24 Jun

It’s no myth

Last week’s radio episode of This American Life (“Origin Story”) began by poking holes in what it called “corporate creation myths.” The prototypical one is the story of how Hewlett-Packard was founded — by two guys with a dream and a garage.

Host Ira Glass interviewed Dan Heath, who wrote about this topic in Fast Company a couple of years ago:

[C]ompanies aren’t born in garages. Companies are born in companies.

This reality shouldn’t diminish these monumental achievements. Yet it feels like it does, because all of us crave the excitement of these creation myths. Your startup “emerged from a systematic discussion of market opportunities, conducted at a networking function at the Marriott”? Yawn. Give us the garage. In fact, the story would be even more satisfying if [Apple Computer’s founders] had built the garage first. Out of toothpicks, scavenged from local restaurants.

He makes a good point about how the achievements of the HPs and Apples and YouTubes of the world should be enough for us, regardless of whether there’s a great story behind how they came about. That said, I’d just like to point out that the story — which I tell in The Day-Glo Brothers — of how Bob and Joe Switzer got started down the road to inventing daylight-fluorescent colors is no myth at all.

Instead of a garage, it was their family’s basement. And the only company remotely involved was the one Bob had been working for (not named, but identifiable by the shape of the ketchup bottles in a hallucinatory spread wonderfully rendered by Tony Persiani) when he busted his head and got sent to the dark basement to recover.

Another segment of last week’s This American Life episode discussed how difficult it can be to correct an origin story once an inaccurate version of it gets publicized. A few details of Day-Glo’s origins published elsewhere have missed the mark, but I’ll try to keep in check my aspirations for setting the record straight once and for all. Besides, some of those errors were contained in the first article I ever read about Bob and Joe Switzer, which means those mistakes are now part of my book’s own origin story.

19 Jun

The Day-Glo Brothers get wired — and WIRED *gets* The Day-Glo Brothers

Over the years, WIRED magazine has run its share of daylight fluorescent ink, so I guess it’s as fitting as it is thrilling that the July issue includes a little bit of ink about The Day-Glo Brothers.

Coming in at #4 on the monthly Playlist feature, just after Manhattan’s West Side High Line, right before isthisyourluggage.com, and several notches above the new Spinal Tap album, the writeup on page 57 notes how Bob and Joe Switzer’s “enlightening story … shows how basement tinkering can lead to scientific discovery.”

That’s some glowing praise coming from some folks who know what they’re talking about. Thanks, WIRED!

10 Jun

“Shocking,” “high-octane,” “electric,” “fantastic”

Sounds like a book I’d like to read — and I’m just over the moon to be able to say that it’s a book I’ve written.

Here’s some of what Elizabeth Bird had to say about The Day-Glo Brothers over at Goodreads:

Barton brings us what is pretty much the world’s first biography of the inventors of Day-Glo colors. And what better format to use than the picture book? … When you actually see your first appearance of Day-Glo it’s shocking. And the second time when Bob and Joe rediscover it? Persiani has the wherewithal to turn that moment into its own undulating, high-octane, visually blinding two-page spread. … This is Barton’s first work of non-fiction. With his extensive research skills and way with words, I hope that it is safe to say that it won’t be his last.

And here are some equally encouraging words from Dr. Quinn’s Book Blog:

Barton does a fantastic job taking the reader through the life and times of the Switzer brothers. … Persiani’s retro illustrations are “highlighted” with various day-glo colors. Even the end pages use these electric colors to support this fun and informative book. I definitely recommend this book.

Dr. Quinn and Betsy, I’m so glad you both liked the book. Thank you for taking the time to say so.

16 May

Thank you, Pink Me

My family’s long-planned Inks Lake camping trip went south this morning when we found our tent sitting in an inch-deep puddle, with no obvious end to the rain in sight. We headed for home, only to find that our dishwasher was making a lake of its own.

What could salvage such a day? This review of The Day-Glo Brothers, from blogger Pink Me:

Chris Barton’s author’s note reminds me of that scene in Working Girl when Melanie Griffith hauls out a Page Six clipping to explain just how she got the idea that the Big Investor might be interested in buying a radio station. Barton read Bob Switzer’s 1997 New York Times obituary and realized that the story of Day-Glo paint was one that he wanted to tell.

