13 Mar

Don Tate goes for sound effects, while I go to the dogs. (Well, a dog.)

The Texas Bluebonnet Award committee invited authors and illustrators with books on the 2016-17 Master List to answer a few questions about their books — not in writing, but on camera.

Don and I each got a little gimmicky as we discussed The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, but we both had a lot of fun. I hope our readers will, too.

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.

04 Feb

John Roy and George and Don and me

POET

To commemorate Black History Month, the Texas Book Festival has posted an interview with Don Tate and me about his book Poet: The Remarkable True Story of George Moses Horton and our book The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch.

Here’s a bit of what Don has to say about the stories he wants to tell:

As a reader, I was a late bloomer. I didn’t become an avid reader until I was in my early 20s. I started reading more as a result of being inspired by authors like Richard Wright, Claude Brown, Gordon Parks, even Malcolm X and Nathan McCall. They wrote stories about black males who overcame obstacles to make great contributions to society. I’d never been introduced to these stories in grade school If I had, I might have become a reader earlier. I want to tell stories that inspire all young readers, but especially young black males who don’t have as many books where they can see themselves.

And here’s me on my inspiration for telling the story of John Roy Lynch:

I wanted kids today to grow up with a better understanding than I ever had of why there was even a need for a Civil Rights Movement a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, and a need for a Voting Rights Act 100 years after Appomattox. It all goes back to the racist determination to undo Reconstruction, and the recent wave of voter-suppression laws in this country shows that’s an impulse that still exists today.

bookcover-johnroylynch

On the subject of The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch and Poet, it’s been a good week for the former and an exceptional week for the latter. Both books have been honored by the Children’s Book Council and the National Council for the Social Studies:

Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People is an annual reading list of exceptional books for use in social studies classrooms, selected by social studies educators. This is an annual project of the [NCSS] and the CBC. This bibliography features K-12 annotated titles published in the previous calendar year, selected by a book review committee appointed by the NCSS.

On top of that, Don’s Poet has won the 2016 Ezra Jack Keats Book Award:

“We are proud to present the Ezra Jack Keats Book Award to the best new talents in children’s illustrated literature each year. These are writers and illustrators whose books reflect the spirit of Keats, and at the same time, are refreshingly original,” said Deborah Pope, Executive Director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation. “This year is Ezra’s 100th birthday! So we are especially delighted to celebrate him by honoring those whose books, like his, are wonderful to read and look at and reflect our multicultural world.”

Congratulations, Don!

02 Feb

A special guest in the audience

The first slide in my school-visit presentation lists a number of things I am in addition to being an author, and one of them is “son.”

“Usually,” I told an audience of second- and third-graders last Friday at Holiday Heights Elementary, “you have to take my word for it.”

But not that day. Friday marked the first time that my mom has ever seen me do a school presentation. She’s a former teacher herself, and she was the guest of a Holiday Heights third-grade teacher whose own mother taught with my mom in Lubbock in the 1960s.

(I’ve known that third-grade teacher practically since she was born, which seemed to make quite an impression on the students at Holiday Heights.)

The presentation went as smoothly as you could hope a presentation would go when you’d like your parents to see how much you love what you do. The 200 or so kids were attentive and enthusiastic — a great bunch.

At lunch afterwards the principal told my mom, “Thank you for sharing your son with us,” which pretty much made my day. And which, I suspect, may have had a similar effect on Mom.

17 Jan

Interview and four-book giveaway with Karen Blumenthal and Cynthia Levinson

The research and writing efforts that Karen Blumenthal and Cynthia Levinson put into their mid-2015 nonfiction publications — Tommy: The Gun That Changed America and Watch Out for Flying Kids!: How Two Circuses, Two Countries, and Nine Kids Confront Conflict and Build Community, respectively — would have been plenty impressive on their own.

But this month has seen the release of a follow-up by each of these lauded Texas authors, and that’s not where the similarities stop. Cynthia and Karen’s latest books have a biographical subject in common. Arriving just before voting begins in the presidential primaries and caucuses, Cynthia’s Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can is geared toward middle-grade readers while Karen’s Hillary Rodham Clinton: A Woman Living History is aimed toward young adults.

(Here’s a quick example of how the target age of each book’s audience is considered in the text: When referring to an Arkansas legal case — involving a can of pork and beans — that Clinton was involved in during the 1970s, Cynthia refers to the “rear end of a rat.” In her book for older readers, Karen gets to use “rat’s ass.”)

