06 May

“It was meant to be funny. This little zombie kid embracing a big ol’ root vegetable like it was his teddy bear. But then it hit me: That was Mo.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for May 2019)


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

My Q&A this month is with married collaborators Megan and Jorge Lacera, the creators of the picture book Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies!, published last month by Lee & Low Books.

In a starred review, Kirkus said, “Tasty and homegrown, this hits a strange and specific trifecta: a lightly bilingual book that feels inclusive not only for Latinx kids, but also for different eaters and for those who aren’t afraid of gory, monster-themed humor.”

To a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address, I’m giving away one copy of Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies! If you want to be that winner, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on May 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Megan Lacera and Jorge Lacera.

Chris: Side-by-side collaboration between author and illustrator is the exception in picture books — usually the author creates the text and then, for the most part, steps aside while the illustrator brings in the visual aspect of the storytelling.

What’s something that Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies! would have lost if the two of you had worked on it in that traditional way? Is there a particular page or attribute or other element of the book or story that comes to mind?

Megan Lacera

Megan: Such a great question, Chris! I don’t think we would have arrived at the same story if we hadn’t collaborated so deeply.

Early on, after I had written several versions and Jorge had storyboarded out the book numerous times, we were looking at all of the different pieces together. There was good stuff happening, but it wasn’t gelling the way we hoped. While we talked about the issues, Jorge sketched. The result was an image of Mo hugging a carrot. It was meant to be funny — and it was! This little zombie kid embracing a big ol’ root vegetable like it was his teddy bear. We both cracked up.

But then it hit me: That was Mo.

Veggies were much more than something he liked to eat. He loved them. Growing them, harvesting them, mincing them, dicing them. All of it. They were essential to who he was. That realization led to a key discovery for our story: that Mo had to fully embrace his differences. There wasn’t another choice because this wasn’t a food preference. It was love.

Jorge: Megan is a pun master, and we tossed a lot of them back and forth that we thought were funny and worked with the story.

Early on in the story we had a series of vignettes where Mo is trying to convince his parents to give veggies a try. We knew we wanted a bunch of visual gags, so I went to the list we kept of puns and spotted “head of lettuce” and immediately the visual of a scarecrow but with a lettuce head popped into my head.

I think the whole time it was an organic back and forth between the art and the text.

Jorge Lacera

Chris: Your website credits your six-year-old as “Studio Lacera’s Chief of Research and Story Development.” Reading abilities and interests can grow and change so quickly at that age — are there ways that your own storytelling has evolved as a result?

Jorge: Thankfully for us, Kai’s interests seem to match ours. From the start we knew we wanted to collaborate on a variety of stories, from picture books to middle grade and beyond. We hope Kai keeps up with us — otherwise he might need to be transitioned to another department.

Megan: Maybe because he is a only child, or maybe it’s just who he is, but Kai has always wanted to be involved in our work. He loves stories of all kinds and has a gigantic imagination.

The truth is that part of including him on our site is because he wanted to be — and he certainly is a big part of what we do. He loves to share his thoughts on projects and has very strong, definite ideas.

I think our own storytelling has evolved with Kai because we see how he (and other kids) has so many things vying for his attention, like tablets and smartphones and all kinds of gadgets. Instead of being deterred by that, we embrace that there is “competition.” We think about how we can grab his attention with a character or idea — and tell stories that keep that attention. It’s a big challenge!

03 Apr

“Being able to recreate a slice of my border town was a truly magical experience.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for April 2019)


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

My Q&A this month is with Raúl the Third, the illustrator of the Lowriders graphic novels (written by Cathy Camper) and now a creator of picture books.

Raúl’s first book as author and illustrator, ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market!, was published yesterday by Versify/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He now lives in Boston, but the book evokes Raúl’s childhood in El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

¡Vamos! has received four starred reviews, including one from the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books that says the book’s “grab bag of bilingual terms embedded in dialogue, signage, and stray scraps of text invite[s] all readers to have a grand time latching onto what they know and figuring out what they don’t.”

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

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Raúl the Third.

Chris: After illustrating the three Lowriders graphic novels, what were the biggest surprises in making your first picture book?

Raúl: I would say that the biggest surprise was how many more books I would complete if I was only making picture books! We are nearly done with the second ¡Vamos! book.

I really enjoyed the entire process and being able to recreate a slice of my border town was a truly magical experience.

Chris: The title page for ¡Vamos! has a credit that may be familiar to graphic-novel readers, but one that I don’t think I’ve seen before in a picture book: “Colors by.”

For the uninitiated, what does a colorist do, and for this picture book where did your work leave off and her work begin?

Raúl: Elaine Bay is the colorist for ¡Vamos! Let’s go to the Market! I am so incredibly lucky to be working with her on this series as the colors have the feel of the border town we were both raised in.

