09 Sep

“I told my editor, ‘I want to write a Pakistani American version of Little Women, but Beth can’t die and Jo can’t marry the old guy.’” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for September 2019)

Welcome to the Q&A and giveaway for the September edition of my Bartography Express newsletter, which you can read here and sign up for here.

This month my Q&A is with Maryland author Hena Khan, whose new middle-grade novel, More to the Story, was inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. More to the Story is published by Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, as was her previous novel, the much-lauded Amina’s Voice.

Instead of Jo March and her sisters in Civil War-era Massachusetts, More to the Story follows Jameela Mirza and her Muslim family in contemporary Atlanta. In its starred review of the book, Publishers Weekly says, “Khan nimbly incorporates details of modern life and allusions to Alcott’s classic — including financial troubles and a health scare — into a tale that is, fittingly, strongest in the moments when family dynamics are on display.”

I’m giving away a copy of More to the Story to a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address. If you want to be that winner, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on September 30, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Hena Khan.

Chris: How did paying homage as a writer to a book that you loved as a reader compare to what you thought the experience would be like? Are there ways that the process was different, or more challenging, or more beneficial to your writing skills than you had anticipated?

author Hena Khan; photo by Zoshia Minto

Hena: When I had originally thought about writing a book inspired by Little Women, I imagined the process would be smoother.

I adored the classic growing up and for years had thought it would adapt well to a retelling that featured a Pakistani American family. After all, I saw many aspects of my culture in the book, like overly worrying about reputation, marriage proposals, and traditional gender roles.

When I spoke to my editor Zareen Jaffery about the idea, I told her “I want to write a Pakistani American version of Little Women, but Beth can’t die and Jo can’t marry the old guy,” and I’m pretty sure she cheered with joy.

But when I sat down to write the book, which I imagined as a young adult novel, I couldn’t capture the voice I wanted. I didn’t like my protagonist, Jameela, as a high schooler, and realized I didn’t want to immerse myself in marriage proposals or romance or struggles against societal rules.

Instead, I wanted to write the book from a middle-grade perspective, and to focus on universal issues and the strong relationships I savored in the original book. But then it wouldn’t quite be the retelling I imagined. In the end, the story I wrote includes nods to my favorite book and aspects of it that I love, like a memorable scene or moment or the basic personalities of the characters.

It ended up being liberating, because I stopped worrying that readers would compare it to the original book, since it’s now so different. I hope it will be fun for fans of the classic to recognize the similarities or tributes to the Louisa May Alcott classic, and for new readers to enjoy an original story with characters they connect with.

Writing the book was a test in expressing new emotions, pushing my dialogue scenes, and trying to write flirting, which I’m really bad at in real life!

Chris: Speaking of flirting, the character doing most of that is Ali — a eighth grade, Pakistani British version of Laurie from Little Women. I loved reading your author’s note and learning that your assumptions about Briticisms paralleled the Mirza sisters’ curiosity and observations about Ali’s cultural background. What’s your response going to be to readers who inevitably want more about Ali and his soccer playing in a follow-up book?

Hena: I hadn’t considered that parallel, but you’re so right! The silly things the girls say to Ali probably reflect a lot of things I assumed myself about British culture. And like Jameela, as a child I was curious the first time I met a South Asian with a full British accent.

I’m so glad that while I was writing More to the Story I had a real British teen, living in London, who I could call and read my Ali dialogue scenes to, and have him very patiently correct my completely made-up or TV-inspired Briticisms. The best was when I said “lumps” (referring to sugar cubes because of my extensive knowledge of proper tea terminology from Looney Tunes) and he cracked up and thought it sounded perverted.

I loved writing Ali as a character, someone who is a little mysterious but also super charming and kind. And I ultimately had fun including the flirting and the slightest hint of romance without hitting anyone over the head with it. My husband read the book and asked, “What romance?” But I promise it’s in there!

I hadn’t thought about readers asking for more about Ali, although now that I think of it, readers wanted more of Mustafa from Amina’s Voice, too! Honestly, I hadn’t considered extending the story before, but if readers clamor for it, I’d be more than happy to give it to them!

14 Aug

What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? is the 2019 Texas Great Read!

Rebekah Manley and me at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission

I’ve got some pretty exciting news — Texas-sized news, if you ask me.

What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, written by me and illustrated by Ekua Holmes, has been named the 2019 Texas Great Read.

This is a program of the Texas Center for the Book at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, which describes the whole shebang thusly:

“Every year, the Library of Congress asks each state Center for the Book to select a title that represents the state’s literary landscape to highlight at the National Book Festival. The event showcases the importance of books and reading. The festival is sponsored by the Library of Congress and takes place during Labor Day weekend in Washington, D.C.”

I’m beyond thrilled that my picture book biography of true Texas hero Barbara Jordan will represent the literary culture shared by Texans from El Paso to Beaumont, Brownsville to Dalhart, and Texarkana to Terlingua, not to mention the great lady’s hometown of Houston and adopted home city of Austin.