I wanted to know how Karen and Cynthia — both of them friends of mine — had each approached working on two highly timely nonfiction books, one right after the other. They offered great answers to my questions, and they also offered giveaway copies of their books.

Later this week, four subscribers to my Bartography Express newsletter will win Karen’s Tommy (Roaring Brook) or A Woman Living History (Feiwel & Friends) or Cynthia’s Watch Out for Flying Kids! (Peachtree) or Do All the Good You Can (HarperCollins). There’s still time to sign up on my home page before the new edition of Bartography Express goes out. But in the meantime…

Chris: Your Hillary Rodham Clinton books are timely because of her campaign, but Tommy and Watch Out for Flying Kids! are relevant to current issues as well. How did events that transpired while you were working on your 2015 books shape how those projects turned out?

Cynthia and Flying Kids

Cynthia: Watch Out for Flying Kids opens in 2006 and ends in 2012, which turned out to be a critical time for both circuses and for world events. As you know, the book focuses on programs that work toward social justice through circus arts. The two featured are the St. Louis Arches, which brings together inner-city and suburban kids in greater St. Louis, and the Galilee Circus, which is comprised of Israeli Arabs and Jews in northern Israel. As I did in We’ve Got a Job, I feature specific youngsters—in this case, two black kids and three whites in St. Louis and two Arabs and two Jews in Israel. When they combine forces every other year, alternately here and abroad, they are about as diverse a group as you can imagine, and they’re all newsworthy.

I think of the research and writing of this book as being a journalistic rather than an archival effort because there is no secondary literature on youth social circus. In fact, I could have used Karen’s expertise as a newspaper reporter! Major aspects of the story unfolded practically in real time as I was interviewing the kids and their coaches. Although Circus is the vehicle, the book is equally about the politics and history of the urban Midwest and the Middle East and also about the young troupers’ abilities to overcome longstanding (even ancient) animosities.

In 2006, hostilities between Arabs and Jews burst out in the Second Lebanon War, a month-long conflict that directly affected all four of the Israelis. Fortunately, racial tensions, though building, were not yet so grave in St. Louis. However, in the summer of 2012, the Arches, who were visiting their partners in the Galilee, got stuck there for an additional week when the Federal Aviation Administration halted flights out of Israel because of warfare between Gaza and the southern part of the country. Just weeks after the Americans finally returned home, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, just a few miles from where the Arches’ director and some of the performers live. This tragedy led to protests and violence there.

As a result, Watch Out for Flying Kids is book-ended with current events.

Karen: Like Cynthia, I was well aware of current events while writing Tommy: The Gun that Changed America, and those events gave the project a real sense of urgency. The book was inspired by an email from my editor, Deirdre Langeland, in the aftermath of the terrible Newtown tragedy. But even as I was writing, there were others — a shooting at the Washington Navy Yard and another on the campus of the University of California-Santa Barbara. Then, just before the book came out, Dylan Roof senselessly murdered nine people during a church prayer meeting. There have been several more since then.

Karen and Tommy

I wanted to tell a true story from history to try to provide some context for the concern about these shootings and the heated debates about what to do — or not do. Each of these tragedies was wrenching, but I had to keep my focus on the history of how America once responded to a dangerous gun on the streets. All those events made me feel that a book like this was even more important for kids who want to understand what the gun debate is all about.

What’s significant to me is what hasn’t changed: Then, as now, the largest number of gun deaths are from suicides. Then, as now, the vast majority of gun injuries and fatalities come from handguns, even though mass shootings grab the headlines. And then, as now, we struggle to find the right balance between individual rights and community safety.

All that said, the breaking news around Hillary Clinton made writing that book even more difficult. But I don’t think you asked that!

Chris: I didn’t, but let’s go ahead and bring writing about Hillary Clinton into the conversation. Was there any cross-pollination between your Hillary books and your non-Hillary books? Did either of you have times when your two books jockeyed for your attention?

Karen: Hmmm. Not really. Of course, I’m often reading proofs and working on photo permissions while researching the next book. But there wasn’t real overlap here. I find biography to be different from a narrative story. With biography, you really want to get to know someone — not just what she’s done, but what she’s like and what she likes. You just want to know everything about her. If I do it right, I’ll hear the subject in my head.

