10 Jul

Getting back

At this particular moment, I’m on a bus leading me away from the Southampton Children’s Literature Conference, toward the flight that will take me back home to Texas. But I’m also, at this very moment, trying to figure out just how soon I might make it back up to Long Island for another experience like the one I just had.

Folks, I am fired up. I have had more new story ideas in the past few days than I’ve had in I don’t know how long. I’ve read aloud unpublished manuscripts of mine in front of rooms full of strangers (well, they used to be strangers) for the first time in, I think, eight years. Since Wednesday afternoon, I’ve had the enormous pleasure of working with and learning from a host of creative, enthusiastic, and quite brave writers and authors ranging from complete beginners to some of the most accomplished talents our industry has to offer.

And to think that I enjoyed all these benefits and opportunities at a conference where I was not a paying student but rather a member of the faculty — well, it really feels like I’ve just gotten away with something.

Did I mention the cross-pollination? The readings of hilarious and bold and not-at-all-for-children new plays? The on-stage conversations I witnessed with director Chris Weitz (About a Boy, A Better Life) and with Jules Feiffer, a one-man graduate course in creative cross-pollination? The fact that I twice sang — OK, warbled — in public, one of those times in the presence of a somewhat well-known woman who knows a thing or two about The Sound of Music?

I’m gushing. A bit. I’m gushing a bit. That wasn’t what I set out to do here. I set out to thank Emma Walton Hamilton for inviting me to join the Southampton faculty, and to thank the other children’s lit faculty members (Andrea Davis Pinkney, Tor Seidler, Patricia McCormick, Peter H. Reynolds) and guests (Leonard Marcus, Susan Raab, Kate and Jim McMullan, Connie Rockman and Kate Feiffer), and the playwriting and screenwriting and digital media instructors, and my picture book students and everyone else’s for giving so much of themselves.

I was not entirely sure I had it in me to teach a three-day class. Honestly, the prospect scared me a bit, but it was that little surge of fear that clued me in to the fact that I really had to do this. And even before I arrived in New York, the mere act of preparing for my class had taught me so much I didn’t know (or had forgotten that I knew) about writing picture books that those hours I’d invested were already more than made up for, many times over.

(And here I must thank the many authors whose books and, in most cases, conversations with me about their books helped me zero in on what I wanted my students to know. The work and insights from these immensely creative folks helped fuel many conversations about — and, I hope, much inspiration for — writing both playful fiction and seriously researched nonfiction picture books. The complete reading list for my class is below.)

What does all this add up to? I can’t speak for anyone else, but personally, I’ve never been more excited about getting back to writing, and about carving out time in my life to make that writing a priority. And it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been willing to tolerate at least a little fear of what I was getting myself into when I told Emma, “Yes.”

For a long while, I’ve been reluctant to look for inspiration in the same place twice, lest a once-thrilling experience become too comfortable and easy to take for granted and result in diminishing returns. With the Southampton Children’s Literature Conference, I do believe I’m willing to risk making an exception.


Reading list for “You Don’t Have to Choose: Balancing Playful Picture Books with Rigorous Research”

Bubba and Beau, Best Friends by Kathi Appelt; illustrated by Arthur Howard
Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America by Kathi Appelt; illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein

The Hair of Zoe Fleefenbacher Goes to School by Laurie Halse Anderson; illustrated by Ard Hoyt
Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving by Laurie Halse Anderson; illustrated by Matt Faulkner

Handel, Who Knew What He Liked by M.T. Anderson; illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
Me, All Alone, at the End of the World by M.T. Anderson; illustrated by Kevin Hawkes

Audubon: Painter of Birds in the Wild Frontier by Jennifer Armstrong; illustrated by Jos. A. Smith
Once Upon a Banana by Jennifer Armstrong; illustrated by David Small

Not So Tall for Six by Dianna Hutts Aston; illustrated by Frank W. Dormer
A Seed Is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston; illustrated by Sylvia Long

Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring the Earth to Life by Molly Bang & Penny Chisholm
Ten, Nine, Eight by Molly Bang

The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors by Chris Barton; illustrated by Tony Persiani
Shark Vs. Train by Chris Barton; illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld

Ice Cream by Elisha Cooper
Magic Thinks Big by Elisha Cooper

A Big Cheese for the White House: The True Tale of a Tremendous Cheddar by Candace Fleming; illustrated by S.D. Schindler
Seven Hungry Babies by Candace Fleming; illustrated by Eugene Yelchin

Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca
The Racecar Alphabet by Brian Floca

A Book by Mordicai Gerstein
The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein

Eggs by Marilyn Singer; illustrated by Emma Stevenson
Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse by Marilyn Singer; illustrated by Josee Massee

Mozart, The Wonder Child: A Puppet Play in Three Acts by Diane Stanley
Rumpelstiltskin’s Daughter by Diane Stanley

Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? by Audrey Vernick; illustrated by Daniel Jennewein
She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story by Audrey Vernick; illustrated by Don Tate

Boogie Knights by Lisa Wheeler; illustrated by Mark Siegel
Mammoths on the Move by Lisa Wheeler; illustrated by Kurt Cyrus

The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau by Dan Yaccarino
Lawn to Lawn by Dan Yaccarino

How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? by Jane Yolen; illustrated by Mark Teague
The Perfect Wizard: Hans Christian Andersen by Jane Yolen; illustrated by Dennis Nolan

04 Oct

My essay in First Opinions, Second Reactions

The new issue of the Purdue University journal First Opinions, Second Reactions is out now, and it includes an essay by me as well as two pieces about The Day-Glo Brothers.

Here’s a taste of the essay:

One day during the revisions of my book The Day-Glo Brothers, I was reviewing a round of sketches while waiting in the dentist’s chair. The hygienist came in and asked what I was looking at. I gave her a quick spiel about how I had written but not illustrated a children’s book about Bob and Joe Switzer’s trial-and-error invention of daylight-fluorescent colors.

“They sound like nerds,” she said.

My next stop that morning was at the auto mechanic’s. When he handed me an invoice printed on what would commonly be described as neon-green paper, I pulled out the sketches and said, “I’ve written a book about the guys who invented this color.”

His reaction? “Wow!”

The story of how I turned the Switzers’ obscure, chemistry-intensive, entrepreneurial tale into an award-winning picture book has everything to do with those two reactions. It was all about my belief that, unlike the hygienist, the children I was writing for had the capacity to respond to the invention of Day-Glo with “Wow!” rather than with “They sound like nerds.”

06 Jun

Join me (and Bob and Joe and Shark and Train) this Thursday!

I’ve cooked up a new presentation combining elements from both Shark Vs. Train and The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors.

If you want to see it, and you’re in Austin this week, you’re in luck. I’ll be debuting the Shark and Train and Bob and Joe Show this Thursday afternoon at a “Meet the Author” event put on by the Writers’ League of Texas and the Austin Public Library.

The details:

Thursday, June 10th @ 2PM
Ruiz Branch
Austin Public Library
1600 Grove Blvd., 78741
FREE and open to the public!

08 Nov

Fall Ohio colors

Used filters at the DayGlo factory.

Used filters at the DayGlo factory.

When I saw my first-ever jet-black squirrel on the campus of the College of Wooster yesterday morning, I didn’t have my camera with me. But that’s OK — it was only the second most impressive spectacle I witnessed during my two-day trip to Ohio for the Buckeye Book Fair.

The most impressive came soon after I landed at the Cleveland airport. David Wiesenberg, owner of book fair sponsor Wooster Book Company, picked me up joined me for a guided tour of the headquarters of the DayGlo Color Corporation.

My research for The Day-Glo Brothers had never taken me there. The story I tell in the book pretty much leaves off at the point when Bob and Joe Switzer founded the company that exists today, and so my fact-finding had focused on how the brothers had gotten to that point.

But as much fun as it had been getting to know the Switzer brothers on paper, through their original notes on their early experiments, there’s a lot to be said for getting a firsthand look at what continues to this day to result from that experimentation.

It made for one brilliant afternoon.

Imagine how Bob and Joe must have felt to see this color for the first time.

Imagine how Bob and Joe must have felt to see this color for the first time.

As they say at DayGlo, the dirtier the factory gets, the brighter it looks.

As they say at DayGlo, the dirtier the factory gets, the brighter it looks.

Inside the bright pink belly of the manufacturing process.

Inside the bright pink belly of the manufacturing process.

Note the footprints; I found this stuff still on the soles of my shoes hours later.

Note the footprints; I found this stuff still on the soles of my shoes hours later.

Some of the finished products, ready to ship.

Some of the finished products, ready to ship.

Your author. Photo by David Wiesenberg.

Your author. Photo by David Wiesenberg.

04 Oct

The Buckeye Book Fair beckons

Since The Day-Glo Brothers came out in July, author-appearance opportunities have loomed before me like a really, really good buffet, and I’ve been sampling a little bit of everything: one bookstore event, one presentation to other authors, one public library visit, one school visit (this coming Wednesday), and one homeschool workshop (next week).

Next month, I’ll make it to the dessert cart, with my first out-of-state trip since publication. On Saturday, November 7, I’ll be signing books at the Buckeye Book Fair in Wooster, Ohio — just down the road from Cleveland, where Bob and Joe Switzer invented their daylight-fluorescent colors.

If you’re in the neighborhood, please stop by to say hello — and to check out the other authors on the bill.

30 Aug

Upcoming Events: BookPeople, Sept. 12 & Sulphur Springs Public Library, Sept. 18

After having such a great time at my book launch party in July, I’ve really been looking forward to my next chance to be center stage. Turns out, I’ll have two chances in one week in September.

