07 Mar

Two-question Q&A and giveaway for March 2018

There’s a story behind the Q&A for the March edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).

Last November I was speaking on a panel of nonfiction authors at the annual conference of the National Council of Teachers of English. There was a question about subjects we’d wanted to write about, but which another author had gotten to first.

I mentioned two musicians that I had written multiple drafts about: trombonist Melba Liston (subject of Katheryn Russell-Brown and Frank Morrison’s Little Melba and Her Big Trombone) and bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, whose picture book biography — as I told the crowd — was on its way from author Barb Rosenstock.

I didn’t know Barb Rosenstock. All I knew was that she had beaten me to the punch.

Well, right after the panel ended, a grinning stranger approached me up at the dais. “I’m Barb Rosenstock,” she said.

Here we are a few months later, and I’m so glad that there’s now a splendid version for young readers of this tale I had hoped to tell, Blue Grass Boy: The Story of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass Music (Calkins Creek). And I’m also glad to be able to share that book with you through a giveaway — and with a quick Q&A with my friends Barb Rosenstock and illustrator Edwin Fotheringham.

In its review of Blue Grass Boy, School Library Journal says, “The author adeptly and squarely aims this book at the intended audience by highlighting details young readers can connect with, such as Monroe being the youngest of eight children and growing up with a left eye that turned inward (esotropia). In both the narrative and the back matter, readers witness Monroe’s trials with his eyesight and his resulting development of a fine-tuned sense of hearing which helps him make a big impression on the music world. The digital illustrations are vibrant with a retro feel. Natural elements ranging from trees to blue skies and animals are the most dominant images and complement the imagery of Monroe’s music.”

To a single winner, I’m giving away two author-signed copies of Blue Grass Boy — one to keep and one to share. If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want the winner to be you, just 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 Barb Rosenstock and Edwin Fotheringham.

Chris: Blue Grass Boy is one of relatively few literary-quality nonfiction books for young readers about country music or about musicians who have frequented the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, despite the massive, longstanding popularity and cultural influence of that genre. Did that lack of other books have anything to do with what drew each of you to the story of Bill Monroe and bluegrass music?

Barb: Yes and no. Initially, like almost all my books, the idea for Blue Grass Boy came about by accident. In this case while driving my older son back to college in Indiana, I wound up a bit turned around in the town of Bean Blossom, home to the longest-running bluegrass festival in the world.

I filled up my car in town, and kept seeing references to someone named “Bill Monroe.” I stopped near the festival site and found myself fascinated by some Monroe memorabilia in the small museum there. My younger son and my father are both traditional-country fans, but I was not at all familiar with bluegrass history. I could not believe Monroe was credited with inventing an entire genre of music — and really that no other human had ever done that before (or since!).

On the long way back to the interstate, I [listened to] Blue Grass Junction … as I drove through rural Indiana with the windows down. Something about this music and the landscape stuck in my head. At home when I started researching Monroe, I realized that there were few (any?) children’s books about bluegrass, country, or the Opry — this whole important, influential set of American music history. Since it didn’t already exist, that motivated me even more to tell Monroe’s history to children. I learned so much and hope kids will, too.

Edwin: Being the illustrator and not the author, when Barb’s manuscript about Bill Monroe was offered to me, I figured there was probably a void in this category, to be honest. ;)

Seriously though… I had an extraordinary prior experience that made me view Bill Monroe with real interest as a character for young readers. I was traveling on a solo overnight bike tour from my home in Seattle to Lopez Island in the San Juan archipelago, and decided to camp halfway at a place called Fort Worden outside Port Townsend.

Making my way to my campsite I noticed, unexpectedly, the sound of fiddle music — live fiddle music, not recorded. After setting up camp I walked to the common area and saw multitudes of folks outside their tents and vans playing fiddle music. I was astounded that the ages of these people lay in two distinct generations: younger (teens, twenties, early thirties) and older (late fifties, sixties). My generation (I’m now 52), having had punk rock take our musical interests elsewhere, was not very well represented!