Cynthia: Comparing Watch Out for Flying Kids! with my Hillary bio, I’d say that my experience is similar, though not identical, to Karen’s. The subjects and locations of the two books are different so those aspects did not cross-pollinate. On the other hand, Watch Out for Flying Kids! is not only a narrative story, it’s also composed of capsule biographies of nine kids. Thus, there are structural and procedural similarities. I literally heard the kids’ voices in my head because I listened to my recorded interviews with them! Even when I read the transcripts, I could hear them speaking to me and recall where we sat — or, where I sat while they juggled or tumbled — at the time.

Still, the two books required vastly different methods. Writing a soup-to-nuts biography of one person, especially one who is personally unavailable to the writer, is trickier in ways than writing portions of nine bios. Without direct access to the subject, writers have to use go-arounds to get the information, whereas as I could communicate with the circus performers—assuming they answered their phones when my number popped up on their screens. In addition, the arc of the two narratives is different. With Watch Out for Flying Kids!, which takes place over six years, a classic story arc materialized; with a full life-span to cover, that might not happen.

There was substantive overlap, however, between Do All the Good You Can and my earlier book, We’ve Got a Job. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. appears in both books — as a major figure in the Birmingham marches and as a bit player but inspiring one for Hillary when she met him in high school. I even mention the protests in Birmingham in my bio of Hillary as examples of political events that were beginning to catch her attention.

The commonality among all three books is their focus on different ways of doing good—circus, racial protests, and Hillary’s many activities, some of which accomplish good results and others of which backfire. I don’t know if that theme says more about her or about me.

As for the timeline, “jockey” is hardly the word to describe the tussle between meeting the deadlines for Do All the Good You Can and for Watch Out for Flying Kids! The release date of the latter was delayed because of Peachtree’s publication schedule. So editing, photo researching, fact-checking, etc. of that ran smack into researching and writing the other. Also, I had only seven months from soup to nuts, that is, from agreeing to write the Hillary bio to turning in the manuscript. (Actually, I stretched it to eight.) It was a very intense time!

Chris: Karen, what have been the biggest differences for you between researching and writing about a single, famous person — Hillary Clinton, in this case — and creating a book about a more expansive, less individualistic subject such as guns and gun control? How much of that depends on the deadline?

Karen: Such a challenging question!

So much depends on what’s available on the subject. Researching a famous person like Hillary Clinton is daunting Woman Living Historybecause there is SO much about her. I make an effort to at least look at every book I can find about my subject, even those out of print. But there were dozens about Hillary or about the Clintons and I couldn’t get to all of them. So I focused on finding as many primary sources as possible–oral histories, her high school and college newspapers, videos of appearances, and interviews and interview transcripts, as well as hundreds of newspaper and magazine stories.

It was very hard not to get lost in the weeds–and admittedly, sometimes I did. At times, the research was overwhelming and the book length grew and grew. I blew through my deadline, and at one point, I almost gave up. Luckily, I have a very supportive network, including my husband, my agent Susan Cohen, and my editors.

Tommy was such a different project. In a sense, it was a biography of a gun. But the gun story was actually a smaller story that influenced several bigger stories around it: Guns and gun laws in our culture, the rise of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, the impact of Prohibition gangsters and Depression outlaws, and even how the military develops guns. There were only a few books about the Tommy gun per se, so I did a lot of research in several different areas. My stack included books on Capone, Hoover, and the NRA’s Americans and Their Guns.

Behind all of this is a central theme: trying to make sense of very controversial or complex subjects for young people. Often we see or hear about something or someone in only one way when reality is a lot more complicated than that.

Chris: On that note, Cynthia and Karen, I’ve got one last question: How do the portraits of Hillary Clinton that emerged from your researching and writing about her compare to the public figure you thought you knew when you got started?

Cynthia: Hillary has been a public figure since Bill was elected to state office in Arkansas when she was 31 years old. Over three-plus decades, the information, mis-information, gossip, innuendoes, inquiries, and revelations have proliferated to the extent that it’s hard to have a fixed perspective on her image. In addition, given how much and how long she’s been in the news, she has become more and more private and self-protective. Although her reaction is understandable, it’s also confounded the problem because the press becomes hungrier, more probing, and more speculative in the absence of facts. All of this is to say that my image of her before I started researching and writing the book was muddled and contradictory.

Do All the Good You CanSo, for me the question is, What did I learn that was new and that helped put her into perspective? Certainly, her religious faith, which several of her staff and friends strongly emphasized, was a revelation (as it were!) to me. I came to believe that it’s sincere, deeply motivating, and — relevant to your question — private. Her Methodism has rarely been a part of the public conversation about her; she doesn’t wear her religion on her sleeve.