As the illustrator, I am turning over black and white line art to Elaine Bay that she then colors using a wide array of media. She has a library filled with stains and marks, and using a Cintiq she colors the book both digitally and traditionally.

I love exploring the different marks, patterns and textures she has been using.

05 Mar

“I don’t think there’s a kid in the world who hasn’t felt like an underdog at some point.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for March 2019)


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

My Q&A this month is with Melissa Stewart and Stephanie Laberis. Melissa and Stephanie are the author and illustrator, respectively, of Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs, an acclaimed nonfiction picture book published last year by Peachtree.

The biggest animals, the fastest ones, the strongest, etc., get plenty of attention in picture books — but not in Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers, which instead shines a light on species (zorillas, anyone?) whose survival-aiding attributes are less heralded.

I’m giving away one copy of Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers to a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address. If you want to be that winner, please let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on March 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Melissa Stewart and Stephanie Laberis.

Chris: Was there a certain animal — a particular pipsqueak, slowpoke, or stinker — that you gravitated toward when creating this book? One that drew you to this topic in the first place or that you were especially excited to write about or depict?

Melissa: I was a clumsy, uncoordinated, unathletic kid, so the western fence lizard is kind of my hero. See how its “weakness” helps it catch prey?

Let’s face it. Eating is pretty important if you want to stay alive, and this lizard has come up with a completely unique way to get the job done.

This lizard’s surprising hunting strategy is just one example of this book’s core concept. Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs is a book about animal adaptations and celebrating the traits that make us different and unique.

I think that’s an important message for kids because we all have our weaknesses, our foibles, and I don’t think there’s a kid in the world who hasn’t felt like an underdog at some point.

Stephanie: I’ve got to say, it was the okapi that won me over from the start. They’re one of my favorite animals, and I didn’t even know they existed until I was in my late 20s.

Illustrator Stephanie Laberis

I was at the San Diego Zoo and wandering about, sketching the animals. I glanced up and saw a gorgeous okapi just emerge from the bushes of its habitat and couldn’t believe what I was seeing! I love how they look like they’re cobbled together from other animals.

I was happy to not only have an excuse to illustrate an okapi, but to introduce kids to them! They don’t get enough recognition as other African animals do, like elephants or lions.

Originally, I was going to have the okapi depicted with a paper bag over its head, because they’re so shy! It was deemed a little too silly in the end and didn’t make it to the final artwork, but that’s typically how I like to approach my animal artwork: light hearted, with a splash of fiction.

I’m happy with the representation of all the species in the book and hope that readers are intrigued to find out more about their favorite underdogs!

Chris: What’s next for you? What do your readers (and their parents, teachers, librarians, etc.) have to look forward to in the not-so-distant future?

Stephanie: I’m happy to say that I have a lot of animal-themed books on the horizon, both fiction and nonfiction! March 5th marks the release of Unhappy Birthday, Grumpy Cat!, marking Grumpy Cat’s first book in the Step Into Reading series by Random House.

Later this year and in 2020 we’ll see two more picture books, Peppermint Post by Bruce Hale and Just So Willow by Sara Shacter. I also have completed a nonfiction book focused on nocturnal animals with Highlights, but it’s a little too early to reveal details on that one!

Author Melissa Stewart

Melissa: I’m really excited for the publication of my next book with illustrator Sarah S. Brannen. Seashells: More than a Home will hit bookshelves on April 2. It’s a companion title to our 2014 book Feathers: Not Just for Flying.

Seashells describes some of the unexpected ways sea creatures use their shells to swim, anchor themselves, find and eat food, avoid enemies, and more. It has received a starred review from Booklist and is a Junior Library Guild selection.

05 Feb

“Her life is changed forever because of the kindness of strangers she meets along the way.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for February 2019)


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

My Q&A this month is with author Lesléa Newman and illustrator Amy June Bates, creators of the new picture book Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story, which is officially published today by Abrams Books for Young Readers.

Based on Lesléa’s own family history, Gittel’s Journey tells the story of a child’s immigration across the Atlantic — on her own, after a dramatic separation from her mother — and the compassionate welcome she receives from a port worker upon her arrival in America. This second collaboration by Lesléa and Amy has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal.

I’m giving away one copy of Gittel’s Journey to a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address. If you want that winner to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on February 28, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Lesléa Newman and Amy June Bates.

Chris: Gittel’s Journey isn’t your first collaboration. How have your experiences of making this book and bringing it into the world compared to those of your previous effort together, Ketzel, the Cat who Composed?

Leslea Newman. Photo by Mary Vazquez.

Lesléa: I started writing Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed and Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story in the same way I always start writing: from a deep, heartfelt connection to the subject matter.

Ketzel and Gittel have a lot in common: Both books are based on true stories, both books contain Jewish themes that translate into universal themes, and both books are about finding home.

