13 Nov

¡Fushhh!

A year ago this week, after some pondering on my part, I asked an editor of mine about the possibility of getting one of my picture books translated into Spanish.

It turned out to be more than possible: Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions is coming out next spring as ¡Fushhh! El chorro de inventos súper húmedos de Lonnie Johnson.

Even better, we’ve just found out that it’s a Junior Library Guild selection.

Next time I wonder to myself whether a Spanish version is worth bringing up to my editor, you can bet I’ll be keeping this in mind — and then asking aloud.

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.

30 Oct

Beyond Dazzle Ships: 2 new resources for educators

School librarians and classroom teachers whose students have embraced my book Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion

Dazzle Ships, illustrated by Victo Ngai and published by Millbrook Press

— should know about a pair of newly available resources that can help those young readers deepen their appreciation of the book and their understanding of dazzle camouflage and the context for its use during the first world war.

As I wrote in the “For Further Reading” section on the book’s final page, “On the subject of human-made camouflage, I believe there is no better source for information than artist, designer, historian, and teacher Roy R. Behrens,” especially his blog, Camoupedia.

So it’s no surprise that Behrens has come through again with his illustrated online essay “Disruption versus Dazzle: Prevalent Misunderstandings About World War I Ship Camouflage.”

And Behrens has also pointed me toward Dr. James Fox’s 10-minute video, “Dazzled! How a British artist transformed the seas of WWI.” I especially love the part where Fox handles (carefully!) one of the actual models used for testing dazzle patterns a century ago.

If there are other resources that you and your students have found helpful, intriguing, or otherwise engaging on the subject of dazzle camouflage, I’d love it if you would share them in the comments.

24 Oct

Jennifer Ziegler on #kidlitwomen*, Cynsations, and again on #kidlitwomen*

Jenny and me, literary nerds in love

This week, My Favorite Author in the Whole Wide World has been featured on two of my favorite sources for insights and information about the world of children’s literature.

For those of you who don’t know, Jennifer Ziegler — author of the Brewster Triplets series of middle-grade novels as well as YA novels including How Not to Be Popular — is also my wife, and I’ll admit to being a little bit biased in favor of every single thing she does.

But I’m also a loyal listener to the #kidlitwomen* podcast and a big fan of author Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations blog. Since very early in my career, I’ve craved a deeper understanding into the workings of the business and culture of books for young readers, and a deeper understanding of my fellow creators of those books.

#kidlitwomen* and Cynsations — a newcomer to the conversation and a leader in the conversation from way back, respectively — both satisfy that need.

So you can imagine how happy I’ve been to hear Jennifer on this week’s two episodes of #kidlitwomen*.

Monday brought Jennifer’s reading of her essay “It’s the Grown-ups with the Hang-Ups — Not the Readers,” in which she challenges adults’ assumptions that the boys in their lives won’t read books about girls.

“I’ve tried [to get boys to],” some might say, “and they still won’t read them.” To that I say, Shouldn’t you be worried about why they won’t? Isn’t this something you need to talk with them about?

And this morning I woke up to find a new episode of #kidlitwomen* in which Jennifer discusses her essay with Alvina Ling, VP and editor-in-chief of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

In between those two podcast episodes, Jennifer was featured on the newest edition of Cynsations’ Survivors Interview Series, which “offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.”

I especially love Jennifer’s response to the question, “What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?”

She talks about the importance to authors of finding a writing community, learning as much about the industry as possible, and never being afraid to ask questions.

That advice all rings true to me, and the community and education offered through #kidlitwomen* (including but not limited to the podcast) and Cynsations are great places to start.

17 Oct

More stars for Barbara

My newest book, What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan — illustrated by Ekua Holmes and published by Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster — has received a couple of shiny new reviews that I’m excited to share.

In a starred review, School Library Journal called the book “a timely yet subtle call-to-action … supremely accessible … an extraordinary book,” adding that “Everything succeeds in this collaborative effort to accurately reflect the power of Jordan’s voice and the impact she made on those she worked with and for” and concluding that the book is “An essential purchase for nonfiction collections.”

Shelf Awareness also awarded a star in its review:

Chris Barton’s (Dazzle Ships) strong, engaging text is well-matched by the stunning hues and bold textures of Ekua Holmes’s (Out of Wonder) mixed-media illustrations. Differing type sizes and colors, along with a generous trim size and strategic use of blank space, make the text easily readable and each illustration stand out.

Those professional reviews mean a lot, but so do the responses to the book from schools I’ve visited in Indiana, Virginia, Maryland, and Texas, including one I received yesterday.

Upon seeing me, one student asked, “You wrote What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? — that’s my favorite book!”

