27 Oct

A new title for my next* next book

For a decade now, I’ve had a book in the works about Willam, Harold, and Lew Christensen, the Utah-born brothers who had a huge influence in the development of ballet in the United States. Among their many contributions are the first full-length production of The Nutcracker in the US, in 1944.

And for pretty much all that time, this project — which will be published by Millbrook in fall 2015, with illustrations by Cathy Gendron — has gone by the name Pioneers & Pirouettes.

But no more.

As of this week, my Christensen brothers book is called…

The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition

You would think that, after knowing the book by one title for so long, it would be hard to switch to a new moniker. But in this case, nope.

I love this new title — the book itself has changed over the years, the story it tells has shifted, and this new title fits perfectly what this book has become.

RIP, Pioneers & Pirouettes. And long live The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition!

*As opposed to my next book, which is still called The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, the picture book biography of a young man who in ten years transformed from teenage field slave to US congressman. The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch will be published this coming April by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, with illustrations by Don Tate.

03 Aug

Picture book biographies coming in 2015

Illustration by Adam Gustavson from Fab Four Friends

Illustration by Adam Gustavson
from Fab Four Friends

Inspired by Greg Leitich Smith’s annual list of books from our Austin writing community, I thought I’d start compiling the picture book biographies scheduled for publication in 2015 (including a pair of mine).

I know there are lots more picture book biographies on their way from publishers recognized by SCBWI, so if you’re interested in helping keep this list reasonably complete and up to date, please let me know in the comments which ones ought to be added. I’ll update and republish this post on a regular basis.

The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Eerdmans), written by Chris Barton and illustrated by Don Tate

Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), written by Margarita Engle and illustrated by Rafael Lopez

Earmuffs for Everyone!: How Chester Greenwood Became Known as the Inventor of Earmuffs (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books), written and illustrated by Meghan McCarthy

Elvis: The Story of the Rock and Roll King (Henry Holt), written and illustrated by Bonnie Christensen

Emmanuel’s Dream (Schwartz & Wade), written by Laurie Ann Thompson and illustrated by Sean Qualls

Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles (Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt), written by Susanna Reich and illustrated by Adam Gustavson

The Founding Fathers! Those Horse-Ridin’, Fiddle-Playin’, Book-Readin’, Gun-Totin’ Gentlemen Who Started America (Atheneum), written by Jonah Winter and illustrated by: Barry Blitt

The Hole Story of the Doughnut (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), written by Pat Miller

The House that Jane Built: A Story about Jane Addams (Henry Holt/Christy Ottaviano Books), written by Tanya Lee Stone and illustrated by Kathryn Brown

In Mary’s Garden (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), written and illustrated by Tina and Carson Kugler

The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition (formerly known as Pioneers & Pirouettes: The Story of the First American Nutcracker; Millbrook), written by Chris Barton and illustrated by Cathy Gendron

One Plastic Bag (Millbrook), written by Miranda Paul and illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon

Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton (Peachtree), written and illustrated by Don Tate

Step Right Up: The Story of Beautiful Jim Key (Lee & Low), written by Donna Bowman Bratton and illustrated by Daniel Minter

Trombone Shorty (Abrams), written by Troy Andrews and illustrated by Bryan Collier

Vivien Thomas – The Man Who Saved the Blue Babies (Lee & Low), written by Gwendolyn Hooks

11 May

Two lessons in keeping an eye on your files

In my school visits, I often shock audiences by revealing that it took THREE AND A HALF YEARS from the day I got the idea for Shark Vs. Train until the official publication date. And then I tell them that The Day-Glo Brothers took EIGHT years, and they all lose their minds — especially those who haven’t yet hit the eight-year mark themselves.

But some upcoming books of mine — and projects that might become books — will end up having gestation periods that make The Day-Glo Brothers look positively possumlike.

The two picture books I’ve got on tap for 2015, The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch and Pioneers & Pirouettes: The Story of the First American Nutcracker, made their first appearances in my computer files in 2006 and 2003, respectively. And the picture book manuscript I’m working on revising this week dates back to October 7, 2002, but it has a way of getting new life breathed into it periodically. Maybe this latest version is the one that will take, but even if it’s not, there’s something immensely satisfying in having an editor point out potential in it that I’d never noticed before in all these years.

