12 Sep

Elizabeth Bird on The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch


Elizabeth Bird, librarian extraordinaire, had a lot to say this week about The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch on her School Library Journal blog.

This book has received some great attention, but there’s nothing quite as rewarding for an author as knowing without a doubt that someone has made a point of thinking deeply about your work.

Here’s a bit of what she said:

[Y]ou just have to stand in awe of Barton’s storytelling. Not making up dialogue is one thing. Drawing a natural link between a life and the world in which that life lived is another entirely. Take that moment when John Roy answers his master honestly. He’s banished to hard labor on a plantation after his master’s wife gets angry. Then Barton writes, “She was not alone in rage and spite and hurt and lashing out. The leaders of the South reacted the same way to the election of a president – Abraham Lincoln – who was opposed to slavery.” See how he did that? He managed to bring the greater context of the times in line with John Roy’s personal story. Many is the clunky picture book biography that shoehorns in the era or, worse, fails to mention it at all. I much preferred Barton’s methods. There’s an elegance to them.

She’s just as insightful about Don Tate’s illustrations, pointing out key aspects of them that I hadn’t noticed and am now kicking myself for having missed. I’m so glad that she set me straight.

Thank you, Betsy, for the attention you gave our book.

17 Aug

See you soon, Mississippi! And thank you, Black History Channel!

I remember the excitement of the first Texas Book Festival twenty years ago, as well as my more personal enthusiasm two years later when I had the honor of shepherding Mississippi author (with deep Texas ties) Willie Morris around the annual event.

Mississippi Book Festival logo

This week, it’s Mississippi’s turn for its inaugural book festival, and I’m delighted to be attending as one of the featured authors. I hope some of you will be able to attend my panel this coming Saturday at 11:30 a.m.:

Children’s Illustrated Books – Room 113

Presented by First Commercial Bank and the Friends of University Libraries / University of Southern Mississippi

  • Ellen Ruffin, Curator de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, University of Southern Mississippi, Moderator
  • Sarah Campbell, Wolfsnail, Growing Patterns, Mysterious Patterns
  • Sarah Frances Hardy, Dress Me!
  • Susan Eaddy, Poppy’s Best Paper
  • Hester Bass, The Secret World of Walter Anderson, Seeds of Freedom
  • Lori Nichols, Maple & Willow Apart
  • Chris Barton, The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch

In the meantime, I hope you’ll have a look at the Black History Channel’s review of my book and consideration of the Reconstruction era. In a nutshell, reviewer Rita Lorraine says that The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch‘s “text and illustrations … depict the whirlwind of change, hope, and the infinite possibilities that defined this rocky time in American history.”

I truly appreciate that, Rita. Thank you for sharing my book with your readers.


09 Aug

Revisiting Reconstruction (Week of August 9, 2015)

Put simply, white Southerners resisted and then reversed — through legislation and violence — the extension of freedom to their black neighbors. And as Reconstruction neared its end, the U.S. government did not keep up its efforts to protect its African American citizens in those states. It wasn't until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that the nation's course was put right, back toward equality.

Excerpt from the Historical Note in my book The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers; illustrated by Don Tate)

Here are the most timely and intriguing items about Reconstruction that I found this past week. (What did I miss? Let me know in the comments…)

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

For scholars of African-American studies, the police killings of unarmed black men in several cities over the past year have been personally searing and unusually powerful pedagogically. …

Each new event has forced scholars to make pedagogical choices. Some have made the incidents the explicit topics of a new lesson or course; others have used them as entry points to teach previously existing material. …

Historians, for example, have linked current developments in Ferguson and elsewhere to the Watts riots of 1965, to Reconstruction, even back to the slave laws established in the 17th-century colony of Virginia.

From the U.S. Army:

In May 1865, there were approximately 1 million Soldiers in the Union Army. A rapid demobilization followed and by January 1866, there just 87,550 occupation troops in the South, and by October 1867, there were a mere 20,117 Soldiers.

The end of the Civil War, the freeing of the slaves, and demobilization did not usher in a period of peace and tranquility, [Mark Bradley, a historian at the Army’s Center of Military History] noted. The institution of slavery and the antebellum way of life had roots that were deep.

Beginning in early 1866, Southern states began passing a series of laws and regulations, known collectively as Black Codes, which restricted the rights of blacks from voting, owning firearms and even gathering in public under certain conditions. Many were arrested for minor infractions and sentenced to involuntary labor. “It was about controlling the workforce and keeping blacks in as close to a position of slavery as possible,” he said.

And from Tom Dillard in the Democrat-Gazette:

I was taking Arkansas history in the seventh grade in 1960 when I was introduced to the history of Reconstruction. My textbook, which I still own, was The Story of Arkansas by Hazel Presson, my revised edition having been published in Little Rock in 1948. Mrs. Presson certainly had no sympathy with Reconstruction or the newly freed black citizens.