In the case of Ketzel, a homeless cat is taken in by composer Moshe Cotel. Because of Mr. Cotel’s kindness, Ketzel’s life is changed and in turn, she rewards him in a completely unexpected and delightful way. In the case of Gittel, persecution forces her to leave her home and journey to a new land. Her life is also changed forever because of the kindness of strangers she meets along the way.

In terms of writing, the idea for each book came about in a totally different way. Let’s start with Ketzel:

I found out about this story purely by happenstance. One day I was sitting in my writing room with a blank piece of paper in front of me and not an idea in my head. Bored, I picked up my synagogue’s newsletter from the coffee table in front of me, hoping for distraction. The theme of my Rabbi’s monthly column was the concept of being open to the unlikely opportunities that lie in every moment and which offer delight and surprise.

As an example, he cited the true story of Ketzel, who ran down Moshe Cotel’s piano keyboard one morning for no apparent reason. Mr. Cotel jotted down what he heard and sent it into a contest, and lo and behold, Ketzel’s composition won honorable mention and Ketzel became world famous! Before I even finished reading the Rabbi’s column, I knew this was a children’s book waiting to happen.

The story of Gittel is one that I have known all my life.

My Aunt Phyllis’ mother, the real Gittel, came to America at the turn of the 20th century by herself when she was just a child. She was given a piece of paper with the name and address of a relative written on it and told to hold that piece of paper tight and give it to an immigration officer when she got to the USA. She did so, but to her surprise, all the ink had worn off on her hand and the note could not be read. Her photo was put in the newspaper and her relatives recognized her and came to Ellis Island to claim her.

In 2015, I kept seeing images of Syrian refugees in small boats washing ashore with fear, relief, sorrow, and hope etched on their faces. I kept thinking of the fact that my own grandparents traveled across an ocean with the same hopes and fears. And that’s when the story of Gittel resurfaced in my heart and my mind and I knew it was time to tell this story.

I wrote many many drafts of both books and did a great deal of research, so that I could get the details right. The absolutely gorgeous illustrations for both books added so much depth and brought the stories to life in a way that I never could have imagined. I know Amy June Bates worked very very hard on both books, and in my opinion, she is a genius!

Amy June Bates

Amy: I love hearing these stories, Lesléa. Lesléa is an amazing genius writer and I have been profoundly lucky to work with her on these two books.

In the case of Ketzel: The year I illustrated Ketzel, I did two books back to back about stray animals being befriended. Now I have two dogs.

It’s a funny process illustrating a book, getting into the mind of the characters, sympathizing with them and imagining how they must have felt. One of the things that I love about Ketzel is that the two, they save each other. Moshe saves Ketzel, but Ketzel also saves Moshe. I really feel like that is what animals do for us. Especially when you rescue an animal, it is A LOT of work to rehabilitate an animal, but I also feel like it is repayed in full.

I took piano lessons for 18 years, and my mother was very happy to learn that I put my piano knowledge to good use. For example, in the spread where Ketzel the cat was across the keyboard, the keys that the cat is walking on are the notes in the music.

I want to emphasize, however, that dogs should not play the piano. If my dog Chester walked across my keyboard, we would none of us recover.

Gittel’s Journey is such an important book for this time, and for all times because it is the story of so many Americans, no matter if you immigrated today or hundreds of years ago. Many don’t want to leave their homes, but are forced to leave because of danger or economics. Either way it is difficult and dangerous.

In light of recent events it is particularly excruciating to think of the fear that Gittel must have felt with no way to communicate or find her mother or family. Terrifying. Her story is everyone’s American story. Every immigrant is America’s story.

I enjoy illustrating history. I love doing the research. I found travel logs of boats that carried immigrants like Gittel and traced their routes. I could look up a specific steamer, find its brochure with pictures of the bunks and and even menus. Sometimes I do fall down a rabbit hole…but that is the fun of it, I guess.

Chris: Your dedications for this book each seem so fitting. Amy, you dedicated Gittel’s Journey “For all children who come to this country seeking freedom and safety,” and Lesléa, you went with “For Aunt Phyllis — I love you to pieces!”

I’m curious — whenever either of you dedicates a book to a specific person, as you both did with Ketzel, when and how do you let them know? Or do you let them discover that for themselves?

Amy: This is dedicated to the one I love:

Usually when I do a book there is a sentiment or a feeling, or something going on in my life that connects me to this book at this time and in a specific way. Sometimes that is outside my immediate friends and family, for example in the the case of Gittel’s Journey. I have ancestors that crossed that ocean to escape famine and hunger and economic despair or religious freedom, and I am grateful for their sacrifice, but when I was making this book I was thinking of the people that are going through those same sacrifices right now.

