I’ve visited, some who have connected with my books without ever meeting me. I look at all of it, and I appreciate all of it, and I thought you might like to see some of it.

Mail call!

A photo posted by Chris Barton (@bartographyatx) on

I've already seen the first fan art for MIGHTY TRUCK, even though the book doesn't come out until the end of March.

A photo posted by Chris Barton (@bartographyatx) on

More MIGHTY TRUCK fan art!

A photo posted by Chris Barton (@bartographyatx) on

"…it was the best day of my life…"

A photo posted by Chris Barton (@bartographyatx) on

12 Feb

Advice for young writers, tips for parents of young readers

PTO Today (“Helping Parent Leaders Make Schools Great”) interviewed me recently about my own reading and writing as well as about how parents can support their kids’ growth in those areas.

When asked what advice I would give PTOs and PTAs that want to encourage kids to read and write, here’s how I answered:

It’s terrific to know that PTOs and PTAs are so engaged in something that’s so essential yet so easily taken for granted. I would just add that there’s no better investment of time, money, or effort than supporting school libraries and school librarians. I’m a little biased, but I believe this is truly a golden age for children’s literature….We need to make sure that there’s budget to acquire those books, a welcoming space in which to display them, experts on hand who can emphasize the connections between engaging new works and great books published previously, and time and opportunity for kids to discover and embrace those books.