Here is how Presson described the creation of the Ku Klux Klan: ‘The people of Arkansas had no legal way of stopping these lawless bands of Negroes, and the horrible deeds continued. In most of the Southern States the carpetbaggers had secured control of the government by unfair elections and had aroused the colored people to villainy. Finally, the citizens of the States formed an organization to try to scare the Negroes and carpetbaggers into being good. This organization was called the Ku-Klux Klan …’

At age 13, I was too young to question Presson’s textbook, but as my study of Arkansas history deepened through the years, I discovered that Hazel Presson was merely one in a flood of Southern textbook authors who painted Reconstruction in starkly biased ways. It turns out that Clio, the muse of history, wore a laurel of cotton blossoms.


02 Aug

Revisiting Reconstruction (Week of August 2, 2015)

From my book The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers; illustrated by Don Tate)

Excerpt from my book The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers; illustrated by Don Tate)

Here are the three most notable items pertaining to Reconstruction that I found this past week. Or, at least, two notable items preceded by one blatantly self-promotional one. (What did I miss? Let me know in the comments…)

In advance of this month’s inaugural Mississippi Book Festival, this interview with me from Jackson’s Clarion-Ledger:

Question: Briefly, why did Reconstruction after the Civil War fail in the South? (History seems to suggest that had it not failed, things in the South could have been very different.)

Answer: Reconstruction failed because racists in the South wanted it to fail more than the general population of the United States wanted to see it through. White terrorists and their political allies were firm in their resolve to deny civil rights and social equality to black Americans, and the will of the federal government faltered.

From Ishmael-Lateef Ahmad in the The St. Louis American:

In February 1988 I team-covered a story when then state Rep. Thomas Reed and 13 others were arrested in an attempt to scramble to the crest of the state capitol and remove the Confederate battle flag from atop the dome. They never got over an 8-foot construction fence before they were arrested and taken to jail. Flag supporters celebrated and vowed the flag would never come down. …

At the time, Reed was president of the Alabama NAACP. In 1970 he was among the first blacks elected to the Alabama state legislature since Reconstruction…

And from Will Moredock in the Charleston City Paper, writing about Mary C. Simms Oliphant, 20th century author of the South Carolina state history textbook:

Oliphant’s primary way of dealing with black people in South Carolina history was to ignore them. In her 432-page text are hundreds of illustrations, yet blacks are depicted in only nine. Of those nine, two show blacks picking cotton, one is a 19th-century engraving showing blacks running a cotton gin, while another shows blacks hauling cotton bails on the wharves in Charleston. The only black person identified by name in the entire book is Denmark Vesey, the accused organizer of a failed slave revolt in 1822.

The keepers of South Carolina’s history, archives, and monuments have been ignoring black people for generations. This weekend we begin to correct that with two days of scholarship and observances honoring Civil War hero and Reconstruction reformer Robert Smalls. It is part of the Civil War sesquicentennial observance in the city where that terrible conflict began. The organizers of this four-year series of events are determined to avoid the mistakes of the centennial observance 50 years ago. These events will be dignified and historically inclusive. This weekend’s observance will be a small step toward understanding that war and its aftermath.


27 Jul

Revisiting Reconstruction (Week of July 26, 2015)

From the Historical Note in my book The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch(Eerdmans Books for Young Readers; illustrated by Don Tate)

Excerpt from the Historical Note in my book The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers; illustrated by Don Tate)

Here are the most timely and intriguing items about Reconstruction that I found this past week. (What did I miss? Let me know in the comments…)

From the University of South Carolina Beaufort:

The University of South Carolina Beaufort (USCB), in partnership with the City of Beaufort, Penn Center, and the University Of South Carolina College Of Education, will host 30 K-12 teachers from around the country for a three-week summer institute July 12 – August 1, 2015. The institute, “America’s Reconstruction: The Untold Story,” will guide the educators through more than a century of American history—from the final years of the cotton kingdom in the South, through the Civil War and Reconstruction, and up to the modern civil rights era.

The institute is funded as a result of a $200,000 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant awarded in 2014 to J. Brent Morris, Ph.D., assistant professor of history in the Department of Humanities and Fine Arts at USCB.

From Tom Dillard in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette:

Recently a columnist in this newspaper wrote a scathing attack on the post-Civil War period known as Reconstruction. He then made a series of statements justifying his conclusion that “the ugly history of Reconstruction is dawning anew.” We supposedly face a different type of Reconstruction: “This time the culprits seething with malice and seeking to once again crush and conquer the old Confederacy are the Radical Revisionists.”

I guess I am a radical revisionist. For years I have written about Reconstruction in Arkansas, and now more than ever I see it as a great experiment which offered so much but which, admittedly, fell short in many ways. While it failed in guaranteeing the liberty and rights of the freedmen, Reconstruction was the beginning of the modernization of Arkansas–a process which more or less continues to this day.