Many thanks to Rebekah Manley (she of the matching boots in the photo above) and her colleagues at the TSLAC for their support of this book, and to everyone who rooted for this book to get the nod. And here’s to new generations of Texans getting to know just what Barbara Jordan did with a voice like that.

Published by Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster

16 May

What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? among Bank Street’s Best Children’s Books of the Year

From the Bank Street College of Education’s Children’s Book Committee:

The Children’s Book Committee strives to guide librarians, educators, parents, grandparents, and other interested adults to the best books for children published each year. The list includes more then 600 titles chosen by reviewers for literary quality and excellence of presentation as well as the potential emotional impact of the books on young readers. Other criteria include credibility of characterization and plot, authenticity of time and place, age suitability, positive treatment of ethnic and religious differences, and the absence of stereotypes.

I’m pleased as can be that the 2019 list includes What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (written by me, illustrated by Ekua Holmes, and published by Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster) among its best books for readers ages nine to twelve.

In a brief write-up, the Committee said, “Jordan’s bold voice took her to places few African American women had been in the 1960s, and finally to the US Congress, where her oratory and integrity shone.”

Not only that, but our book received special recognition for Outstanding Merit and Diversity.

As that long paragraph above says, there are hundreds of other titles on this year’s list, from books for kids under five up to books for readers over 14. Have a look at the whole list, and you’re bound to find something terrific for the young reader(s) in your life.

24 Apr

My remarks at the Barbara Jordan Media Awards


As I mentioned last month, my book 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) won the 2018 Barbara Jordan Award for children’s books.

Three weeks ago, Jennifer and I had the honor of attending the awards ceremony at the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. Not only did I get to meet some of the other winners —

— but I also got to appreciate some of their award-winning work. And I’ve got great news: You can enjoy it, too, after about 60 seconds of remarks by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. (Excerpts from What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? begin at about the four-minute mark.)

Upon receiving the award, each of the winners had an opportunity to say thank you and share other thoughts. What I said during my three minutes was:

I must admit, I was really, really, really hoping that my Barbara Jordan children’s book would win the Barbara Jordan children’s book award.

I am so grateful for this honor, and I can’t help but also be a little tickled by it. And based on what I learned about Barbara Jordan in the course of researching and writing What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?, I think she would have gotten a kick out of it, too.

That shared sense of humor would not be the only thing Barbara Jordan and I have in common, despite our significant demographic differences. We’re both native Texans. We both found a home and a community in our adopted city of Austin.

I admire and aspire to emulate Barbara Jordan’s talent for and interest in listening to those whose viewpoints and experiences differ from our own.

Her forceful insistence on integrity and ethical behavior has led me, regarding many situations, to wonder — occasionally, then frequently, now daily — What Would Barbara Jordan Do?

And like Barbara Jordan, I believe in putting my own success and privilege — and, yes, my own voice — to work pulling up or helping along others who, for various reasons, are not yet there themselves.

My favorite example of how Barbara Jordan lived that value is how she, after accumulating significant political capital herself, applied that capital to shoring up — rather than restricting — the voting rights of Mexican-American citizens and others.

In my work as a member of the children’s book community, that impulse has taken the form of advocating for authors, illustrators, readers, and characters who tend to share Barbara Jordan’s demographics more so than my own.

I don’t know how many other titles were in the running for this year’s honor, but nothing would make me happier than for my Barbara Jordan book for children winning the Barbara Jordan children’s book award to inspire many more children’s books about Texans with disabilities and by Texas authors and illustrators with disabilities.

I want there to be plenty of fierce competition for this prize in the future, and for the judges to have their work cut out for them every year.

Thank you, judges, and to all who work on behalf of the Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities. Many thanks to illustrator Ekua Holmes and to our publisher, Simon & Schuster.

Thank you to my wife, Jennifer — I love you — and to all the family and friends and librarians who have supported me and my work. Thank you, Barbara Jordan, for your inspiration and for that voice. Thank you all.

Since the awards ceremony three weeks ago, I’ve begun making some inquiries about the accessibility of conferences for writers and illustrators, in hopes of helping make those events more accessible for people with disabilities.

If you’ve had experiences or can offer suggestions that might contribute to those conversations, please leave them in the comments section below, and I’ll be glad to pass them along to the folks I’m in touch with.

29 Mar

Voice wins Texas Institute of Letters award for Best Children’s Picture Book

What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan has picked up another close-to-home, deep-in-the-heart-of-Texas honor: the Texas Institute of Letters (TIL) award for Best Children’s Picture Book.

Written by me, illustrated by Ekua Holmes, and published by Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster, What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? is among several books being honored this year by TIL, a “non-profit Honor Society founded in 1936 to celebrate Texas literature and to recognize distinctive literary achievement. The TIL’s elected membership consists of the state’s most respected writers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, journalism, and scholarship.”

As a lifelong Texan and author of a book about a Texas hero, I’m so proud to receive this honor, and to get to share the spotlight with this year’s other honorees, including Naomi Shihab Nye, Ben Fountain, Natalia Sylvester, Brent Nongbri, David Bowles, Varian Johnson, Tarfia Faizullah, Clay Reynolds, Megan Peak, and Stephen Markley. Thank you, TIL!