The thing is, such projects continue having potential for me only when I continue paying attention to them, or at least when I routinely check in on my files to see if anything about them grabs me anew. There’s a project I had pursued — a biography of trombonist Melba Liston — that I took my eye off of for too long, and I learned this week that someone else has beaten me to it. My consolation is that this summer I get to read Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, the version of Liston’s story that Katheryn Russell-Brown and Frank Morrison have created for Lee & Low, and that’s something for me and you both to look forward to.

In the meantime…

12 Mar

Meet the illustrator for my 2015 book Pioneers & Pirouettes!

The text is done for Pioneers & Pirouettes: The Story of the First American Nutcracker, my 2015 title being published by Millbrook, and now it’s time for the illustrator to do her thing.

But first, how about if I tell you who the illustrator is?

Cathy Gendron
will be providing the images for this true story of how small-town Utah brothers Willam, Harold, and Lew Christensen got into dancing and passed through vaudeville on the way to turning an old Russian ballet into an American holiday tradition.

I’m excited as can be about the talent that Cathy brings to this project. I’d say that I can’t wait to see how she brings the Christensens alive on the page, but the fact is that I do have to wait. And you do, too.

So, in the meantime, here are some of my favorite pieces from Cathy’s portfolio:

Izzy Makes Waffles

Izzy Makes Waffles

Cleaning House

Cleaning House

Night Owl

Night Owl

Waiting for a Kiss

Waiting for a Kiss

River Walk, San Antonio

River Walk, San Antonio

Bayou Boogie

Bayou Boogie

The Whatchamacallit

The Whatchamacallit

Spreading the Love of Food

Spreading the Love of Food

Welcome aboard, Cathy!

15 Dec

Interview Across a Breakfast Table: Big Trees, Fancy Cakes, Primary Sources, and Good Friends

Welcome back to the ongoing series in which my wife — author Jennifer Ziegler — and I question each other amid coffee refills, canine constitutionals, and sometimes even actual breakfast.

After a bit of a hiatus, this week Jenny and I are each posting our conversation about one of the biggest reasons for that hiatus: our part-work, all-fun November visit to the Bay Area.


(Though I can’t help but point out another reason for that hiatus: Jenny was busy putting the finishing touches on her purty new website.)

Me: It seems like we were just there, but it’s already been nearly three weeks since we got back from our trip to San Francisco, where I went for research and you went for fun. Before we forget, what stood out for you about our visit?

Jenny: So much! The people. The conversation. The architecture. The museums. The weather. The trees, water, bridges, and sea lions. And cake. How about that cake?

Me: That Shark Vs. Train cake was something else. And we’ve got the before-and-after photos to prove it.





These amazing and delicious Shark and Train cakes were made by Misery Loves Co. in Fremont.

These amazing and delicious Shark and Train cakes were made by Misery Loves Co. in Fremont.

My college roommate’s birthday celebration — just a few miles from the location of the only baker I know making three-dimensional cakes based on any of our books — was a terrific way to end our visit. But let’s go back to the first day. What did you do when you found out that the Museum of Modern Art was closed?

Jenny: I did what I was planning to do anyway for part of the time: I wandered. I poked around shops and explored Yerba Buena Gardens, across from the museum. (The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Fountain was beautiful and inspiring.) I bought a tea latte in a lovely little sweet shop where about five languages were being spoken. I then went into the Cartoon Art Museum, where they had a special exhibit on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

It was a great day to observe and study and think. Speaking of that, were you having some big “eureka!” moments while researching at the Museum of Performance + Design? What were your most exciting discoveries?

Me: My biggest “eureka!” while researching the Christensen brothers and The Nutcracker at the MP+D was pretty much the same as it is every time I’m researching a nonfiction topic and make the jump from secondary sources to primary ones. (In this case, interview transcripts with the brothers and some of the dancers they worked with, programs from the first US productions of The Nutcracker in 1944 and 1949, costume designs from those productions, etc.) I’m floored every time by how much closer to my subjects that primary research gets me.

