25 Jun

Bigger than a book: my new, (no longer!) secret project

For the past few months, while working on getting my next few books written and revised and ready to greet the world, I’ve been plotting away behind the scenes on a secret project with Austin, Texas, independent bookseller BookPeople. In this month’s edition of my Bartography Express newsletter, I at last get to tell the world what BookPeople and I have been up to — a program we’re calling Modern First Library.

I’m also giving away a copy of The Great Greene Heist, the smart, engaging, fast-paced new middle-grade novel by Varian Johnson, to one subscriber to my newsletter. If you’re not already receiving it, click the image below for a look — if you like what you see, click “Join” in the bottom right corner, and you’ll be in the running for the giveaway at the end of this week.

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11 Jun

Summer reading and home library suggestions from the ALSC

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If you need summer reading lists for students in grades K-8, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) has your back.

ALSC — a division of the American Library Association (ALA) — has updated its lists and provided them in color and black & white formats that make it easy to print these up and distribute them.

ALSC also has the backs of Shark Vs. Train and The Day-Glo Brothers, both of which are included on this year’s summer reading lists. Not only that, but Shark Vs. Train is also included among the titles the ALSC included on its updated home library recommendation lists.

Thank you, ALSC!

10 Jun

The Writing Process Blog Tour

Melissa Wiley asked if I’d like to participate in this rolling series of authors’ monologues about their current projects and writing processes, and I thought…

Well, from the title of this post, it’s pretty obvious what I thought. So here goes:

What are you working on?

I’ve got a couple of things going on at the moment, both of them picture books under contract.

One is a biography whose ending my editor and I are still trying to nail down — we want to make sure that we hit the final note just right. Do we leave the reader with one last impression of the subject himself, or encourage the reader to view the bigger picture beyond this one person’s life, or invite the reader to look inward and consider how the subject resonates with them individually, or attempt to accomplish something else? The runaway for figuring this out is growing pretty short.

The other book is all made-up fun, or will be. Right now, I’ve got characters and a vague sense of what the conflict is going to be, but so far there’s neither a story nor, frankly, much fun. (Though I’m enjoying myself.) What I’m working on, then, is figuring out the specifics of what happens, or might happen, or could happen, or should, or ought to, etc. Opening lines popped into my head late last night, so I need to revisit those and see if they still seem to set the right tone and get the story going in a good direction.

How does your work differ from others in its genre?

I don’t know that my picture books individually differ drastically from other narrative picture books, but collectively they stand out a bit by falling into two distinct camps. I love writing seriously researched nonfiction, and I love just making up silly stuff, and I feel just as comfortable doing one (The Day-Glo Brothers) as the other (Shark Vs. Train). Enough people have asked me some variation of “How do you do that?” that I understand that enjoying both types of writing is not the norm, but it feels perfectly natural to me. Writing for this audience wouldn’t be nearly as fun if I didn’t or couldn’t do both types of books.

Why do you write what you do?

I write my biographies because something about the arc of an individual’s life — regardless of whether anyone I know has ever heard of this person — fascinates me. I like writing about people who end up in vastly different circumstances from those in which they entered the world, and about how inner drive and outer happenstance work together to change the course of a person’s life, and about the impact that person’s life has on the rest of us. And I like writing about people whose fields of achievement offer lots for me to learn about along the way and lots to distill and convey to my readers.

I write my fiction because I’ve always enjoyed getting people to laugh — or at least taking a shot at getting them to laugh — through the words I string together. It’s no fun when my efforts fall flat, but the times when my audience (even if that audience consists of just one person) does laugh — those keep me going.

How does your writing process work?

For biographies, with the very first piece of research I consult, I generally start creating a timeline of key events in the subject’s life. From that timeline, the period of the person’s life that most intrigues me will begin to emerge — I don’t generally write cradle-to-the-grave biographies, so I’m on the lookout for a significant place to start my telling of their story and a meaningful, resonant place to end my telling. Then I’ll research and research and research until I’m not running into much new information, or not finding any information that alters the story arc that’s taking shape. By then, I’m feeling sort of full and antsy, and I can’t help but start writing, though I’ll probably continue doing research of some sort until the illustrator is entirely finished with the art.

That’s a fairly amorphous process, but it’s even more so for my picture book fiction. Sometimes, I bang out a full draft the first morning an idea occurs to me, or the first day I pull a previously-jotted-down story idea from a pool of candidates. Other times, there’s a lot of mulling — weeks and weeks of mulling — about how to approach a character or theme or plot point before I ever actually start writing what anybody else would consider to be a draft.

For both types of books, I tend to revise a lot as I go. I turn in very clean drafts — not that they necessarily get returned from editors in quite the same condition.

Who’s next?

Who am I going to ask to answer these questions after me? Well, Melissa has already gone to my go-to author.