21 Mar

Barbara Jordan book wins Barbara Jordan Award


The life of Texas hero Barbara Jordan included many facets, and one of those was her experience with multiple sclerosis, which began soon after she entered Congress in 1973.

Fittingly, the Texas Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities bestows the Barbara Jordan Award each year on authors and journalists whose work “accurately and positively reports on individuals with disabilities, using People First language and respectful depictions.”

I’m delighted to report that my book 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) has won the 2018 Barbara Jordan Award for children’s books.

I strove to get all aspects of her story right, and this recognition means the world to me. I look forward to thanking the committee in person at the awards luncheon next month here in Austin.

Plus, what’s not to love about a book about Barbara Jordan winning an award named for Barbara Jordan? I like to think that the great lady herself would have gotten a kick out of that.

13 Feb

SLJ‘s recommendations for “Honoring African American Women and Girls, Past and Present”

School Library Journal has compiled a list of 20 recent nonfiction titles “celebrating African American women [that] highlight their important contributions to the arts, activism, literacy, politics, science,” etc.

Thanks to the magic of alphabetical ordering by author’s last name, the list features my book 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) at the very top.

I’ve got a lot of catching up to do in my own reading, and maybe you do, too. Check out the entire list.

30 Jan

Voice on three “notable” lists

I’m happy to report that my newest picture book, 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), has been named to a trio of lists that are, literally, notable.

Voice is among the 25 titles on the list of Notable Books for a Global Society 2019 put out by the Children’s Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) of the International Literacy Association. The group says, “These books for all levels (preK-12) reflect diversity in the broadest sense, celebrating a wide variety of voices and topics.” (Reviews of some of the winners are compiled here.) Thank you so much to the members of the CL/R SIG for this honor.

My picture book biography of Barbara Jordan is also included on the 2019 list of Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People put together by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and the Children’s Book Council (CBC). The NCSS says, “The selection committee looks for books that emphasize human relations, represent a diversity of groups and are sensitive to a broad range of cultural experiences, present an original theme or a fresh slant on a traditional topic, are easily readable and of high literary quality, and have a pleasing format and, when appropriate, illustrations that enrich the text.” Many, many thanks to the NCSS and CBC for including Voice.

Finally, the book was on the Notable Children’s Books Discussion List at the just-completed midwinter meetings of the American Library Association. I’m looking forward to seeing the final Notables list and am delighted that the ALA included Voice in their discussion.

14 Jan

Barbara Jordan on This American Life

If you’ve read and enjoyed What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, I think you’ll appreciate the latest episode of This American Life:

Where Have You Gone, Barbara Jordan? Our Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to You

Back in the 1990s, a bipartisan team led by the charismatic Barbara Jordan came up with a solution to the immigration debate that would have fixed a lot the things we’re arguing about today. Producer Miki Meek tells the story.

03 Jan

Year-end (and New Year’s) excitement for What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?


New Year’s Day brought some exciting news for What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster).

My most recent picture book, illustrated by Ekua Holmes, was named one of the 2018 Elementary/Middle Grade Non-fiction Finalists for the Cybils (Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Awards).

Chris Barton’s text begs to be read aloud. Using alliteration and repetition, it reverberates with the big booming voice of former U. S. Congresswoman from Texas, Barbara Jordan. Ekua Holmes’ mixed media illustrations are as bright and bold as Barton’s text and perfectly capture the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the author’s note and a two-page spread timeline in the back matter, readers discover that Barbara Jordan — who retired early from public service because she had multiple sclerosis — died too young at 59. What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? is a wonderful choice for Black History Month, for Women’s History Month, and for all the months of the year.

Long ago, I was a Cybils judge, so I know the great collective effort that goes into whittling the year’s nonfiction books down to a shortlist and finally a single winner. Thank you to all the folks who gave their time to this year’s Cybils, and especially to those who chose to recognize What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?

That gratitude extends to everyone who has embraced this book about a Congresswoman and teacher from Texas who — as I’ve learned these past few months — was not as much of a household name as my lifelong experience as a Texan of a certain age had led me to believe.

That includes those who placed the book on the lists for

What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? has also been included on a couple more Mock Caldecott lists. Thank you, Pernille Ripp and Bickering Book Reviews!

It was included as well as in booksellers’ roundups in the Houston Chronicle

The picture book is a beautiful reminder of the impact Jordan had on the nation. It’s a must have for every Texas young reader.

— and in the Abilene Reporter News. Many thanks to Joy Preble and Glenn Dromgoole, respectively.

Finally, I must express my deep appreciation for Margie Myers-Culver’s detailed commentary on What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?. An excerpt:

I can’t imagine a personal or professional collection of books without a copy of What Do You Do With A Voice Like That: The Story Of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan written by Chris Barton with illustrations by Ekua Holmes on their shelves. This fresh, vibrant depiction in a stunning blend of words and images will promote discussions and further research.

It’s one thing to love a book, another thing to reflect upon it, but something else entirely to so generously share those thoughts with the public. Thank you, Margie.