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.

26 Aug

Dazzle Ships: The Video

About a year ago, I mentioned that my book Dazzle Ships (Millbrook Press) had received a starred review from School Library Journal.

Well, I’m delighted to let you know that Dazzle Ships has now received a second star from SLJ — this time for the 25-minute DVD produced by Dreamscape.

From the review:

Victo Ngai’s illustrations are closely scanned and sometimes simply animated as Johnny Heller narrates the text set to taut, compelling music and appropriate sound effects. … This extraordinary, fascinating look into a little-known historical event has multiple curriculum connections, from history to art. It would be a valuable addition to any collection and inspire viewers to do further research.

For a visual sampling of the magic Dreamscape has worked, here’s the trailer for the DVD:

You can order the DVD — or watch it for free on Hoopla — by visiting the Dreamscape site.

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…

15 May

Fair winds and following seas for Dazzle Ships

By the time a nonfiction picture book of mine is published, I’ve already moved on to researching and writing other projects, and by the time that book has had a chance to make much of an impression on readers, there’s all the more distance between it and me. One result of that remove is that the arrival of any good news about that book is a pleasantly surprising blast from the past.

I’m feeling very fortunate lately. Here are the latest such blasts for Dazzle Ships (written by me, illustrated by Victo Ngai, and published last September by Millbrook Press):

The Bank Street College of Education has named the book to its list of The Best Children’s Books of the Year, 2018 Edition. Specifically, it’s on the list for ages Nine to Twelve, under the History heading.

Read On Wisconsin, a statewide literacy program operated by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, has included Dazzle Ships among its Intermediate (Grades 3-5) books for 2018-19.

Dazzle Ships has also been announced as one of the 2018-19 Junior Book Nominees for the North Carolina Children’s Book Award, just a year after Whoosh! was included on the same list.

And the book has been honored with a nomination for the 2018-2019 Crown Award from the Brackett Library at Harding University and the National Christian School Association, as well as a spot on the Lectio Book Award Master List 2018-2019.

I’m grateful for all of that good news. And I’m quick to tell students that of all my books, Dazzle Ships is the one that I needed the most editorial help with, so I’m happy to share this interview with the book’s editor, Carol Hinz. I’ll close with a bit of that:

[B]y and large, nonfiction has changed so much from my own childhood—when the norm was text-heavy books with small, black-and-white photos or illustrations. So in some ways, I would say I’m now making the type of books I wish I’d had when I was a child.

28 Mar

Entirely uncamouflaged good news about Dazzle Ships

Photo, taken by Susan Thomsen, of patron art created in February 2018 at The Westport (Connecticut) Library


It’s been nearly three months since my previous update about Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion (written by me, illustrated by Victo Ngai, and published last September by Millbrook Press). What’s new?

The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) division of the American Library Association (ALA) has included Dazzle Ships on its 2018 Notable Children’s Books list.

The 2018 list of Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, a joint effort by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and the Children’s Book Council (CBC), also includes Dazzle Ships.

CCBC Choices 2018, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s annual best-of-the-year list, includes Dazzle Ships as well.

Elizabeth Dulemba interviewed me about the book.

Dazzle Ships is the runner-up for the 2018 Denton Record-Chronicle Award for Best Children’s Picture Book, coordinated by the Texas Institute of Letters. (Be sure to check out the winner, Xelena González and Adriana M. Garcia’s All Around Us, which was also named a 2018 Illustrator Honor Book by the Pura Belpré Award committee.)

You might also enjoy…

Millbrook Press art director Danielle Carnito on Page Counts Demystified (or, Why Publishing People Need to Know Their Multiplication Tables):

After printing, the large paper sheets are folded down to the size of the individual pages. With every fold of the press sheet, the amount of pages doubles. One of the most common amount of pages in a signature is 16—as DAZZLE SHIPS was printed—so there are 8 pages on the front of a press sheet and 8 on the back. 8 is also used often, so there are 4 pages on the front and 4 on the back.

The Calling Caldecott post on Dazzle Ships:

Recurring graphic elements weave throughout the pages, from the gentle curves of the ocean waves to the zigzag dazzle patterns. Ngai’s deft use of scale allows the people — such as, painters, artists, and naval officers — to share the same spreads with the massive battleships. Particularly stunning is the spread of an awestruck King George V; he is staring, mouth agape, at a small dazzled model. The smoothness of the monarch’s face and uniform contrast sharply with the geometric edges of the model and its pattern.

And the review of Dazzle Ships in the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books:

“So just how well did dazzle work? Nobody really knows,” Barton admits. There’s no denying, however, that dazzle boosted morale and makes a heckuva great story. Barton’s lively text is matched by Ngai’s engrossing artwork, which employs dazzle techniques throughout [her] inventive spreads. Contrasting colors, unexpected curves, eccentrically layered design elements, and cleverly deployed chiaroscuro walk the line between instructive playfulness and an art deco fever dream.

I love hearing reports of Dazzle Ships (and dazzle ships) sightings out in the wild and on the web, so if you see something you think I might be interested in, there’s a very good chance that you’re right. Please let me know in the comments section, won’t you?

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.

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!

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.

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.