First, I’ll be the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Six days later, I’ll get to make a presentation at the public library in my hometown.

Semi-official descriptions and details are below — I’d love to see you at either event, and I hope you’ll consider spreading the word about them.

What: Who Did It First? Who Did It Best? Who Did It Differently?
When: Saturday, September 12, 2009, 11:00 a.m. – 12 noon (Austin SCBWI monthly meeting)
Where: BookPeople, 603 North Lamar, Austin, TX

Whatever you’re passionate about, there’s somebody in that field whose life story would be best told by you — and as a picture book biography, no less. Chris will help you figure out who in the world that person is and what on earth you should do about it.

Chris is the author of the new picture book biography The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors (Charlesbridge Publishing; illustrated by Tony Persiani), which has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal. His other upcoming books for children and young adults include Shark Vs. Train (June 2010; Little, Brown and Company; illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld) and Just Who Do You Think You Are? (2011; Dial Books for Young Readers). You can visit him at http://www.chrisbarton.info.

What: Local boy makes good with The Day-Glo Brothers
When: Friday, September 18, 2009, 10:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
Where: Sulphur Springs Public Library, 611 North Davis, Sulphur Springs, TX

If you’ll be in Sulphur Springs the day before the World Championship Hopkins County Stew Cook-Off, join author Chris Barton for a “colorful” presentation at his hometown public library.

With the assistance of the younger members of the audience, he’ll be discussing the story, the science, and the patience behind his first book for young readers, The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors.

It’s an “enlightening story” (says WIRED magazine) … “of quintessentially American ingenuity” (Publishers Weekly) … that “makes a bright idea stand out even more” (The Washington Post).

If you’d like to learn more about the book, please visit http://www.chrisbarton.info/books/dayglo.html.

And if you’ll be in town on the 18th, dress in your Day-Glo best and come join Chris!

19 Jul

A big thank you, a third star, and an exploding bottle of ketchup

One young attendee checks out The Day-Glo Brothers under black light. Photo courtesy of Donna Bowman Bratton.

Last Saturday’s BookPeople party celebrating The Day-Glo Brothers was one of the best days of my life. Donna Bowman Bratton and Christy Stallop have already documented the event nicely with kind words and lots of photos, but I’d just like to say a couple more things about it:

1) I had way more fun than I ever would have thought possible — and my expectations were running pretty high to begin with.

2) Thank you! To everyone who showed up, took pictures, bought books (the store sold out!), asked me to sign them, ate cookies, made daylight-fluorescent crafts, listened to what I had to say, spread the word, hosted me, introduced me, or otherwise helped out — you made my day. You made my year.

[Update: Greg Leitich Smith and Moxy Jane have also posted accounts and photos of the big event. Thanks, guys!]

I hadn't had this many people paying attention to me since my wedding day. Photo courtesy of Christy Stallop.

I was on vacation all the following week, and I had no reason to suspect that the story of this book would get even better while I was out. I was essentially offline for the entire time, so I figured that even if things did get better, I wouldn’t know about it until I was back in front of my computer.

Then on Wednesday I got a call from my editor at Charlesbridge: The Day-Glo Brothers had received its third starred review, this one from School Library Journal (“The story is written in clear language and includes whimsical cartoons. … This unique book does an excellent job of describing an innovative process.”), following stars from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.


Some might possibly wonder — OK, at least one person has already stated as much — whether this book’s warm reception will give me a swollen head. I’m not too worried, though, as the universe has shown that it has ways of keeping me in check.

Immediately after the party at BookPeople, I headed up the street to have a late lunch with a fun assortment of relatives, children’s literature peers, and college friends. As it has been for every day these past few weeks, the temperature in Austin was north of 100 degrees, or heading that way. Still, the outdoor seating area was shaded, and with fans and misters blowing on us, sitting outside was quite bearable — even for me in the bright green necktie you can see in the photo at the top.

I almost never wear a tie these days, but for some reason the old reflex kicked in, and when my lunch arrived, I flipped my brand-new, first-time-being-worn tie over my shoulder. I then grabbed the bottle of ketchup, gave it a shake and a twist of the cap and —


Ketchup everywhere. Everywhere on my equally brand-new white shirt, at least, and some on my aunt, too. Not on the tie, though — the daylight-fluorescent tie came through without a spot.

Now, if you have a copy of The Day-Glo Brothers handy, turn to the spread in which Bob Switzer is in bed recuperating from his head injury. See those objects that he’s hallucinating? They aren’t marked with a brand, but they’re clearly identifiable to anyone who’s ever sat at an American restaurant table.

Care to guess which brand of ketchup I wore home from my big day?

The table stocked with daylight-fluorescent craft materials was a hit. Photo courtesy of Carmen Ramirez McFarlin.