The event, I found out, is called Fiddle Tunes. Attendees participate in workshops, impromptu late night jams, breakfast breakouts, concerts, and square dances, all while camping out together. Fiddlers (as well as bassists, guitarists, banjo and mandolin players) from all over the world converge and strut their stuff… be it Celtic, Old Time, Quebecois, Cajun or Bill Monroe’s American bluegrass. I could see that there was a connection between seemingly disparate generations that was linked by this music. I was impressed, and felt lucky to observe the scene completely by chance (bike touring is like that, by the way).

In Barb’s writing I felt the excitement that I witnessed at Fiddle Tunes. I was attracted to the notion that Bill Monroe was able to create a brand-new genre, an American genre, by keeping his ears open and putting together elements from physical and artistic sources borne by his interactions, history, and experiences. It is a great thing to impart on young readers: that new things come from what you already know and what you are about to find out.

Chris: Once you got involved in the actual creation of this book, what role did music — Monroe’s, or others’, or other sounds, or silence — play in your process?

Edwin: I listened to Monroe’s music to get a feel for the elements that make bluegrass distinct from other string genres — namely the banjo and his mandolin playing. After that I went back to my 20-year-old self and put on the Stooges. There’s nothing like music to pull back a few years and feel great, whatever the genre may be. I’m sure those kids playing bluegrass (and everything else) at Fiddle Tunes will feel the same way, just like their much older peers have figured out!

Barb: My writing process is not smooth — it’s a lot of stops and starts, with research before and between, so I keep my office pretty quiet (except for two old dogs snoring.) I look at a lot of pictures throughout a day, but I don’t typically write with any music or other sounds playing.

Blue Grass Boy was different. When I was writing and especially when the story got “stuck,” I listened to two things: nature recordings of Kentucky hill sounds, and Monroe’s own music. His lyrics are really autobiographical too, so I tried to focus on what was important by listening to him. There’s a great two-part video interview of Monroe on his farm in 1986. In a short section near the end, Monroe plays out in the open on his porch, you can hear the sounds around him.

One piece of music that helped a lot for emotional content is a recording of Monroe’s song “My Last Days on Earth.” It starts with water rushing, bird sounds, and then single notes on his mandolin. That song expresses everything I was trying to write about him. No one else’s music could really do that. Basically, Bill Monroe played his life better than anyone could ever write it down.

13 Feb

Authors are not rock stars

I want to talk about rock stars.

Schools often go to great lengths to get their students excited about an upcoming presentation by a visiting author. That makes sense to me — after whipping up that enthusiasm, educators can then harness it for thoughtful, mind-expanding explorations of that author’s work, and for all sorts of creative undertakings by the students themselves.

Sometimes, though, the anticipation-stoking tactics include the use of certain words or phrases that make me uncomfortable. I feel uneasy when I see them on a sign in front of a school or hear them as part of the introduction right before I start talking to the students. The main ones are:

Famous.

Celebrity.

Rock star. (Yes. As in, “He’s a rock star!”)

I’d guess that most creators of books for young readers aren’t even celebrities in their own neighborhoods, let alone the “world famous” types they sometimes get described as to impressionable students.

But even allowing for a little hyperbole, I’m bothered by these characterizations because they run counter to what I see as the main purpose of my presentations to students: 1) making myself relatable to them, and 2) making a career like mine seem attainable to them.

My introductory slide from my recent visit to Cambridge Elementary in San Antonio.

Right after my greeting to them, I go straight into listing several other things — many of which will be recognizable and familiar to audience members — that I am in addition to “Author.”

These include “Former Kid,” “Texan,” “Son,” “Brother,” “Dog Owner,” “Spanish Learner,” “Researcher,” and “Rewriter,” which I say three more times because I want them to understand the effort that goes into becoming a published author.

Over the course of my presentation I try to replace any air of mystique about my career with a sense of awareness of what this fun, challenging job entails and how happy this hard work makes me.

Then I leave them with my hope that when they’re grown they will find something they love just as much — not an easy job, not a job that brings them fame, and certainly not one that bestows “rock star” status — but rather a calling that suits them.