When I dedicate a book to a specific person, I like to let them find it themselves.

Lesléa: I never realized how much a book dedication meant until a book was dedicated to me (Cat Talk by Patricia MacLachlan). Usually I know to whom I am going to dedicate a book the moment I start writing it. Though I keep that knowledge to myself until the book is published (which in at least one case took ten years!). Luckily I am very good at keeping secrets! When the book comes out, I send a copy to the person named in the dedication.

In the case of Gittel, the choice was obvious. The book is about my Aunt Phyllis’ mother, so of course I dedicated the book to Aunt Phyllis, from whom I heard the story. My Aunt Phyllis ends every phone call (and I speak to her almost every night) with the words, “I love you to pieces.” I presented the book to her in person, and when she read the dedication she laughed and then she cried. Being able to give my aunt that much joy is one of the highlights of my literary career.

09 Jan

“I hadn’t anticipated how the story would resonate with so many readers.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for January 2019)

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

My Q&A this month is with Donna Janell Bowman, author of the nonfiction picture book Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter and published by Lee & Low.

Step Right Up tells the true story of how formerly enslaved William “Doc” Key relied on the power of kindness to transform a sickly colt named Beautiful Jim Key into an astounding equine specimen capable of feats of reading, writing, and math. The book has been selected as a finalist for readers’ choice awards in six states, including the Bluebonnet Award in Donna’s home state of Texas.

Donna is also the author of Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, a 2018 picture book (illustrated by S.D. Schindler and published by Peachtree) about a little-known scrape that Lincoln got himself into as a young man — a duel that could have ended his career or even his life. And like me, Donna loves doing school visits.

I’m giving away one signed copy of Step Right Up. If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want that winner to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on January 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Donna Janell Bowman.

Chris: Step Right Up was published in October 2016, which means that librarians and other educators have now had more than two years to try out ways of connecting young readers to the story of Doc and Jim Key. There’s been time for word of their efforts to get back to you, and for you to see some of those efforts for yourself.

During that time, what has stood out to you about the ways that kids and adults have responded to Step Right Up?

Donna: There’s an extra dose of my heart woven into Step Right Up, but I hadn’t anticipated how the story would resonate with so many readers. The ways Doc and Jim inspired kindness is worthy on its own, but the fortuitous timing of the book’s release — a month before the presidential election that put families and neighbors at odds — elevated the story’s appeal even more. The time was ripe for a kindness story then as now.

It is heartwarming to know that schools and libraries are using Step Right Up to spark discussions about kindness and to promote anti-bullying environments. I occasionally receive fan mail or the unexpected gift, like the kindness book made up of twenty or so pages illustrated in watercolor — an Iowa class’ random act of kindness to me. Yep, they instituted a random-act-of-kindness tradition. Be still my heart!

Through letters and photos from educators and at the schools I visit, I am humbled by hallways plastered with student-signed copies of the downloadable Step Right Up Kindness Pledge, artwork inspired by Daniel Minter’s exquisite illustrations, painted kindness-inspired keywords, paper kindness chains with links produced by every student, Popsicle-stick horses, horseshoe-shaped compliments exchanged between students, pet blankets made for local animal shelters. And on and on. Educators are brilliant at weaving impactful lessons into fun art projects. They know that, while kids busy their hands making things, their minds and hearts are connecting to the story.

Chris: Is there a book that you’ve come across — either in your creation of Step Right Up or since your book was published — that you think complements Doc and Jim Key’s story especially well? Something that readers who love Step Right Up might also enjoy?

Donna: I’m gonna be a rebel here, because it’s almost impossible for me to zero in on a single recommended title for young readers, in part because Step Right Up seems to appeal to a very broad age range, and it touches on several concepts, especially kindness.

I hope Step Right Up primes kids to learn more about the people who championed the humane treatment of animals, and Nancy Furstinger’s Mercy: The Incredible Story of Henry Bergh, Founder of the ASPCA and Friend to Animals is a great introduction.

For a contemporary true story about a woman who took extreme measures to rescue a horse from an abusive situation, I recommend G. Neri and Corban Wilkin’s middle-grade graphic novel, Grand Theft Horse.

For picture book readers who love animal stories, Maria Gianferrari and Luisa Uribe’s Operation Rescue Dog ticks a lot of boxes, including information about animal shelters.

And, goodness, I hope readers will rediscover the preeminent book to spark empathy for animals — Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, which has the bonus appeal of a connection to Beautiful Jim Key. You see, Jim was seen as the living example of Black Beauty’s message.

02 Nov

“It’s gratifying to think that I may be introducing a reader to a scientist whose life might inspire them.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for November 2018)


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

This month my Q&A is with author Mélina Mangal and illustrator Luisa Uribe, creators of the new picture book biography The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett Just.

