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.

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.

17 Jan

Thank you, POTUS, and thank you, BrainPOP


I’ve been asking librarians and educators for insight into how they teach The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, and especially how they provide contextual information on the Reconstruction era. One suggestion involves a resource many schools and classrooms already have access to: the duo of Tim and Moby at BrainPOP.

Thanks for the suggestion, Bethe!

I’m also grateful to President Barack Obama, who this past week issued a proclamation establishing the Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort County, South Carolina. The proclamation begins:

The Reconstruction Era, a period spanning the early Civil War years until the start of Jim Crow racial segregation in the 1890s, was a time of significant transformation in the United States, as the Nation grappled with the challenge of integrating millions of newly freed African Americans into its social, political, and economic life. It was in many ways the Nation’s Second Founding, as Americans abolished slavery and struggled earnestly, if not always successfully, to build a nation of free and equal citizens. During Reconstruction, Congress passed the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth constitutional amendments that abolished slavery, guaranteed due process and equal protection under the law, and gave all males the ability to vote by prohibiting voter discrimination based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Ultimately, the unmet promises of Reconstruction led to the modern civil rights movement a century later.

That’s some pretty helpful context right there, with plenty more in the rest of the proclamation. And I’m just so glad that this place — this acknowledgement of an essential part of American history — will exist. I can’t wait.

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.

15 Dec

A year-end blast of happy Whoosh! news

How Don Tate and I feel when people say nice things about Whoosh!

How Don Tate and I feel when people say nice things about Whoosh!

The end of the year is list-making time — a fact driven home to me each time I come across yet another Top 10 of 2016’s best music that has heretofore eluded my ears. (I’m trying to get caught up, but would certainly welcome your music suggestions in the comments.)

The past few weeks have brought lots of children’s-book lists of various sorts, and it’s been a happy reminder of how much top-quality work is being done by people in this field. It’s been especially nice to see Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions (written by me, illustrated by Don Tate, and published by Charlesbridge) mentioned here and there.

Below, I’ve rounded up a few instances that have come to my attention. Thank you to all who have taken the time to evaluate and spread the word about the year’s offerings in children’s literature. The rest of you, please follow those links and find some books you think someone would love to receive from you, OK?

The New York Public Library’s list 2016 picks for the Best Books for Kids includes Whoosh!

The Chicago Public Library has included Whoosh! in its list of the Best Informational Books for Younger Readers of 2016.

Kirkus ReviewsBest Informational Picture Books of 2016 lists Whoosh! among its picks.

The Horn Book leads off its list of Recommended Picture Books: Picture Book Biographies — a companion to its recent article “What Makes a Good Picture Book?” — with Whoosh!

Kid Lit Frenzy and Mrs. Knott’s Book Nook have included Whoosh! among the 2016 informational titles under consideration for their Mock Sibert units.

The National Science Teachers Association and a few other organizations (the American Society for Engineering Education, the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association, the Society of Elementary Presidential Awardees, and the Children’s Book Council) have created an inaugural list of the year’s Best STEM Books, and Whoosh! is among them.

Whoosh! is also among the titles included in Booklist’s Core Collection: Picture-Book Biographies of Scientists.

Finally, Whoosh! is included in the Publishers Weekly ShelfTalker blog’s Joyful Diversity Collection, “an initial list of wonderful nonfiction picture books to introduce children to … accomplished, but often less well known, individuals.”

08 Dec

Your 2016 Carter G. Woodson Award panelists

I’ve been running in bunches of directions of late — 65 campuses visited since Labor Day will do that to a guy — and can’t do justice to them all. But one of those directions, briefly, was Washington, DC-ward last weekend for the National Council of the Social Studies conference.

I was there to receive the Carter G. Woodson Award for The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, an occasion that included a panel discussion with other honored authors S.D. Nelson, Winifred Conkling, and Don Tate. Here’s proof that I touched down at least briefly enough for a group photo:

carter-g-woodson-award-panel

27 Nov

How are educators using The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch?

mississippis-people-as-a-whole

I’d like to act as a clearinghouse for schools/educators who have taught/would like to teach The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch.

There’s already an educator’s guide that was made before the April 2015 publication date. Lots has happened since.

If you or someone else at your elementary, middle, or high school has taught and discussed the book with students, what has worked well? What other materials (books, videos, current news) were incorporated? What questions did students have? What would have been helpful?

A summary of the book, for those not familiar with it:

“From enslaved teenager to U.S. congressman in ten years…

“John Roy Lynch spent most of his childhood as a slave, but the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War promised African Americans in the South the freedom to work and learn as they saw fit. While many people there were unhappy with the changes, John Roy thrived in the new era. He was appointed to serve as Justice of the Peace and at age 25 was elected into the United States Congress, where he worked to ensure that the people he represented were truly free.

“This biography, accompanied by Don Tate’s splendid illustrations, gives readers an in-depth look at the Reconstruction period through the life of one of the first African American congressmen.”

Librarians and teachers, please share with me what you’ve got, and I’ll figure out a way to share that with those who could use it.

Thanks, y’all. The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is a story about an era in which great progress was made and then undone. I think it’s very relevant. I want kids to know it.

10 Nov

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

john-roy-and-bluebonnet-and-whoosh
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)

02 Nov

Parents magazine calls Whoosh! the year’s best nonfiction picture book

Whoosh!Big news this week from a magazine read by millions of parents: Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions (Charlesbridge) has been named the best Nonfiction Picture Book of 2016 by Parents magazine.

I’m so glad that my second collaboration with Don Tate has been honored in this way, especially considering the wealth of top-notch nonfiction picture books published this year. (For instance, check out the nonfiction titles named by Publishers Weekly as being among the best picture books of 2016.) My understanding is that Parents asked librarians and other experts in the literary field to nominate children’s books published this year, and the magazine then ran those books past actual kids, and it was those child readers who came up with Whoosh! and the winners in other categories.

Maybe the newsstand edition of the magazine will have more details about the process, because I’m curious about how pretty much everything in this business works, but regardless I’m pleased and proud and grateful. Thank you, Parents — and thanks, kids.