06 Dec

The first 20

Kids often ask me how many books I’ve made. Heck, my mom recently asked me that, too. It’s legitimately a frequently asked question.

The answer is 20, including upcoming releases All of a Sudden and Forever and Fire Truck vs. Dragon.

(For what it’s worth, it’s now been just over 19 years since the day I realized I wanted to write books for children, so I’m now in Year 20 of this career. So, today’s post is brought to you by the number 20.)

Here are those first 20 books, in chronological order:

For more details on most of these, plus a couple of anthologies I’ve contributed to, have a look here.

Here’s to the next 20, and the next 20. Thank you for joining me along the way.

02 Dec

“I was drawn toward tales of underdogs — especially when they banded together to achieve something none of them could ever do on their own.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for December 2019)


Welcome to the Q&A and giveaway for the December edition of my Bartography Express newsletter, which you can sign up for here.

My two-question Q&A this month is with author Scott Peterson, a transplant to the Pacific Northwest, and with illustrator and lifelong Mexico City resident José García.

Scott and José are the creators of the new dystopian YA graphic novel Truckus Maximus, which smashes together monster trucks, the Roman Empire, and a high-stakes reality TV competition and was published this fall by First Second.

The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, in recommending Truckus Maximus, summed up the book this way:

With its action-packed visuals, tricked-out cars, and edge-of-your-seat racing stunts, this sci-fi graphic novel holds plenty of tween and teen appeal. The plot reads like an alt-world action movie, complete with training montages and climactic race to the finish, but the story never loses its heart or its humor. Readers will be drawn to Axl, stubborn Piston, and the rest of Team Apollo’s crew. Give this broadly likable novel to fans of … Lowriders in Space, NASCAR, racing video games, and The Fast and the Furious franchise.

I’m giving away a copy of Truckus Maximus to a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address. If you want to be that winner, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on New Year’s Eve , and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Scott Peterson and José García.

Chris: How does Truckus Maximus fit in with what you yourselves read when you were in middle school and high school? Is this a book that would have been up your alley at that time in your lives, or does it reflect interests that you’ve acquired since then?

author Scott Peterson, as depicted by Mike Parobeck

Scott: Well, on one level, it’s nothing like anything I was reading in high school, because unlike most of my comics-creating peers, I didn’t read comics in high school.

I loved comics when I was in younger, but the small town I grew up in didn’t have a comic book store (not many did, back then), so it was only when I could convince my mom to buy one off a spin rack in the grocery store that I lucked out.

Fortunately, my oldest brother, Jay, got into comics for a few years, courtesy of our more sophisticated New Yorker cousin Dominic. But once Jay stopped collecting, I was out of luck. So I read and re-read that three-or-so-year period of comics over and over again. But I didn’t read any new comics from about 1978 to about 1988 or so.

Then I happened to see a spin rack of comics in a 7-Eleven one night in college and thought, hey, I haven’t read a comic book in forever! I picked one up — it was a Batman, naturally — and was instantly hooked. Then I discovered the work of the great writer Alan Moore and realized comics could actually be literature. A year or two later, my then-girlfriend/now-wife (children’s novelist Melissa Wiley) helped me to realize I might just want to try to make this my career.

But when it comes to the larger picture — the kind of story, and not just the medium — then yes, it fits in with what I was passionate about, the kinds of stories toward which I gravitated. I loved what’s now known as speculative fiction, but which back then was simply called sci-fi or fantasy, with some horror thrown in. (I don’t think I had yet read anything which could be called alternate history, which is very much part of the larger speculative fiction banner, and which is probably where Truckus Maximus fits best.)

But even within those genres, it was the type of story that attracted me most: I was drawn toward tales of the underdogs, the misunderstood, the outcasts — especially when they banded together (perhaps being forced to do so) in order to achieve something vitally important but which none of them could ever do on their own. The idea of a small group fighting against forces much bigger and stronger than themselves, and willing to make tremendous sacrifices, for some utterly imperative goal really resonated with me in a way I don’t think I fully realized for many, many years.

illustrator José García, in avatar form

José: Yeah, totally, as a young reader I was introduced to comics with the Death of Superman and Batman: Knightfall. I don’t think I understood them all that well at the time, but the drawings were cool so I got hooked into comics that way.