The Vast Wonder of the World (Millbrook Press/Lerner Publishing) introduces readers to Just, an author, teacher, and expert in marine organisms. A South Carolina native, Just spent much of his career working in Europe to avoid limitations imposed by racism and segregation in the United States.

“Ernest was not like other scientists,” Mangal writes. “He saw the whole, where others saw only parts. He noticed details others failed to see. On the dock at dawn, he wrote poetry.”

In a starred review, School Library Journal calls the book a “must-purchase picture book biography of a figure sure to inspire awe and admiration among readers.”

I’m giving away a copy of The Vast Wonder of the World. If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and want to be the 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 Mélina Mangal and Luisa Uribe.

Chris: I read a lot of biographies as a kid (and have continued to since then), but until your book I’d never heard of Ernest Everett Just.

How did you each become aware of him, and how do you feel knowing that — because of The Vast Wonder of the World — young readers are going to be much more aware of Just’s life and work than their parents and grandparents have been?

Author Mélina Mangal

Mélina: I had never head of Ernest Everett Just before the night I attended a Black History celebration at my daughter’s school. She picked up a coloring sheet that featured his picture and a brief bio. When I saw it, I wondered, Who is he? Because I’m a school library teacher, I’m familiar with quite a few scientists and other famous people from history. Ernest Everett Just was a mystery to me.

I went home, did a quick Internet search, and found out that Dr. Just had been featured on a US postage stamp. Dr. Kenneth Manning at MIT wrote a book about him called Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just. I bought it, read it, and became even more fascinated with Ernest Everett Just.

After reading more about him, I thought, this is a scientist that young people should know about. Very few kids are able to name important scientists, and even fewer know about other African American scientists.

I was also in awe of the quality of the book. Dr. Manning did such careful research and brought together so many facts in such an interesting way. His book inspired me too. I wanted to create for children what he had created for adults.

Throughout the over five years it took to research and write the book, I traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, poured through even more books and documents, and interviewed family members and scientists.

Knowing that my book will now be in the hands of young readers is such an uplifting feeling. It’s gratifying to think that I may be introducing a reader to a scientist whose life might inspire them. This is especially important to me as there were so few books about African Americans available to me as a child.

It’s so important for young readers to read about people who look like them, people who may have experienced some of the same challenges, yet persevered and succeeded. I’ve benefitted from the scholarship and work of so many before me. To be able to continue this legacy, and perhaps even inspire readers to actively pursue their dreams, is a dream come true for me.

Luisa: I heard about Ernest Everett Just when Alli Brydon at Bright Literary Agency wrote to me to see if I was interested in illustrating Mélina’s book, and after reading the manuscript and a bit more about EEJ I definitely was. As I am Colombian, as much as I love American history and culture, it would have been unlikely for me to find out about him before that.

Illustrator Luisa Uribe

Before I started working on the book, editor Carol Hinz recommended to me the book Mélina mentions. Black Apollo of Science truly is a fascinating book! I read it in one sitting (and then reread it just to take in all the details, references, and mentions). I also recommend it to any grownups who want to know more about EEJ or just read a great biography.

Luckily I was also able to visit Charleston and see the birthplace of EEJ, and it was a great opportunity to see up close the environment he grew up in and take in the history and atmosphere of some of the places represented in the book.

What Mélina says about seeing yourself represented in the media you consume is so true, and I don’t think there are enough books like this, and I’m glad I got to contribute to one. It makes me happy thinking that kids reading this book are going to have new figures to emulate and look up to that look like them.

Chris: Besides welcoming your Ernest Everett Just book into the world, what are you each working on or excited about now?

Luisa: These days I’m grateful to always be working on a couple of books and other projects, but something I’ve been wrestling with for some time now is my first picture book as an author/illustrator.

I have two different ideas I’m trying to develop, one for a silent book and another that I’m writing a manuscript for. The first one is about a journey, and the second one is a more complex idea about the thoughts inside your head that I’m trying to simplify in a fun way.

I’m learning as I go so it’s taking time and a lot of thinking (and some translating, as I’m writing in English) but I’m hoping to have something to show for it next year.

Mélina: I often have too many ideas whispering to me. I try to focus on the ones that start to shout!

One of those projects is a collection of short stories focusing on different kids in nature. It’s been really fun to follow these imaginary kids in their daily lives and help them find their voices. Working on these stories has been taking me outside more, which I love.

Another project involves research for my next picture book biography, this time about a woman from up here in the North Country. I’m in the early stages of research, poking around for articles and books she has written, looking through newspapers and notices.

This is the discovery phase for me where I sit with some of the facts that I find and try to see where they’ll take me. It’s a lot of fun. I’m enjoying taking my time to get to know her and hope to introduce young readers to this remarkable person in the near future.

