03 May

My seedling from the Oklahoma City Survivor Tree


Three years ago, a book tour took me to Oklahoma City, and before I left town, I made my first visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. The experience — especially the storytelling achieved by both the Memorial and the Museum — made a big impression on me.

Among the many facets of the story that began with the bombing of Oklahoma City’s Murrah Building on April 19, 1995, is the Survivor Tree that stands between the Museum and the Memorial. Here’s a photo I took of the tree on the day I visited:

After my visit, I could not stop thinking about the bombing and the effect it had — and still has — on the lives of so many people. That’s always a pretty good sign, for me, that there’s a book I should write.

I began reading a lot about the bombing and the resulting Memorial. In June 2017 I returned to Oklahoma City to do more research, which included quite a bit of time in the Museum’s archives. That’s where I saw this photo showing the Survivor Tree soon after the bombing:

Collection, Oklahoma National Memorial & Museum

I also took some close-up photos of the tree itself, demonstrating just how carefully it is tended to —

— and how healthy and full of life it became in the two decades-plus after the bombing:

Not long after, Lerner Publishing agreed to publish my picture book, All of a Sudden and Forever: Help and Healing After the Oklahoma City Bombing, with illustrations by Nicole Xu. The book is almost finished and will be published next February.

Jennifer and I talk with an Oklahoma couple who had just received Survivor Tree seedlings (photo by Danielle Carnito)

Two weeks ago, for the 24th anniversary of the bombing, I returned to Oklahoma City again, along with the book’s editor, Carol Hinz; art director, Danielle Carnito; and my wife, Jennifer Ziegler. We attended the annual Remembrance Ceremony, after which Survivor Tree seedlings were distributed to attendees.

Though our book is not only about the Survivor Tree, the tree and its offspring definitely are integral parts. Yet this was the first time I had seen the seedlings, some of which were larger than I expected.

It was also my first opportunity to meet some of the people I had interviewed by phone, including Mark Bays, an urban forestry coordinator with Oklahoma Forestry Services.

Mark, Jennifer, Carol and me in front of the Museum (photo by Danielle Carnito)

Mark has helped lead efforts to revive, preserve, and propagate the Survivor Tree since shortly after the Murrah bombing, and he was stationed at the entrance to the Museum to distribute seedlings.

By the time I got there, only a few seedlings remained, but the line of recipients had dwindled down to nothing, and I took a seedling for myself.

Later that day I visited the Memorial at night for the first time — by the light of a full moon, as it happened — and got a view of the Survivor Tree that I’d never had before:

Early the next morning, Jennifer and I got on a flight home. I heeded the advice I received from her — and from Carol, and from Danielle — not to try to pack my Survivor Tree seedling inside my carry-on suitcase. (No, I was told, not even if I tried to do so carefully.)

So, from Oklahoma City to Dallas to Austin, my seedling poked out of my leather messenger bag that I kept between my feet.

When we got home, I bought a new blue pot and planted the seedling. That won’t be where it stays permanently, but I don’t know that our pecan trees leave enough room for an American elm to grow and thrive. There’s a good chance that I’ll offer to plant the my Survivor Tree seedling — by then, perhaps, a sapling — next spring, sometime close to the 25th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.

In the meantime, I’ll appreciate seeing it outside my front door — and remembering all that it represents — each time I come and go.

11 Apr

2020 pub-date updates

For a while, my next two picture books had the easy-to-remember tentative publication dates of 1/1/2020 and 5/5/2020. Now, they have new dates that are closer together and less tentative, and if these two dates together no longer seem quite as memorable, well, that’s why we have calendars.

If you’re so inclined, you can mark yours for:

February 4, 2020: That’s the planned publication date for my next nonfiction picture book, All of a Sudden and Forever: Help and Healing After the Oklahoma City Bombing, illustrated by Nicole Xu and published by Carolrhoda Books/Lerner Publishing.

March 10, 2020: Five weeks later is when you can expect my next fiction picture book, Fire Truck vs. Dragon, illustrated by Shanda McCloskey and published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

27 Mar

Dazzling doings in Illinois and Virginia

Dazzle Ships, illustrated by Victo Ngai and published by Millbrook Press/Lerner Publishing

I’ve learned lately that Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion has been named to the 2020 Illinois Bluestem Readers’ Choice Award Nominees Master List sponsored by the Association of Illinois School Library Educators (AISLE) and to the elementary nominees for the 2019-20 Virginia Readers’ Choice award organized by the Virginia State Reading Association (VSRA) and supported by the Virginia Association of School Librarians (VAASL).

This terrific news comes on the heels of Dazzle Ships being added to state lists in Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, and I couldn’t be more grateful. Thank you, AISLE, VSRA, and VAASL!