You get the feeling that he had to explain that in some detail to the publisher when he proposed this, his first book. I would bet that Day-Glo, to most people, is just kind of an annoyance that we’ve learned to live with because it saves lives, and as long as we avoid Spencer Gifts, we don’t have to deal with it much. Just saying: it might not seem like the most captivating subject at first blush.

And there we would be wrong.

06 May

Two magazines, two boys, my book, and me

Before I found my way into children’s books, I wanted to work in magazines. In my teens and 20s, I interned for three magazines (Texas Monthly, Rolling Stone, and — yes, indeed — Sassy) and subscribed to tons more.

The potentially powerful connection between a magazine and its readers appealed to me deeply, and I hope that a similar relationship will develop between my books and the young people who read them.

Magazines are on my mind these days because of the role that two of them — and their affect on two particular boys — played in bringing The Day-Glo Brothers into existence.

In the early 1930s, Joe Switzer was a teenage reader of Popular Science. In its pages, he read an article that changed his life. And mine. And yours.

The article was in the December 1932 issue, and it carried the headline, “Homemade Ultra-Violet Lamp Produces Magic ‘Black Light.'” Not long after he saw that how-to article, Joe and his older brother, Bob, built their own UV lamp. Thus began the experiments that led to their invention of the daylight fluorescent colors commonly known as Day-Glo. Your world would not look the same, and I wouldn’t have a book, if not for the inspiration Joe received from Popular Science.

Three decades later, a pre-teen named Gary Hoover received his first issue of Fortune magazine. Here’s Gary from a post last week for his new book-filled blog, HooversWorld:

[E]very year beginning in 1963, when I was 12 years old, I have received the new Fortune Magazine list of the 500 largest companies and dashed off to study it – who’s up, who’s down, which industries had a good year and which ones had a bad year, who merged with whom.

I discovered my first Fortune 500 issue – and still have it – when I was a kid trying to understand General Motors, by far the most important force in my hometown. Back then it took a lot of work to find out information about companies. So I went down the list, name by name, and found out what they did, and a bit about their history. If I didn’t know anything about them – which meant most of the companies on the list – I went to the library or the local stock brokerage office to bury myself in Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s Manuals, and later Value Line and other sources of company data. I took page after page of notes.

What does Gary’s love for Fortune magazine have to do with The Day-Glo Brothers? It was his resulting passion for business research — combined with his later experience as a bookseller — that inspired him 28 years later to found a publisher of business reference books.

And it was as an editor for the subsequent online incarnation of his company, responsible for combing each day’s business publications for news worth including in our company profiles, that I encountered Bob Switzer’s obituary in The New York Times in 1997.

If not for Fortune, I wouldn’t have seen that obituary and gotten the idea for my book, and if not for Popular Science, there wouldn’t have been a story for that obituary to tell in the first place. And who knows how many other examples there are of weeklies or biweeklies or monthlies having that sort of impact on their readers, and on the wider world?

No wonder I wanted to work in magazines.

25 Mar

The envelopes, please


Look what came in the mail today — my first box of advance hardcover copies of The Day-Glo Brothers!

As long as I’ve been waiting for these (eight years, but who’s counting?), you’d think that I’d already know exactly who I plan to parcel these out to. And while I’ve got some idea (mom, agent, family members of subjects Bob and Joe Switzer), I still feel somewhat caught off-guard and prone to surprise by the possible recipients that are popping into my head.

We were eating dinner when I suddenly thought of my neighbor, who applied her photographic talents to the picture that graces the pages of my website. So, in the immediate aftermath of a hailstorm, all four of us Bartons headed down the street to present the first free copy. (And to return some kitchen linens that accompanied a pie we recently received; if this fact inspires anyone to try to buy a copy with pie, they’re certainly welcome to try.)

I now have a big stack of mailing envelopes on my desk, one of which will whisk a copy away to a woman who was a key contributor to my earliest research efforts for this book. As I recall, I spoke to her only one time, but I still remember her asking me to send her a copy of my book. I suspect she’s forgotten our conversation, and I can’t wait to jog her memory.

01 Mar

The Day-Glo Brothers and other nonfiction about notable siblings

As much as I’ve made about the daylight-fluorescence aspect of The Day-Glo Brothers, the sibling relationship between Bob and Joe Switzer — night and day opposites, in many respects — is central to the story as well.