As great as those comics were, I wasn’t all that invested on following those gritty, more mature comics just yet. That’s were I found Uncanny X-Men. For me, Joe Madureira’s art was the hook! His drawing style, combining the best of American comics and manga, got me right away.

Once I got to read the adventures of the X-men, a bunch of underdogs trying to save the world while they were never really accepted was an appealing idea to me and my situation.

If I had seen Truckus Maximus back then, I would totally have picked it up. The one thing I never really liked about comics was how briefly action scenes would last. Sometimes an epic battle was cramped into one or two pages at best, but Truckus takes its time for the emotional and action scenes thanks to Scott’s awesome writing skills.

And of course, I’d pick a book written by Scott Peterson. At that time, Scott’s Batgirl was my favorite comic!

And the best thing is, Truckus Maximus is all in just one book — no need to hunt down every single issue or wait one month to get to another cliffhanger.

Chris: While you were working on Truckus Maximus, did either of you have other projects in the works that you can talk about, or are you one-project-at-a-time creators and/or secretive types?

José: I’d love to be able to work on just one project at the time, but that’s financially impossible for me. I’m usually drawing three or four books at the time, and I’m not secretive at all! (Unless the contract says otherwise.)

While I was working on Truckus, I finished three issues of an indie comic called Broken for Neat-O Comics, a mix of Pokemon battles and robots and teenage shenanigans. In total I believe I made 100 inked pages for that.

I inked, drew, colored, and lettered another 150-page comic called Comics in Academics Chapter One: The Discovery, an educational comic which I don’t really know if it was published or was a digital release.

Then I worked on two books for French publisher Ankama Editions called Death Road, Tome 1 and Tome 2 (art, colors, lettering), each 65 pages about a parent trying to keep her recently deceased daughter’s spirit from entering to hell, and one personal book called Egoista — around 90 full-colored pages for a contest I won in Mexico.

I might have missed a book or two in the middle, my first months drawing storyboards for Dreamworks TV, lots of commissions, and opening online art courses, but yeah, those were busy times.

Scott: I have to laugh, because I KNEW José and I were going to be giving such radically different answers to this one. :)

I’ve always had a tendency to go deep into something I’m into. So for a few years after I first went freelance, for instance, I listened to pretty much nothing but jazz. Then I listened to nothing but classical music for several years. Before I knew it, it’d been a decade since I’d listened to pretty much any rock and roll, any of the stuff I’d grown up obsessing over.

So when I work on one project, I tend to go deep. If I’m in Gotham, I’m in Gotham. Even visiting Metropolis or Tatooine or the Roman Empire or Oz or wherever will be jarring, so if I can help it — and I’m a freelancer, so I can’t always — I try arrange to work on things sequentially and not concurrently.

When I started writing Truckus Maximus, I think I worked on it and nothing else for about six months. I sent the first rough draft off to our editor at First Second and while I was waiting on her notes, I wrote a miniseries set in Mumbai. When the notes came in and it was time for my second draft, though, I still had a few issues of the Mumbai series left, so I just had to let Truckus sit until that was done.

A similar thing happened later when Jose started sending in Truckus pages. I was so excited to get them, but I was nearly done writing the Batman: Kings of Fear miniseries, and for about five months, that was all I did or could do: 100% Batman, 100% of the time. So I took a few days to finish up writing that and then took weeks and immersed myself in José’s amazing pages.

I wish I were more like José. :)

25 Nov

An opportunity for Texas students: Letters About Literature

Questions (and a contest! with a cash prize!! and a video featuring me!!!) for Texas students grades 4-12: How did an author’s work change you or your view of the world? How and why are you different now than you were before you read this work?

For more details, visit the Texas Center for the Book at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

21 Nov

Starred PW review for Fire Truck vs. Dragon: “Frustrated expectations have seldom been so funny”

There’s been another encouraging assessment of Fire Truck vs. Dragon, which I wrote and Shanda McCloskey illustrated, and which will be published March 10 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Behold, a starred review from Publishers Weekly!