06 Sep

Bringing back Grandpa Patten: the story of my favorite illustration in What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? (Featured post and giveaway for September 2018)

Welcome to the featured post for the September edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here)!

Instead of a two-question Q&A with another author, this month I’m focusing on What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, written by me, illustrated by Ekua Holmes, and coming September 25 from Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster.

Kirkus has given a starred review to this book, which it calls “a moving portrait of a true patriot who found ways to use her gift to work for change.”

I’m giving away five (!!!!!) signed copies of What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and would like to be one of the winners, just let me know via email before midnight on September 30, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

Now, let’s talk about Barbara Jordan’s grandfather.

The average time it takes one of my picture books to go from initial idea to publication is around five years, and sure enough it was five years ago this Saturday that I finished the first draft of what I was already calling What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?

Many parts of the text in the finished book — for instance, “The president, Barbara said, must go. The president went.” — were there from the very beginning. Some parts of the final text came later, as recently as the past few months.

And then there’s Grandpa Patten. Originally, he was right there in the opening paragraphs of the manuscript. On September 8, 2013, it began like this:

Growing up in the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas, Barbara Jordan didn’t look like other kids — not even her own sisters.
She didn’t act like other kids, either. Her father insisted on that. Grandpa Patten did, too, in his way.
And she sure didn’t sound like other kids. Not with that voice of hers.

Grandpa Patten, Barbara’s maternal grandfather, was special to Barbara. She would go visit him each weekend. In fact, the first chapter in her 1979 autobiography was titled “Grandpa Patten.”

Here’s part of what she said about him in Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait, co-authored by Shelby Hearon:

When I knew him best, those years of my going there every Sunday, he was in the junk business. He had a very large wagon and two mules, which he kept in the heart of the old Fourth Ward, which is now downtown Houston. … Grandpa didn’t want me to be like the other kids. That came through loud and clear. He would say this very directly. There were kids who lived just behind my grandfather’s house in Fourth Ward that he did not want me to associate with because he said: “You don’t have to be like those others.” In relation to other kids he would say: “You just trot your own horse and don’t get into the same rut as everyone else.”

Over the years, the opening lines in What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? changed in a few key respects, one of which was that Grandpa Patten went away. To streamline the text and get to that first mention of Barbara’s voice more quickly, by the end of 2013 I had delayed the introduction of her father and cut the reference to her grandfather entirely.

In 2015 Beach Lane Books bought the manuscript and brought on Ekua Holmes to illustrate the book. In her own research for this project, Ekua came across the story of Grandpa Patten and asked if I might be open to including in the text a mention of Barbara’s relationship with him. She even had a specific spot in mind.

Ekua’s insight was a great one. The ideal place for Grandpa Patten was right where she had suggested:

Barbara was proud of herself, and proud of her voice.
It was laying a path for her.
But where would that path lead?
On Sunday evenings, Barbara would talk things over with Grandpa Patten.
Would she become a preacher like her father, and like her mother could have been?
Or a teacher, like those who encouraged her at Phillis Wheatley High?
Or perhaps she’d become a lawyer.

Not only was bringing back Grandpa Patten — the person in Barbara Jordan’s childhood to whom she was the closest — the absolute right thing to do for the text, but it also set the stage for Ekua to create what has become my absolute favorite illustration in this entire book:

Thank you, Grandpa Patten, for all that you did to shape Barbara Jordan. And thank you, Ekua Holmes, for all that you did — cover to cover — to shape What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?

01 Aug

“Why are these two criminals so well known?” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for August 2018)

Welcome to the Q&A for the August edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here)!

My conversation this month is with Dallas-based author Karen Blumenthal, whose YA nonfiction title Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend will be published on August 14 by Viking Books for Young Readers.

In Bonnie and Clyde, Karen — whose previous subjects have ranged from Steve Jobs to the Tommy gun to Title IX — cuts through mythology and pop-culture perceptions to get at the truth of what the notorious Texas outlaws did and why they did it.

Booklist gave a starred review to this “exquisitely researched biography,” also calling it an “extraordinarily successful resource about a painful time in history and a complicated, infamous pair.”

If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you to win Bonnie and Clyde, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on August 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Karen Blumenthal.

Chris: At the Texas Library Association conference this past April, as you were signing copies of Bonnie and Clyde, an attendee nearby pulled me aside and wondered aloud if your book glorified violence. Knowing you — even though I hadn’t yet read the book — I knew that you would have had other reasons for telling this story for young readers. So, what did motivate you?

Karen: That’s a great question! I actually came to this story with a similar idea — but from the opposite angle: Why are these two criminals so well known and, well, iconic? Why do they have that level of fame despite their unforgivable actions? And what would that tell us about celebrity today?

The modern comparison that stuck in my head are the Kardashians. Honestly, why are they famous?