And not only a calling that suits them, but also one that they can fully participate in without unfair and unnecessary restrictions, distractions, or impediments.

Which brings us to the subject of sexual harassment in children’s publishing, a phrase that I never imagined would find its way onto Bartography when I started this blog nearly 13 years ago. That mostly just shows how privileged and naive I was.

Harassment isn’t new. But the attention it’s getting in this industry — “ecosystem” is more like it, with libraries and booksellers and conferences playing vital roles — is not just new but raw, painful, chaotic, long overdue, and rapidly developing.

As of this afternoon, the best overview I’ve seen of where things stand is this article published this morning by Publishers Weekly. Long story short, a number of men in children’s publishing — guys who I bet have heard themselves described as “rock stars” more than a few times — are being accused of unacceptable behavior. Names are being named.

But what does all of this have to do with you and the young people who look to you for books and guidance? Three things.

First, I believe that young readers will wind up with better books when the creative process and literary life aren’t sullied or ruined for so many by male misbehavior.

Second, as the children’s literature community succeeds in its efforts to become a more hospitable place, there will be fewer obstacles to success for student writers who get encouragement from authors such as me.

And third, the book I’d been preparing to feature in my giveaway in this month’s Bartography Express newsletter includes an essay by an author who, in recent days, has been named in allegations by several anonymous accusers. I do not doubt these women’s stories. But I decided to proceed as planned with the featured book, as even under the current circumstances I believe it offers much more cause for hope than for despair.

I’ll soon post my Q&A with the editor of the anthology featured in the February issue of Bartography Express.

25 Jan

An observation (not mine) about Attack! Boss! Cheat Code!

For my school visits, I often have a variety of my books displayed on a table so that students will notice them when entering the library. I figure it’s a good way to get them to start thinking about questions they may have for me.

Usually, the table is behind me while I’m presenting, but at a visit earlier this week, the table was on one side of the room next to the audience. (You: “Chris, please tell me more about how the furniture was arranged!”)

For one of the sessions that morning, an autistic student happened to sit right by the spot on the table where my book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet was displayed.

He was *very* interested in Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! From the front of the room I noticed that he had taken the book from the table, and that some of his classmates were trying to put it back.

I didn’t mind him having a look at the book. What worried me were the other kids’ efforts to intervene, even if well-intentioned. “Please,” I thought, “let’s not make an issue of this.”

The librarian then sat down next to this student, and she handed him the book. (Me: “Whew!”) For the first part of my presentation, he was captivated by my book in his hands. Eventually, Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! went back onto the table.

Then came Q&A. The autistic student’s hand went up — emphatically — and I soon called on him. But he didn’t have a question — he had an observation.

His observation was that the fonts used for “Attack,” “Boss,” and “Cheat Code,” respectively, corresponded to the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.

I thanked the boy and said that the significance of the fonts had not occurred to me, but that it didn’t surprise me.

I told him that the illustrator, Joey Spiotto, knew a lot more about video games than I did and had inserted plenty of gaming references that went over my head. Joey’s art added so many dimensions to this book.

But (and I didn’t say this to the student) I didn’t know for sure whether his observation was accurate. I knew who to ask, though.

So I messaged Joey, passing along the details of the student’s discovery. Then I asked, “I’d never thought of that before – is that how you see it? Was he onto something?”

The reply from Joey: “That was a VERY astute observation on his part!

Joey continued, “I wish I could have said that I planned it that way, but I didn’t. Maybe in my subconscious somewhere, but that’s one of those happy accidents. Amazing that he pointed that out!”

That whole thing has been the highlight of my week. I gotta arrange the furniture that way more often.

14 Jan

All the college kidlit conferences (as of January 2018)

Or, more formally, “A Comprehensive List of U.S. College- and University-Sponsored or -Hosted Children’s and Young Adult Literature Conferences, Festivals, and Symposia.” (All of them that I could find, anyway).

Several years ago, I was looking for such a list, wondered why I couldn’t find one, and decided to just go ahead and make one myself.