This time, the joke is on readers: unlike the rivals in Shark vs. Train, Fire Truck and Dragon are besties (“We get along great!” says Fire Truck. “Why wouldn’t we?”). Each time there’s a possible confrontation involving Dragon’s incendiary talents and Fire Truck’s capacity to extinguish them, the result is comically companionable. … Frustrated expectations have seldom been so funny; Barton’s misdirections are beautifully timed, and McCloskey’s digitally enhanced pencil-and-watercolor drawings are bright and exuberant.

12 Nov

Fire Truck vs. Dragon review: “McCloskey’s daffy cartoons make a perfect complement to Barton’s high-wired hilarity”

Fire Truck vs. Dragon — written by me, illustrated by Shanda McCloskey, and coming next March 10 from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers — just received its first review. And it’s a good one from Kirkus:

From the title, fans of Barton’s Shark vs. Train (illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld, 2010) will be prepped for some major fire-and-water action. The three child protagonists certainly anticipate a humdinger of a battle, but unfortunately, antipathy is not on the menu. Turns out, Fire Truck and Dragon are the best of buds. Worse, they won’t even take advantage of their natural gifts. … Barton deftly upsets expectations, both for those familiar with his previous book and newcomers who know what “versus” means. Laughs come equally from the disappointed children in the book as well as readers’ thwarted guesses as to what is going to happen.

There’s more good stuff in there, too. In fact, this one review brings up pretty much everything I’d want anyone to say about the book. Just to be clear, though, that phrase in the excerpt above is “disappointed children in the book,” not “children disappointed in the book” — a key distinction!

04 Nov

“I’ve definitely become the Betty Crocker of fry bread since production of the book started. People expect it now wherever I go.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for November 2019)

Welcome to the Q&A and giveaway for the November edition of my Bartography Express newsletter, which you can read here and sign up for here.

My Q&A this month is with Kevin Noble Maillard, a New York-based author and law professor who is a member of the Seminole Nation, Mekusukey band, and Peruvian-born, Arizona-based, Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal.

Kevin and Juana are the creators of the new picture book Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story, which was published last month by Roaring Brook Press. The text begins:

FRY BREAD IS FOOD
Flour, salt, water
Cornmeal, baking powder
Perhaps milk, maybe sugar
All mixed together in a big bowl

In one of several starred reviews that the book has received, Booklist said:

Fry Bread celebrates the thing itself and much, much more. … Maillard and Martinez-Neal bring depth, detail, and whimsy to this Native American food story, with text and illustrations depicting the diversity of indigenous peoples, the role of continuity between generations, and the adaptation over time of people, place, and tradition. Fry bread becomes a metaphor for resilience, born ironically, as Maillard explains, from the most basic of government-issued ingredients. Martinez-Neal’s (Alma and How She Got Her Name, 2018) illustrations are meant to be relished, lingered over. … A lengthy author’s note provides valuable context and history, as well as the author’s personal evolution into the “fry bread lady” with his own modern take on the recipe.

I’m giving away a copy of Fry Bread to a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address. If you want to be that winner, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on November 30, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Kevin Noble Maillard and Juana Martinez-Neal.

Chris: Fry Bread is a visual feast, a feast of story, and a feast of information. There’s just so much to it. What’s the one thing that you each learned in the process of creating this book that you believe most contributed to its succeeding in all those ways?

Author Kevin Noble Maillard

Kevin: That picture books are one of the purest forms of creative collaboration. It literally took a children’s book village to make this thing.

We have not only the author and the illustrator, but also our editors, publicists, agents, tribal members, bloggers, influencers, and librarians. I may have had a semantic idea in my head, but then Juana put it to picture and it turns into something greater. Then our editors ask questions and request justifications for these choices, and the publicists seek crystal clear articulations of what this book really means. And when it comes to media influencers and librarians, they directly promote our book to parents, teachers, and students.

This process of creation is dialectical. Everything is push and pull. Other eyes see opportunities or problems in the smallest of potentially huge issues. We debated over the shape of grandma’s hips for a few weeks, and we also had many deep discussions about whether the characters should wear shoes, the curve of a facial expression, and the amount of redness in the skin tone of the characters.

Because picture books are resplendent with meaning and the representation of Native subjects is a very complicated issue, we really wanted to cover all possibilities and preempt any missteps. None of us could have done this alone.

Illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal; photo by Jade Beall

Juana: I agree with Kevin. This book has been a collaborative project which wouldn’t be what it is now if it wasn’t for the participation, support, and vision of everyone involved in it. We all poured our own personal life experiences while working on Fry Bread. It was very important to push back on common misconceptions, and avoid stereotypes.

Chris: Kevin’s author’s note states, “Fry bread as a daily cuisine is no solution. Like the previously mentioned birthday cake, fry bread is not an every-meal staple, like naan bread or jasmine rice. It is best enjoyed in moderation.”

That said, did either of you consume more fry bread than usual during your making of this book, and what’s your plan for handling all the fry bread — which may or may not have been made according to Kevin’s recipe — that’s sure to await you at school visits and other events?

Juana: I’m SO waiting for the chance to taste Kevin’s fry bread. But in the meantime, I have a few places around Phoenix where I have to stop by. As for what I’ll do with all the fry bread that may be waiting for us at school visits and events, I plan to enjoy it with no moderation.

Kevin: It’s so easy for me to make fry bread now, which is a huge turnaround since I started making it on my own. I’ve definitely become the Betty Crocker of fry bread since production of the book started. People expect it now wherever I go.

But the way I make it is pretty time consuming, so it’s hard to throw it together quickly like guacamole or fruit salad. It tastes best right out of the skillet, so I like to fry and serve immediately.

If I can plan ahead of time, and make it in my own kitchen at home, I can really crank it out. But I made enough fry bread for 98 students last week, and while I was waiting for the dough to rise, I prepared for class, did some radio interviews, and checked my emails. When the dough was ready, I kept on doing these three tasks — all while frying the bread.

31 Oct

What do you do with a Bluebonnet book like that?

You celebrate it!

It was a thrill to be in the audience in Austin last Saturday at the Texas Book Festival for the announcement of the Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List books for the 2020-21 school year:

I try to attend the announcement every year, but it was especially exciting this time because among the 20 titles on next year’s list is my picture book biography What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster), illustrated by Ekua Holmes.

Ekua Holmes and me in Austin, the day before the announcement

As a native Texan long residing here in our capital city, I am beyond delighted that this biography of an inspiring hero from my home state will reach so many readers participating in the Texas Bluebonnet Award program during the next school year.

I think the world of this program, and I am honored and immensely grateful that the selection committee chose to include What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? Among students and classes that invest their time in voting for their favorite Bluebonnet books, the excitement — not only for those titles, but for reading, writing, and literacy in general, all of which contributes to greater academic achievement — is palpable, and I’m so proud to again be a part of that.

From my two previous stints on the list (both times with books illustrated by my friend Don Tate), I know that having a Bluebonnet author or illustrator visit a school is a powerful way to generate student enthusiasm and drive participation. And I appreciate the fact that my being based in Austin means lower travel costs for my hosts here in the Lone Star State.

While I do still have some author-visit dates available in winter/spring 2020, I am already beginning to actively schedule visits to Texas schools for September 2020 and beyond.

With two new picture books next year — All of a Sudden and Forever: Help and Healing After the Oklahoma City Bombing and Fire Truck vs. Dragon (a companion to Shark vs. Train) — along with my third appearance on the Bluebonnet list, there will be lots for students and me to talk about.

If you’d like me to visit your school, or if you have a friend or colleague looking for an author to host, I’m more than happy to start having that conversation. Here’s a good place to start.

23 Oct

“An affecting story of loss rooted in one specific tragedy.”

I awoke this morning to the first review of my upcoming nonfiction picture book All of a Sudden and Forever: Help and Healing After the Oklahoma City Bombing, illustrated by Nicole Xu and coming next February 4 from Carolrhoda Books/Lerner Publishing.

It’s a starred review from Kirkus, which notes that “Grief knows no boundaries” and concludes by calling the book “An affecting story of loss rooted in one specific tragedy.” I’m so thankful to the people at Lerner who saw the same need for this book that I did.

17 Oct

All right, let’s go! Next time at Target…

…spend some dough on Mighty Truck: On the Farm and Mighty Truck: The Traffic Tie-Up (HarperCollins), written by me and illustrated by Troy Cummings.

Paperback editions of these first two early readers in the I Can Read! series of Mighty Truck books are available at many Target stores.

And remember: The rest of the Mighty Truck early readers as well as both picture books are available anywhere that wheely really fine books are sold.