27 Feb

Thank you (again!), Pennsylvania school librarians


Earlier this month, my nonfiction picture book Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion (Millbrook Press/Lerner Publishing), illustrated by Victo Ngai, was named to the Pennsylvania Young Reader’s Choice Awards Program Master List for Grades 3-6 for 2019-2020.

All by itself, that was great news, and immediately I was tremendously thankful for the efforts of the PYCRA committee and for the award’s sponsor, the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association.

And then I thought, “PYCRA — that sounds familiar. Wasn’t Whoosh! on one of those lists?”

I did a little digging, and sure enough, it was. Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions (Charlesbridge), illustrated by Don Tate, was on the 2017-2018 PYCRA Master List for Grades 3-6.

But that’s not all I found when I searched my own website for references to the Pennsylvania Young Reader’s Choice Award.

It had slipped my mind that both The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors (Charlesbridge), illustrated by Tony Persiani, and Shark vs. Train (Little, Brown), illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld, were on PYCRA Master Lists (in two different categories) in 2011-2012. Shark vs. Train, in fact, had been the Kindergarten-Grade 3 winner that year.

I felt like a dope for those honors having slipped my mind, though I’d certainly appreciated them at the time. I’m going to chalk that memory lapse up to the fact that my knowledge and understanding of the children’s literature world have grown continually during the 18-plus years I’ve been pursuing this work, and that one aspect that it took me a while to grasp was the significance of state awards such as the PYRCA.

I fully appreciate now just how vital state award lists are for getting new books in front of young readers and their librarians. And that appreciation is multiplied by four for the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you.

18 Dec

Celebrating the Texas Topaz Reading List twice over

Not long ago, the Texas Library Association created the Texas Topaz Reading List “to provide children and adults with recommended nonfiction titles that stimulate reading for pleasure and personal learning.”

I love that this list spans all ages and isn’t tied to any sort of curriculum — heck, it’s not even Texas-specific. The Texas Topaz list recognizes that nonfiction reading can be a joy, and it suggests that anyone not on board with that notion perhaps just hasn’t yet found the right book.

Well, the new Texas Topaz list just came out, and I’m thrilled to see that it includes not only two of the adult titles I’ve most enjoyed this past year or so — Michael Hurd’s Thursday Night Lights: The Story of Black High School Football in Texas and Lawrence Wright’s God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State — but also two of my own books.

Hooray for Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion, illustrated by Victo Ngai and published by Millbrook Press/Lerner Publishing…

…and for 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.

And thank you many times over to the Topaz committee, and not just for including my books among this terrific bunch. I know a lot of work goes into reading books for these lists and making hard choices between what to include and what to almost include. I want y’all to know that nonfiction readers like me surely appreciate it.

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.

15 Aug

Dazzle Ships wins a Writers’ League of Texas Book Award

Good things happen when you take a nap.

Take this past Monday, for instance. As usual, I was up at 5 a.m. to start my workday, and by early afternoon I was no longer functioning at full strength.

So, I lay down on the couch with my dog, let my brain recharge for half an hour (give or take), and awoke to learn that I’d won the 2017 Writers’ League of Texas Book Award in the Picture Book category.

I’ve been a finalist a few times over the years, but this honor for Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion (illustrated by Victo Ngai and published by Millbrook Press/Lerner Books) is the first time I’ve won the top prize from the WLT.

You can see all the winners, finalists, and other honorees here.

Many thanks to the Writers’ League and the judges — in all categories — for the work that goes into these awards. I can assure you that they’re meaningful to writers, but the reader in me appreciates them as well, as the list of titles seems like a pretty good bunch to put on my to-read list with the public library.

And if my library — or yours — doesn’t already have all of these titles in its collection, I believe a new-purchase request in order…

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.

04 Oct

Come see me (if you can) at Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop

Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion and I will be at Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop next Tuesday, October 10, and we should be at least as easy to spot at the three (count ’em!) cats in this sample of Victo Ngai’s art from the book:

From Dazzle Ships, published by Lerner Publishing/Millbrook Press

I look forward to seeing you there. Unless you’re camouflaged.

28 Sep

Big news for the illustrations (and illustrator) of Dazzle Ships

I’ve seen speculation here and there about Victo Ngai’s art for our book Dazzle Ships being in the running for a certain award, but there’s one prize that her illustrations have already won:

The Dilys Evans Founder’s Award, named after The Original Art founder, celebrates the most promising new talent in children’s book illustration. The jury has selected Victo Ngai’s Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion (Lerner Publishing Group/ Millbrook Press).

The award comes from the Society of Illustrators, whose Museum of Illustration in New York City will feature Victo’s art in for Dazzle Ships its annual Original Art exhibit from November 1 through December 23.

Congratulations, Victo!