That’s the first time I’ve heard that about this new book, and there’s no better feeling.

25 Sep

Today’s the day for my Barbara Jordan book

Today — 1,889 days after my friend Kathi Appelt first suggested I write this book — brings the publication of What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan.

Illustrated by Ekua Holmes and published by Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster, our book tells the story of how my fellow native Texan developed the natural gift of her speaking voice into a tool for instructing, imploring, and inspiring colleagues, students, and fellow citizens to make our political system work better for all of us.

Over at the Nerdy Book Club, I’ve got a guest post today called 22 More Barbara Jordan Books, Please. I hope you’ll go take a look. Here’s some of what you’ll see:

[F]or What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?, I’ve got an additional hope: that readers of all ages will be inspired to make more books about Barbara Jordan. That’s a pretty lofty dream, but hear me out: Barbara Jordan’s life and career are fascinating to me. And I frankly find it incredible that — more than 22 years after her death — this picture book created by Ekua Holmes and me is the only literary nonfiction title about her to be published for young readers.

I’m also delighted to see others already celebrating the publication of this book, none with more enthusiasm than leaping librarian Stacey Rattner and her elementary students in Castleton, New York.

They’re already thinking about how they’re going to use their voices. How are you going to use yours?

19 Sep

Why must I wait for What Do You Do…?

We’re six days away from the September 25 publication of What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster). And I know that, given that this book has been in the works for more than five years, a few more days should barely register as a blip.

But I’m so excited about this book, and for this book, and for all the readers who will be getting reacquainted with Barbara Jordan, or getting better acquainted, or learning about her for the first time, that the wait for next Tuesday just seems to go on and on.

Last week helped. I visited half a dozen elementary schools in San Antonio and read What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? to student audiences at each of them. Would it make me a little self-conscious to tell you that reading my text aloud — in the context of Ekua Holmes’ artwork, and of the video clips of Barbara Jordan included in my presentation, and of the historical moment we find ourselves in — gave me goosebumps?

Yes, it would. But y’all…

It gave me goosebumps.

So, that’s been my reaction to this book. Here’s what some other folks have been saying about What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?:

Publishers Weekly called the book “a timely, lyrical celebration of Congresswoman Barbara Jordan.”

The book’s editor, Andrea Welch, said:

This book is a story of tenacity — Barbara ran and lost twice before being elected to the Texas Senate. It’s a story of helping those with less power — she fought for better pay for farmers and for the voting rights of Mexican Americans. A story of finding common ground—Barbara was known for befriending colleagues on both sides of the political aisle so that they could find a way to work together. Barbara Jordan passed away in 1996, but the things she fought for and the way she fought for them are more relevant than ever.

Educator Alyson Beecher said:

Ekua Holmes’ artwork is absolutely stunning. The more I see of her work the more I am blown away. Holmes captures the spirit and emotions of Barbara Jordan’s life and work on each page.

In his review, teacher Gary Anderson concluded:

Is Barbara Jordan still relevant? Oh, yes. Thanks to Chris Barton, Ekua Holmes, and this book, she will now speak to a new generation

At A Year of Reading, Franki Sibberson added:

This is an incredible biography for several reasons. The writing makes the story very engaging for readers who don’t know. Barbara Jordan. The focus on her work and the power her voice had works well and the illustrations are unbelievable.

Michele Knott included What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? on her “2019 Mock Sibert list… so far!

And librarian Barbara Moon made my day when she wrote:

This exceptional picture book is a treat for the mind, heart, and eyes. What a fitting tribute to a remarkable woman. Well done, Mr. Barton and Ms. Holmes.

Finally, I’d also like to point out that the beauty created by Ekua Holmes this year isn’t limited to our book. In fact, it’s not limited to books at all.

12 Sep

My Q&A with Lone Star Literary Life


This week the Lone Star Literary Life newsletter features an interview with me, discussing What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? and lots more.

Among the questions that Michelle Newby Lancaster asked me:

You’ve said that in these unsettling times you often ask yourself, “What would Barbara Jordan do?” What do you think she would do today as the country faces extraordinary times again?

Check out my answer, and the whole Q&A.

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?

04 Sep

When boxes of bookmarks arrive, it must be school-visit season again

Lo and behold, look what showed up on Friday:

Just in time for the start of this year’s school visits, it was our first shipment of our newest two-sided, hers-and-his bookmarks, and I think they’re beautiful.

Jennifer and I will leave these bookmarks for the audiences at each campus where we give presentations, though some lucky students will receive bookmarks from before the publication of Jennifer’s Revenge of the Teacher’s Pets (this past June) and my own What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? (coming three weeks from today).

But those aren’t leftovers — they’re vintage!