In looking around for other children’s and young-adult nonfiction about notable sets of siblings from previous eras of American history, I’ve been surprised by how few are represented. (Where are the Marx Brothers? Frank and Jesse James? Donny and Marie?) For some additional context about sisters and brothers, I’ve assembled a list of my favorite titles. There are undoubtedly other worthy books that I’ve overlooked and would do well to add in updates to this post — I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Footwork: The Story of Fred and Adele Astaire
by Roxane Orgill, illustrated by Stéphane Jorisch
Candlewick Press
2007
If you’re not sold on Footwork by the time you get to young Fred and his older sister in costume as a dancing lobster and champagne glass, then you’re harder to please than even the most jaded vaudeville crowd. But take notice: The Astaires eventually won them over, too.

Good Brother, Bad Brother: The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth
by James Cross Giblin
Clarion Books
2005
Until April 14, 1865, Edwin was more famous than younger brother and fellow actor John Wilkes. But the story offered by Giblin is more complex than that, with “good” Edwin’s earlier career nearly undone by his drinking, “bad” John Wilkes’ heroic feats on stage (34 performances in 18 roles during one four-week engagement), and the brothers’ own awareness that their affection could not survive even a discussion of their political differences.

Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers
by Jean Fritz
G. P. Putnam’s Sons
1994
In one of the most famous American families of the mid-19th century, the girls were not allowed to follow their father into the ministry, and the boys were not allowed not to. Fritz winningly relates how, with her history-changing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet proved herself the best sermonizer of the lot.

Sisters Against Slavery: A Story About Sarah and Angelina Grimké
by Stephanie Sammartino McPherson, illustrated by Karen Ritz
Carolrhoda Books
1999
The Grimkés didn’t just transform themselves from slaveowning Southern belles into abolitionist Quakers — they went further, pushing against the prejudices within their adopted faith and the 19th-century restrictions on women speaking out in public about anything.

The Two Brothers
by William Jaspersohn, illustrated by Michael A. Donato
The Vermont Folklife Center
2000
In this absolute gem based on a true story, Jaspersohn and Donato tell of the heartrending separation in the 1880s of Prussian brothers Heinrich and Friedrich Eurich, followed by their coincidental, goosebump-inducing reunion along a fenceline between two Vermont farms.

To Fly: The Story of the Wright Brothers
by Wendie C. Old, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker
Clarion Books
2002
If there’s a shortage of books about other notable siblings, there’s a surplus of titles about Orville and Wilbur Wright. But there’s always room for the likes of this contribution by Old and Parker — accessible, insightful, and soaring.

Up Close: Robert F. Kennedy, Crusader
by Marc Aronson
Viking
2007
Aronson embraces both fact and speculation in his engrossing, eye-opening account of an ill-fated life entwined with those of older brothers Joe and Jack.

19 Feb

A sneak preview of The Day-Glo Brothers

Here in Austin on Saturday, March 7, The Day-Glo Brothers is going to be a small part of “the biggest open house in Texas.”

The public debut of the book (and of me as an author) will be one of the many, many goings-on at Explore UT, a huge, campus-wide to-do designed to give school-aged kids a taste of what the University of Texas has to offer.

The festivities at the Perry-Castañeda Library (PCL) will also include presentations from other local children’s book creators Liz Garton Scanlon, Christy Stallop, Brian Anderson, and Jane Peddicord. When the schedule is confirmed, I’ll post that here.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve done research at the PCL for some of my books, and The Day-Glo Brothers is among them. A December 1932 article in Popular Science (“Homemade Ultra-Violet Lamp Produces Magic ‘Black Light'”) inspired the work that led to Bob and Joe Switzer’s discovery of daylight fluorescence, and it was there at the PCL that I first laid eyes on the actual article — in glorious black-and-white.

If you’d like an advance peek at some reading material that’s a little more brightly colored — nearly four months before its publication date — I hope you’ll come on by.

28 Jan

The Day-Glo Brothers and other picture books about the 1930s

Most of The Day-Glo Brothers takes place in the 1930s, when Bob and Joe Switzer began experimenting with inks and paints that glowed under black light while moving ever closer to their discovery of daylight fluorescence.