Speaking of her friends — and also relevant to your question — several also told me that they don’t recognize the person they read about in the press. That is, the Hillary they know is not the Hillary as she’s conveyed. Their perspective was missing from the public impression. Because they know her well, at least in one aspect of her life, I wanted to portray her in, at least in part, that way, too. As a result, I wrote in the Acknowledgments that I wanted to bring her to life in the book as “a warm, funny, thoughtful” person. I also wrote that she is a “humanly flawed” person. Given her extraordinary accomplishments, her well-publicized missteps, and the mixed press she receives, it can be hard to remember that she is a feeling human being.

I hope that the examples I give of all of these these aspects — warmth, humor, thoughtfulness, and yes, human errors — fill in and round out what people think they know about her.

Karen: I’ve never covered politics, so I had only a very public view of Hillary Clinton. My editor’s only request was, “make her human.”

It turned out to be harder than I thought. When she writes about herself, she’s almost clinical. She doesn’t talk about herself much. And the press and pundits love to focus on the warts. Politicians — virtually all of them — shape their public persona based on polls. So it is hard to see the real person there.

But the more I read and watched and listened, the more a fuller person emerged. Over and over, people talked about her sense of humor and empathy in small settings. Like Cynthia, I was intrigued and surprised to discover her devotion to her Methodist faith. her conversations with her friend Diane Blair, you could feel her frustration with the endless scrutiny, her passion, her commitment to contribute to the world — and even her love for Bill. Of course, there was plenty of political posturing as well. And she definitely has made some decisions that make you want to question her judgment. But I came to the conclusion that in addition to a big brain, there was also a real heart there.

People ask me if I like her. To be honest, when you spend so much time researching someone, they become like a specimen, not something you like or dislike. She is fascinating, accomplished and hard to understand. And human. I hope that comes through.

09 Jan

Many thanks to Joe McDermott and Phil Bildner

The recent KidLit TV segment on Modern First Library would not have happened without the enthusiastic support of my friends Phil Bildner and Joe McDermott.

Phil’s role was obvious — he was on-camera with me and BookPeople‘s Meghan Goel. But what part did Joe play?

Well, who do you think was behind the camera?

That’s right. Not only is Joe McDermott a high-spirited singer, songwriter, and children’s performer, he’s also pretty handy with video production.

So help me thank him, why don’t you? If you’re in Central Texas, you could book him for a show.

Or you could buy his new CD and coloring book combo, Coconut Beach:

Coconut Beach

Phil’s been busy, too, which makes me all the more appreciative of his taking the time to support Modern First Library while he was visiting Austin for the Texas Book Festival.

How busy? Well, he did have two new books out in 2015:

A Whole New Ballgame

MarvelousCornelius

And he is pretty occupied with the approximately 75,000 school visits he does each year.

So, as with Joe, you can show your thanks to Phil by buying one of his latest or by booking him for a visit to your school. You’ll be glad you did, and I’d appreciate it, too.

31 Dec

Recognition, celebration, validation

Here’s to the end of 2015, everybody. I hope you’ve had a satisfying year, and that no matter how well things have gone, it’s wrapping up for you on a positive note.

If you’re reading this, you’re one of the reasons I feel so fortunate to be doing what I do. Thank you for taking an interest in me and my books.

And if you’re someone who has taken the time to publicly recognize or celebrate or validate the work done by authors of books for kids, thank you especially for that. It makes a difference to us, and I know I’m not the only one who appreciates your efforts.

To close out the year here at Bartography, I want to recognize, celebrate, and validate those efforts by sharing with my readers a few of the kind gestures that folks have made toward my work recently.

If you follow these links, I hope you’ll look around a bit and see what other books have caught their eyes. Maybe you’ll discover your first favorite read of 2016…

Authors Chris Barton and Jennifer Ziegler. Photo by Sam Bond Photography.

Authors Chris Barton and Jennifer Ziegler. Photo by Sam Bond Photography.

Kate Hannigan interviewed me and also interviewed Jennifer for the Author Of… blog:

Attack Boss Cheat Code - May 2014

Michele Knott at Mrs. Knott’s Book Nook generously spotlighted all of my picture books and then named Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet to her list of My Favorite Nonfiction Picture Books from 2015

Mighty Truck

Public Libraries Online featured An Interview with Troy Cummings, illustrator of my text for our upcoming Mighty Truck series

bookcover-johnroylynch

The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch was…

Nutcracker_frontcover

‘The Nutcracker’ Comes to America was…