Young people are familiar with the names Bonnie and Clyde. They are all over music lyrics and other cultural references, even though young people have likely not seen [the 1967 movie starring starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty] and know little about them. So telling their story seemed like a provocative way to show how a modern legend — even a questionable one — is made.

And then, as I got into the story, there were other themes about what contributed to who they became: intense poverty, police abuse (at a time when police forces were very different than today), and prison.

And, to answer the observer’s concern, the book does not glorify violence. In fact, the School Library Journal review says: “This historical true-crime story is recommended for providing nuanced perspective without glorifying the misdeeds that shaped its subjects’ lives and deaths.”

Chris: In addition to creating your books, you’ve also been an involved advocate for public libraries, and earlier this year you and Grace Lin cofounded the #kidlitwomen* online campaign to address women’s and gender issues in the children’s literature community. What are the common threads running through those three passions of yours?

Karen: Tough one! I guess I got involved in each because I care deeply about them and was foolish enough to believe I could bring something to the table.

I started writing nonfiction for young people after struggling to find strong narratives for a daughter who loved layered true stories. I felt like my decades as a journalist gave me the research and story-telling skills to make complex subjects accessible to younger readers. Honestly, I love everything about it!

Because I do a lot of research and I care about my community, libraries are incredibly important to me. In the years after the financial crisis, the Dallas city manager cut and cut and cut the library’s budget. And then one day, she proposed cutting the hours to 20 a week.

I think my head exploded. I did some research and discovered that the Dallas Public Library had become the worst funded urban library in the U.S.

I took this research to the Friends of the Dallas Public Library and ended up on the board and then as chair. An amazing team of library advocates worked for several years to help the City Council understand why libraries matter. Today, the budget has been restored and all branches are open at least six days a week for the first time ever.

We have a great director in Jo Giudice — in fact, this Bonnie and Clyde book is dedicated to her and the awesome library staff!

#kidlitwomen* came out of a conversation that Grace Lin and I started at a gathering in January and turned into an active Facebook group, with dozens of provocative essays in March. It’s still a work in progress, but hopefully, we have spurred some conversation and thinking about women’s and gender issues that will help make our community more fair and equitable.

13 Jul

“I’m a parent of two first-generation Muslim children. I want them to see themselves…” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for July 2018)


Welcome to the Q&A for the July edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).

This month my Q&A is with author Saadia Faruqi and illustrator Hatem Aly, creators of early reader Meet Yasmin!, which will be published by Capstone on August 1.

The title character in Meet Yasmin! is an imaginative Pakistani American second-grader who is, by turns, an explorer, a painter, a builder, and a fashionista.

In its starred review of this boldly colored, “utterly satisfying” book, Kirkus Reviews says, “Readers will be charmed by this one-of-a-kind character and won’t tire of her small but significant dilemmas.”

If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want the winner of Meet Yasmin! to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on July 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Saadia Faruqi and Hatem Aly.

Saadia Faruqi

Chris: The four stories in Meet Yasmin! feel both universal and specific at the same time. We can all relate to smart, lively second-graders like Yasmin, but we also get to know the details of her particular family and school.

For those specifics, are there any elements of the art or text that your own family members, neighbors, community members, etc. are especially likely to recognize themselves in? Did either of you draw from the particulars of your own worlds?

Saadia: Yasmin is a character that’s very dear to my heart. She’s based on my own daughter, who was in kindergarten when I first began writing the story. Yasmin looks like my daughter and acts like my daughter. In fact most of the situations that Yasmin finds herself in are inspired by events in my daughter’s life.

The descriptions of Yasmin’s family are very much like the descriptions of my own family, and of course the everyday aspects of Pakistani culture that are woven into every Yasmin story are so similar to my own Pakistani American household.

At least in my family everyone will recognize those details, big and small, but also more importantly I think thousands of other children who come from first-generation Muslim or South Asian households will recognize themselves.

Hatem: The design process went on intuitively. I just went with what felt right putting in mind Yasmin’s character, family and background. There is, however, a collective nature of illustrating the stories since there are common aspects between myself and her.

Hatem Aly

I also added to the mix the inspiration of my own family members, especially my nieces, friends, and my life in Egypt in general and how by just looking at some pictures you could see attitude, cleverness and curiosity as well as culture!

There is a broad sense of relatability with Yasmin and also hints to her own experience as a part of a Pakistani Muslim family in America that I am hoping would be universal and also sort of recognizable by children of similar experience.

Chris: Saadia, you mentioned that your daughter was a kindergartner at the time you began writing Meet Yasmin!, and Hatem, you’re a parent as well. For either of you, did your child’s interest in books — or their identity as a reader, or your role as the parent of a budding reader — have any effect on you as you created this character and these stories?

Hatem: It took me a moment to think how to answer this question since there is no doubt my own experience as a parent affects the way I work one way or another.