Book or Bell?, written by me and illustrated by Ashley Spires

Since then, I’ve periodically updated and reposted it, and I plan to continue doing so. If I’ve missed any, or included some that no longer exist, won’t you please let me know in the comments section?

Arizona
University of Arizona Tucson Festival of Books

California
University of Redlands Charlotte S. Huck Children’s Literature Festival

Colorado
Metropolitan State University of Denver and University of Colorado at Denver Colorado Teen Literature Conference

Connecticut
University of Connecticut Connecticut Children’s Book Fair

Florida
Stetson University M. Jean Greenlaw Children’s Literature Conference

Georgia
Kennesaw State University Conference on Literature for Children and Young Adults
The University of Georgia Conference on Children’s Literature

Indiana
Anderson University Elizabeth York Children’s Literature Collection & Festival

Indiana/Kentucky/Ohio
Northern Kentucky University, Thomas More College, University of Cincinnati, and Xavier University Ohio Kentucky Indiana Children’s Literature Conference

Kentucky
Asbury University Children’s Literature Conference

Maryland
Frostburg State University Spring Festival of Children’s Literature
Salisbury University Children’s and Young Adult Literature Festival

Massachusetts
Framingham State University Swiacki Children’s Literature Festival
Lesley University What’s New in Children’s Books Annual Conference
Simmons College Children’s Literature Summer Institute and The Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium

Minnesota
University of Minnesota Kerlan Award Ceremony and Chase Lecture
University of St. Thomas Hubbs Children’s Literature Conference

Mississippi
The University of Southern Mississippi Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival

Missouri
Missouri State University Children’s Literature Festival of the Ozarks
Truman State University Children’s Literature Festival
University of Central Missouri Children’s Literature Festival

Nebraska
Concordia University Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival

Nevada
University of Nevada, Las Vegas Gayle A. Zeiter Young Adult and Children’s Literature Conference

New Jersey
Montclair State University New Jersey Council of Teachers of English Spring Conference
Rutgers University One-on-One Plus Conference

New York
Nazareth College Greater Rochester Teen Book Festival (Thank you, Meghin Roberts, for bringing this one to my attention!)
Stony Brook University – Southampton Southampton Children’s Literature Conference

Ohio
Bowling Green State University Literacy in the Park
Kent State University Virginia Hamilton Conference
The University of Findlay Mazza Museum Summer Conference and Weekend Conference
Youngstown State University English Festival

Pennsylvania
Kutztown University Children’s Literature Conference

Tennessee
Middle Tennessee State University Southeastern Young Adult Book Festival

Texas
Texas State University 2018 Children’s Literature Association Conference (ChLA 2018)
The University of Texas at San Antonio National Latino Children’s Literature Conference, co-sponsored by The University of Alabama School of Library and Information Studies

Utah
Brigham Young University Symposium on Books for Young Readers
Utah Valley University Forum on Engaged Reading

Virginia
The College of William and Mary Joy of Literacy and Literature Conference
Hollins University Francelia Butler Conference
Longwood University Summer Literacy Institute and Virginia Children’s Book Festival
Shenandoah University Children’s Literature Conference

Washington
Western Washington University Children’s Literature Conference

Wisconsin
Northland College Children’s and Young Adult Literature Conference

10 Jan

All of a Sudden and Forever

I’ve got a new nonfiction picture book in the works with Lerner Publishing’s Millbrook Press imprint, publisher of my books on The Nutcracker and on dazzle camouflage. This new project was announced just yesterday in PW Children’s Bookshelf, and here are the details:

All of a Sudden and Forever has been a challenge to write, but I’m so glad for the conversations it’s allowed me to have with people whose lives were forever changed in 1995 by the Oklahoma City bombing. And I love Nicole Xu’s art. I think she’s just right for this project.

03 Jan

Stretch your to-read list to its breaking point with 3 more sets of “Best of 2017” recommendations

In the past few weeks, A Fuse #8 Production, the Nerdy Book Club, and the Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Awards have collectively created and shared more than fifty — that’s 50, five-zero — lists of recommendations of books published in 2017.