These went fast. Glad I wasn't counting on leftovers. Photo courtesy of Carmen Ramirez McFarlin.

01 Jul

Bartography Express today, and BookPeople on July 11

Two announcements today on this, the official publication date for The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors:

1) I’ve just sent out the first edition of my occasional Bartography Express newsletter. For the next few weeks, you can view it here, and you can always sign up on my home page to have Bartography Express emailed to you directly.

2) If you’ll be in Austin on Saturday, July 11, I hope you’ll join me at BookPeople at 1 p.m. for a celebration of The Day-Glo Brothers, which is my first book for young readers.

It’s an “enlightening story” (says WIRED)…

…”of quintessentially American ingenuity” (Publishers Weekly)…

…with illustrations that are “retro funk, dipped in Day-Glo… guaranteed to suck any kid straight in” (Blue Yonder Ranch).

In honor of The Day-Glo Brothers, we’ll have daylight-fluorescent crafts, prizes*, and activities, including a high-tech viewing station (a cardboard box rigged with black lights). With some assistance from the younger members of the audience, I’ll talk a little about the story and science behind the book.

If you’d like to RSVP on Facebook, go here. If you’d like to learn more about the book, go here.

And if you’ll be in Austin on the 11th, I hope you’ll dress in your Day-Glo best and come join me!

* “Reading, ‘Riting, Researching” kits including a black light, a copy of the book, and some other Day-Glo-hued goodies. Nifty, yes?

28 Jun

The Day-Glo Brothers and other nonfiction about entrepreneurs

Bob and Joe Switzer weren’t just inventors — they were businessmen, too. As eagerly as they sought better and brighter colors, their interests were entrepreneurial as well as aesthetic. Making advances in the science of color was thrilling to them, but so was creating a successful company where they could have the freedom to pursue those discoveries in the ways they thought best.

The Day-Glo Brothers honors and explores that entrepreneurial streak. And while the shelves are not overflowing with other children’s and young adult titles that do the same, it’s not alone. So, as I’ve done with nonfiction about other notable siblings and picture books about the 1930s, I’ve compiled a list of other titles complementing this aspect of the Switzers’ story.

I have no doubt that I’ve missed some good ones, so if any come to mind, please tell me what they are — I’d be happy to add them to an updated version of this list.

The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P. T. Barnum
by Candace Fleming
Schwartz & Wade
Equal parts show and business, the Barnum portrayed in Fleming’s riveting, rollicking new biography possessed a quality essential to entrepreneurs — resiliency — in a quantity so freakish it belonged in a sideshow exhibit of its own. His eye-opening forays into politics and the ASPCA only add to the appeal of this title.

Vision of Beauty: The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker
by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Nneka Bennett
Candlewick Press
In too short a lifetime, Walker made the journey from the daughter of former slaves to the inspirational employer of hundreds. Lasky and Bennett vividly depict the determination, ingenuity, and activism that contributed to the rise of beauty products magnate known as Madam C.J. Walker.

Everyone Wears His Name: A Biography of Levi Strauss
by Sondra Henry and Emily Taitz
Dillon Press
Offering much more than a retelling of how we all ended up with copper rivets on our jeans, Henry and Taitz weave a gold-dusted tale of immigration, industriousness, and enterprise. And they do it against a backdrop of 50 years of San Francisco history, which is fascinating in its own right.

Bill Gates (Up Close)
by Marc Aronson
Viking Juvenile
Heavy on character analysis, short on computer jargon and corporate play-by-play, and structured as a series of “Principles of Getting Rich Fast,” Aronson’s account focuses on the factors that — like them or not — led to Gates’ rise as a programmer, businessman, billionaire and philanthropist.

Model T: How Henry Ford Built a Legend
by David Weitzman
Crown Books for Young Readers
There’s plenty to dislike about Henry Ford, but the tinkerer and entrepreneur himself gets only a few pages in this picture book. Instead, Weitzman refreshingly focuses on the car Ford created, the workers who made it, and the resulting cultures of the assembly line and the open road.

Inventing the Future: A Photobiography of Thomas Alva Edison
by Marfé Ferguson Delano
National Geographic Children’s Books
Edison made no bones about being both an inventor and a businessman: “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent.” With compelling text and gripping photos (my favorite is the two-page spread of Edison zonked out on a lab table), Delano gives both sides of the man’s legacy their due.

Chocolate by Hershey: A Story About Milton S. Hershey
by Betty Burford, illustrated by Loren Chantland
Carolrhoda Books
If at first you don’t succeed, fail and fail again. Milton Hershey did. But as Burford’s crisp text and Chantland’s affecting woodcuts show, the disappointing end to those first few ventures couldn’t compete with ambition and vision far greater than the candy maker’s simple ingredients would suggest.

And for more lists of suggested US history reading, you’ve come to the right place.