What I want to say that it’s mostly unconscious since I also am a bit childlike, especially when I have to express a story visually. Though, I can see I sprinkled some humorous expressions and a comics-like style which could be elements influenced by my son.

Saadia: Yasmin was created because I’m a parent of two first-generation Muslim children. I want them to see themselves — their experiences, their lifestyle, and their traditions — in the pages of the books they read. So I wanted to write a story with a family that looked like theirs, and a main character that was completely familiar and comfortable for them.

I wanted this for all children, not just my own. Yasmin was inspired, not by something my children read, but by what they didn’t read, what wasn’t available to young readers before this series.

01 Jun

“Writing a book is like making a friend. Some … open up immediately…” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for June 2018)


Welcome to the Q&A for the June edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).

This month I’m talking with novelist Samantha M. Clark. Her debut middle-grade novel, The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast, will be published later this month by Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster. Samantha is also the regional advisor of the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

(Full disclosure: I’ve been a member of Austin SCBWI my entire career, and through the chapter I’ll be teaching two online classes — here and here — next month.))

The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast is a lyrical adventure story with, at its center, an unconventional mystery: Who is the titular boy (he himself doesn’t know), how did he get to the island where he is now, and how will he get home, wherever that may be?

In its review of Samantha’s book, School Library Journal says, “With a sharp focus on the isolated protagonist and his internal struggle, it is character development that shines most clearly, though the external environmental dangers and the mystery keep the suspense taut.”

If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want to be the winner of The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on June 30, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Samantha M. Clark.

Chris: Young readers often want to know how long it takes to write a book, and I find that there’s typically both a short answer and a long one to that seemingly simple question. So: In your experience, how long does it take to write a book?

Samantha: Hahaha I’m not sure there is a short answer to this question, unless it’s: It depends.

Writing a book is like making a friend. Some friends open up immediately and you feel like you know everything about that person really quickly; other friendships build over time, and you might discover something new about that person years after you meet.

For example, the first draft of The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast took about six months for me to write, and it wasn’t an easy draft to complete. I floundered through a lot of it, not knowing where the story should go next. I would basically say, let’s try this… and see what would happen. It wasn’t until I got to the end of that draft and I wrote that final scene — which is pretty much the same in the final book — that I truly understood what the boy’s journey was and why I was writing it.

I then had to go back to the beginning and revise with that in mind. I did around nine or ten revisions, each time getting to know the boy and his story a bit more, before I signed with my agent, then another two or three with her before it went on submission to editors. Then I did another big revision while it was on submission, and that’s the one that sold.

With my editor, I did a few more smaller revisions before it went to copy edits, and I even changed a few lines and one small section in the final passes before the book went to press. All that took about seven and a half years, but between those revisions I wrote and revised four more novels. Phew! So how long does it take to write a book? My answer is: As long as the story needs.

Chris: Four other novels, on top of The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast? That’s a whole lot of work, on top of your efforts these past few years as a regional advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. How have those two time-consuming pursuits — that inward-facing work of advancing your own writing, and that outward focus of supporting scores of others in advancing their own creative work — fed into and reinforced each other?

Samantha: Yes, writing is definitely inward-facing, because until the story is on paper — digital or print ;) — you are the only one who can live it. You’ll have critique partners and maybe an agent or editor who’ll read drafts and make suggestions, but only you know whether you’ve fully achieved what you see in your head. Only you can invent the world, breathe life into the characters, and grow this story through first draft, and revision and more revisions.

It’s kind of like playing singles tennis, where you might have your team of coaches and sponsors and fans behind you, but when it comes down to it, you’re the only one on your side of the net — in the good times and the bad. So that’s why it’s so important to have other people who support you.

Aside from my husband and family, I found those people with organizations like SCBWI and the Writers’ League of Texas. I’m generally a shy person, so volunteering was a great way for me to meet people and I jumped in with small jobs. But my last five years as the Regional Advisor for the Austin chapter of SCBWI has been especially valuable to me.

I took the position on the encouragement of friends who thought I’d do a good job, but I quickly realized that I was going to get out of it far more than I put in. I’ve met amazing people within our close to 330-member chapter; I’ve been able to learn and network with the speakers I’ve brought in to teach others; and the generous thank yous I’ve received from our members helped me feel a lot less of a failure when I received rejections for my manuscripts.

That old “do unto others…” guidance really is the best advice. I feel good every time I recommend a book by a friend, or share their good news, and I’m propped up by the feeling of accomplishment for every event I organize that goes off well.

Sadness and feelings of not being good enough tend to fester, dig into our hearts and spawn when we’re alone and spend too much time inward-facing. But when we’re looking out, inspired by those around us, and allowing them to lift us up with hope in our darkest moments, we will achieve as well.