But definitely the most exciting part of my research didn’t happen in the museum itself. It happened at the restaurant just down the street where I had lunch with Nancy Johnson Poulos, who danced in the very first full-length Nutcracker performed in the US, 69 years ago this month.

At lunch with Nancy Poulos Johnson.

At lunch with Nancy Poulos Johnson.

I’m sorry I missed the Cartoon Art Museum. How did that compare to the brand-new Arnold Lobel exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum?

Jenny: Both were terrific. Both had original outlines and manuscript pages, which are always fascinating to me. Lobel’s insight into the characters of Frog and Toad, and their friendship, was eye-opening, as was Neil Gaiman’s letter to his publisher about Sandman (a character he revived) and Death. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Arnold Lobel also did a lot of rough drafting and sketching in cheap spiral-bound notebooks — which I’ve been doing since I was a child. Seeing those slightly bent, yellowing notebooks under glass at the museum delighted me to no end.

You didn’t get to romp around the city as much as I did. But that day we spent out at Muir Woods was a memorable one, too. What did you take away from that special outing?

Me: Well, for one thing, I was surprised by the lack of non-human mammals. I saw a chipmunk outside the gift shop, but that was it. The quiet of Muir Woods — once you got to an elevation above the crowds — was astounding.



There was so much world there — these giant, giant trees, with their enormous trunks dwarfing us and the sun filtering down through their tops way up high — and yet there was hardly any sound at all. And I loved that serendipitous moment when we were on our way down the trail and encountered that family marveling at a pair of sticks precariously balanced on the pointed tip of a trail marker. That was infectiously joyous, and entirely unexpected.

20131123, serendipitous balancing sticks

Then, of course, we picked up the cake —

Me, Aaron from Misery Loves Co., and Shark. (Not pictured: Train.)

Me, Aaron from Misery Loves Co., and Shark. (Not pictured: Train.)

— and shared it with friends. For all the sights we saw and work that I got done, it was the people who really made the trip, don’t you think?

Jenny: Definitely. The human mammals were the best part. Jenni Holm is an award-winning author, but who knew she also offered emergency transport? She rescued us when our train left us stranded that cold night and took us out for crepes! Seeing her and meeting her lovely family was a high point.

Jenny and Jenni.

Jenny and Jenni.

Then, lucky us, we got to meet Deb Underwood for breakfast.

Me, Deb, and Jenny.

Me, Deb, and Jenny.

I haven’t seen Deb in person in over two years, but when I talk with her it always feels as if we visit on a weekly basis. We made plans to surprise Mike Jung, another of our fellow EMLA authors, at his workplace in the Bay Area, but it didn’t happen. Fun to plan, though.

More wondrous moments came from meeting people from your past for the first time – like Miguel and Juan, Britton, and Shai. I loved hearing you all relive past times. It’s clear that you are special to them. But of course. It’s always marvelous being able to weave together the different threads of our lives and our past. You know good people.

Me: I sure do.

20131120, Chris and Jenny

08 Apr

Coming from me in 2015: Pioneers and Pirouettes

Good news from the Erin Murphy Literary Agency:

Some projects just feel like they are touched by kismet. Such is the case with Chris Barton’s nonfiction picture book text PIONEERS AND PIROUETTES.

Chris has had the idea of doing a picture book about the Christensen brothers, three guys from small-town Utah who are responsible for the Christmas tradition of performances of THE NUTCRACKER, for quite some time. As he dug deeper, he found the guys were pretty fascinating—their lives covered vaudeville, serving in WWII, living all over the country, writing original stage performances, championing ballet as an American art form—and always, always, a love of dance in all forms.

Enter Carol Hinz of Millbrook, who not only confessed to being a fan of Chris Barton’s writing, but to having a lifelong love of ballet herself, from her first lessons at age 7 through her present-day classes. It turns out Carol wasn’t the only Millbrook staffer to be currently taking classes in ballet, either.

A match made in heaven! Now Carol and Millbrook will bring PIONEERS AND PIROUETTES to bookshelves in fall 2015—just in time for Christmas. Of course.

I’ll just add that my oldest electronic files for this project go back more than 10 years — thank you, Erin Murphy, for being so patient and persistent about finding the right home for Willam, Harold, and Lew Christensen’s story.