So, I was thinking that instead I would ask the most recent commenter, which would be Tina Kugler. But I see that Tina has already taken a crack at these questions.

So, how about you? If you’d be up for keeping the Writing Process Blog Tour going — or if you’ve already done your bit — won’t you please leave a comment letting me know where the rest of us can find your answers?

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…

05 Feb

O Trem Contra O Tubarão!

SVT in Portuguese

And now you know how to say Shark Vs. Train — or, rather, Train Against Shark — in Portuguese.

I’d received word a while back that a Brazilian translation of SVT was in the works, but it was still a surprise when copies arrived yesterday, especially when I saw the cover of my book peeking out from a mailing envelope that I knew full well was too small to contain it.

It turns out that the trim size of the Brazilian edition is considerably smaller than that of the US edition. This difference will add another point for audiences and me to discuss when I display this book alongside the Korean version of Shark Vs. Train and The Day-Glo Brothers during my school visits.

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15 Apr

Signing times at IRA in San Antonio

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I hope to see lots of you at the jam-packed panel discussion on nonfiction picture books this coming Sunday at the International Reading Association conference in San Antonio.

There’s lots of good stuff going on at the same time, though, so if you can’t make it to our talk at 3 p.m., I’d love to catch up with you during the hour before. At 2 p.m., I’ll be signing The Day-Glo Brothers and Shark Vs. Train at the Anderson’s Bookshop booth, #1003.

IRA has a helpful guide to which authors will be signing which books at which times.

12 Feb

Day-Glo gets a Bluestem!

Mr. Schu delivered the good news this week that The Day-Glo Brothers had made the 2013 masterlist for the Bluestem Award, the Illinois School Library Media Association’s readers’ choice list for older elementary school readers:

The award is designed for students in grades 3-5 who are ready for longer titles than found on the Monarch list, but not quite ready for the sophistication of some of the Rebecca Caudill titles. Named in honor of Big Bluestem which is the state prairie grass, the award may include both timeless classics and current titles, as well as books that have appeared on Monarch and Rebecca Caudill lists.

It really is an interesting array of books, spanning from War Horse — published in 1982 — to several titles that came out in the past couple of years. I’m honored to have my book included in such great company. Thanks, Illinois — and thanks for the news, Mr. Schu!

06 Feb

Love from (and to) libraries and librarians

Libraries and librarians have been sending some great news my way lately.

In the past few weeks, I’ve learned that The Day-Glo Brothers is a nominee for the 2011-2012 Pennsylvania Young Reader’s Choice Awards Program sponsored by the Pennsylvania School Libraries Association, and that Shark Vs. Train has been named to three nifty lists:

  • The Chicago Public Library‘s 2010 Best of the Best list
  • The Texas Library Association’s 2011 2×2 list
  • The Illinois School Library Media Association’s 2012 Monarch Award list
  • I just wish that libraries and librarians were on the receiving end of more good news lately. I wrote about this in my Bartography Express newsletter last weekend:

    We all love our libraries — even Shark and Train — but it’s never been more important that we take the time to say so. State and city and school district budgets this year include deep, shortsighted cuts for libraries and librarians and the services they provide. These are bad news for all of us and especially for the children in our society. If we want to be a better educated, better informed, better prepared people, none of us — not one — will come out ahead if these sorts of cuts go through.

    The Texas Library Association has provided this tool for emailing Gov. Perry and state senators and representatives to advocate on behalf of the institutions — and the people who make them run — that are such a vital part of our society, democracy and culture. If your state library association does the same, I urge you to take advantage of it.

    One bright spot for librarians, at least, is the new book by one of their own, Jeanette Larson. In her post-librarian career (though I really wonder if such a thing exists), Jeanette has written the lovely Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas, just published by Charlesbridge. It’s a beautiful book, and I hope you’ll all be able to find it on the shelves of your local library.

    21 Nov

    Shark Vs. Train gets listed — and listed, and listed again!

    The great year-end news for Shark Vs. Train has kept right on coming. I’m pleased to announce that, in addition to the previously announced recognition by Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, SVT has been listed among the “Best Books of 2010” by School Library Journal.

    My previous book, The Day-Glo Brothers, made all three of those lists last year, so I figured there must be a lot of overlap among them — if you’ve made one, you’ve made them all. But according to SLJ‘s Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog, only eight titles hold that distinction this year:

  • They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
  • Shark Vs. Train, by Chris Barton and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld
  • Incarceron, by Catherine Fisher
  • The War to End All Wars: World War I, by Russell Freedman
  • Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan and illustrated by Brian Floca
  • The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy), by Barbara Kerley and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham
  • Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors, by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Beckie Prange
  • One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
  • Wow. For me, that’s some humbling company to be in.

    But for you, wow! Your holiday list-making is pretty much complete now, isn’t it?