For some additional context about that era, I’ve assembled a list of some of my favorite picture books set (at least partially) during the 1930s. There are undoubtedly some worthy subjects and titles that I’ve overlooked and would do well to add in updates to this post — I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Aliens Are Coming! The True Account of the 1938 War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast
by Meghan McCarthy
Alfred A. Knopf
2006
McCarthy revisits Orson Welles’ famously panic-inducing radio play by combining a smattering of the original script, a matter-of-fact description of the aftermath (“One man thought he saw a Martian spaceship”), and illustrations that offer the old-fashioned kick of cheesy sci-fi.

Amelia Earhart: The Legend of the Lost Aviator
by Shelley Tanaka, illustrated by David Craig
Abrams Books for Young Readers
2008
Tanaka’s stirring account of the aviator’s daring and determination awakened my own, long-dormant childhood fascination with Earhart.

Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman
by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by Ross MacDonald
Alfred A. Knopf
2008
Nobleman and MacDonald make a dynamic duo in their depiction of how mild-mannered teens Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster parlayed the strength of their imaginations into an enduring hero.

Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa
by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney
Jump at the Sun/Hyperion Books for Children
2002
Hip feline “Scat Cat Monroe” takes readers on a stylish, jazzy tour through Fitzgerald’s rise from big-dreaming Yonkers girl to unforgettable First Lady of Song.

Hoover Dam
by Elizabeth Mann, illustrated by Alan Witschonke
Mikaya Press
2001
Mann’s Wonders of the World books are wonders in their own right. Her words and Witschonke’s art pay as much tribute and attention to the underappreciated workers as they do to the feat of engineering that tamed the Colorado River.

Seabiscuit Vs. War Admiral: The Greatest Horse Race in History
by Kat Shehata, illustrated by Jo McElwee
Angel Bea Publishing
2003
The story of the 1938 contest runs on two tracks — a ticker-tape version in the staccato stylings of a stadium announcer, and another in the warm prose of an author who knows how to unfold the winning tale of an unlikely champion.

Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building
by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by James E. Ransome
Schwartz & Wade Books
2006
A boy with a newly unemployed father watches the rise of the New York City landmark — from the 50-foot toss of a red-hot rivet to the finished tower’s glow against Manhattan’s nighttime sky — with wonder and inspiration. Readers will, too.

That Book Woman
by Heather Henson, illustrated by David Small
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
2008
Henson and Small depict a pack-horse librarian’s impact on a farm family, told through the skeptical eye and mountain vernacular of a non-reading boy named Cal.

Woody Guthrie: Poet of the People
by Bonnie Christensen
Alfred A. Knopf
2001
With a generous dose of Guthrie’s own lyrics, Christensen shows how the singer and activist came to give voice to Americans in need through “This Land Is Your Land” and a thousand other songs.

11 Jan

Seven things (Or, "Just this once, Bartography takes requests")

My friend Russ at Egghead Marketing meme’d me with Seven Things You May Not Know About Me. One thing you may not know about me is that it’s my personal policy not to do memes. One thing you probably already have figured out about me, though, is that I do like writing about myself.

So, when a friend, reader, and egghead marketer asks me to write some things about myself, what do I do?

The Next Seven Things I Plan to Do to Support The Day-Glo Brothers
  1. Send in my check so I can participate in the SCBWI speakers guide to be distributed at TLA
  2. Write an article for submission to one of the children’s literature journals
  3. Provide Charlesbridge with suggestions for the activity/discussion guide that they’ll be putting together
  4. Assemble reading lists of other picture books and middle-grade titles related to elements in Bob and Joe Switzer’s story
  5. Prepare outlines for the presentations I’ll be offering to schools, libraries, homeschoolers, museums, summer camps, and so forth
  6. Come up with a fee schedule for those author visits
  7. Add bookseller links to my website

I know at least seven other folks with new books on the way. Fiona Bayrock (Bubble Homes and Fish Farts), Liz Scanlon (All the World), P.J. Hoover (The Navel of the World), Cynthia Leitich Smith (Eternal), Sam Riddleburger (Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run), Tanita Davis (Mare’s War), and Grace Lin (Where the Mountain Meets the Moon).

They may want to chime in with what they’re doing to get the word out about those new titles. Or they may be too busy actually doing it. Or they may even be writing