And from Stephen Kantrowitz at We’re History:

Ben Tillman reminds us that the defeat of the Confederacy was not the end of our reckoning with slavery. We are also living in the shadow of Reconstruction and its overthrow, a war that Tillman and his comrades won. A large statue of Tillman stands on the South Carolina statehouse grounds in Columbia, and prominent buildings on several campuses bear his name, tributes to his power and popularity. To take full account of Ben Tillman is to understand a far more difficult truth: for a hundred years after the Confederate flag fell in 1865, the white supremacy for which Tillman proudly stood was part of the governing ideology of the United States. The slaveholders lost the Civil War, but they and their sons won the battle that followed. Ben Tillman’s career charts the nature and scope of that victory, and his legacies continue to shape our world.

Tillman’s career reminds us that the world of the post-Civil War South was shaped, to a staggering degree, by murder. His service as a “Red Shirt” foot soldier in 1876 included election-day violence aimed at preventing South Carolina’s black majority from voting. A black political organizer approached the polls in November to find Tillman waving a pistol: “If I come any further,” he reported Tillman telling him, “I would come through blood.” Such terror cast the election of 1876 into doubt, installed a Republican president who no longer counted on southern votes, and returned the former slaveholding class to power in South Carolina. Slavery was not reestablished, but through violence and intimidation slavery’s champions and their heirs replaced it with a racial caste system.


05 Jul

The lineup for the inaugural Mississippi Book Festival…

Mississippi Book Festival logo

…is taking shape. And I’m pleased to say that I’m among the authors who will be participating in Jackson on August 22.

Where better for me to share The Amazing of Age of John Roy Lynch with the public than in the city where he began his political rise?

In 1868 the US government

“In 1868 the U.S. government appointed a young Yankee general as governor of Mississippi. The whites who had been in charge were swept out of office. By river and by railroad, John Roy traveled to Jackson to hand Governor Ames a list of names to fill those positions in Natchez. After John Roy spoke grandly of each man’s merits, the governor added another name to the list: John Roy Lynch, Justice of the Peace.”

22 Jun

The latest (great!) reviews for The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch


I’m excited to the see the word get out — and the favorable reviews come in — for my book with Don Tate, The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers). Here’s a sampling of the latest batch:

From Kendal Rautzhan’s nationally syndicated column:

“This inspirational story of John Roy Lynch, going from a teenage slave to a U.S. Congressman in just 10 years, should not be missed.”

From librarian Tasha Saecker’s Waking Brain Cells blog:

“An important book focused on an important figure in a dynamic time in American history, this picture book biography will inform new audiences about the potential for both progress and defeat during [Reconstruction].”

From the Mississippi Library Commission’s MLC Reference Blog:

“Growing up in Mississippi, we remember learning about John Roy Lynch in history class. We wish this book had been around then, because it is truly amazing.”

From WCMU’s Children’s Bookshelf:

“[A] powerful story … Chris Barton’s descriptions of the time period in which John Roy Lynch lived and the challenges and heartache that he experienced may have a profound impact on young people.”

09 Jun

Good news & good company for The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch

This past week has brought a couple of happy developments for my new book with Don Tate, The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers).

First, the book has received a Silver Honor from the Parents’ Choice Awards. Thank you, Parents’ Choice!

And another big thank you goes to Colby Sharp and Jon Samuelson for including The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (along with Bob Shea’s Ballet Cat and Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl) in the latest episode of the Booklandia podcast.

I love the surprise in Jon’s voice when he realizes that the story of Lynch’s 10-year rise from slavery to the U.S. House of Representatives during Reconstruction is nonfiction rather than historical fiction. I also appreciate the thorough notes on this episode — very helpful, guys.

29 May

Giveaway: a copy of John Roy Lynch signed by Don and me


Angie Manfredi, one of the most passionate librarians I know, is giving away a copy of The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch that’s been signed by both illustrator Don Tate and me.

Here’s a bit of what Angie has to say about the book:

Everything about The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is special. It’s a book that asks children to think big thoughts and ask hard questions about eras of history that are too often glossed over and about the era we live in now. It’s ambitious, interesting, original and very beautiful. It’s meant to be shared and discussed with kids and I recommend it as a first purchase for public libraries looking to enrich their children’s non-fiction collection and especially for elementary school librarians and classroom teachers working with 3rd-6th grades. It’s a great supplement for history lessons and will hopefully make young learners even more curious about our country’s history, all the parts of it — the amazing and hard ones.

To enter the giveaway, all you have to do is go to this blog post at Fat Girl Reading and leave a comment.

But you’ll probably want to do more than that, like stick around a while and read what Angie has to say about this book and other things, because did I mention that she’s one of the most passionate librarians I know?