I was already looking forward to these lists for suggestions of what I might add to my pile of books I want to read. (Note: It’s no longer an actual, physical pile due to concerns about stability — the pile’s, and my own — but the digital list I now keep amounts to the same.)

Having Dazzle Ships included on some of those lists — Fuse’s Favorite Nonfiction Picture Books and American History Books for Kids, the Nonfiction Picture Book Nerdies, and the Cybils’ Elementary/Middle-Grade Nonfiction — only makes me appreciate all the more the effort and generosity involved in compiling and distributing them.

Whether your tastes (or the tastes of the young reader closest to you) run toward board books or speculative YA fiction, there’s something here for you in these lists. Don’t miss out on them. But hurry: Another year’s worth of great books started making their way out into the world this week.

10 Dec

Another “Best of” for Dazzle Ships!

HuffPost has issued its list of the Best Picture Books of 2017 (Most Touching, Most Charming, Best Surprise, etc.), and the honor of Best History has gone to my collaboration with illustrator Victo Ngai, Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion (Millbrook Press).

It’s hard to imagine the staid military agreeing to such a plan, but this quirky slice of history is true: in World War I British and U.S. decorated warships in psychedelic patterns to confuse the enemy. A feast for the eyes, this book (much like the ships themselves) is substance cleverly disguised by wondrous art. Even readers who are typically averse to non-fiction will find themselves captivated by this delightfully bizarre moment in history.

Congratulations to the creators of the Honorable Mention books in the Best History category (Margarita Engle, Mike Curato, Monica Clark-Robinson, Frank Morrison, Vashti Harrison, Emma Otheguy, Beatriz Vidal, Debbie Levy, and Gilbert Ford) and to all of the other honored authors and illustrators whose titles are among the Best Picture Books. This gives me quite the to-read list for the next few weeks!

06 Dec

Signed books by authors galore in downtown Austin this Saturday!


If you’re in Central Texas this Saturday, come join Jennifer, me, and all these authorly folks —

Monte Akers, Michael Barnes, Olga Campos Benz, Patricia Bernstein, Daina Ramey Berry, John B. Boles, George Bristol, Chad S. Conine, Michael Corcoran, David Courtney, Mike Cox, Greg Garrett, Joe Holley, Joseph Huerta, Michael Hurd, Alison Macor, Donna Marie Miller, Carmen Oliver, William E. Reaves, Kathleen Shafer, Jeremi Suri, Don Tate, Deb Olin Unferth, Mark K. Updegrove, and Eddie Wilson

— for the 2017 Humanities Texas Holiday Book Fair.

Spread the word like you’ve got some holiday spirit, or just put these details into your own private scheduling apparatus:

Saturday, December 9th, 2017
10:00 am–1:00 pm
Byrne-Reed House
1410 Rio Grande Street • Austin, TX
Parking available in St. Martin’s Lutheran Church parking lot on the northwest corner of 15th Street and Rio Grande

The flyer says “Enjoy holiday treats,” which sure sounds to me like a command that one should obey.

29 Nov

Orbis Pictus and “Best of 2017” honors for Dazzle Ships

It’s been an exciting couple of weeks for all of us who had a hand in Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion, written by me, illustrated by Victo Ngai, and published earlier this year by Millbrook Press.

At the annual conference of the National Council of Teachers of English in St. Louis, Dazzle Ships was named one of five Honor Books for the Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children.

(The top prize went to Grand Canyon, created by author-illustrator Jason Chin. Jason and I were two seats away from each other when we heard the news. At the time, he and I were participating on a panel — briefly interrupted — with fellow authors Tonya Bolden and Gail Jarrow about the creation of back matter in nonfiction books. Back matter, it turns out, is a key consideration in the awarding of the Orbis Pictus.)

There been other good news for Dazzle Ships: It’s been included in a few year-end “Best of” lists. Among them:

The creation of such lists of honored and recommended new books is a serious undertaking, and the results can be a goldmine for families and educators. I appreciate the efforts that have gone into these, and I’m especially grateful for the inclusion of Dazzle Ships.