31 Oct

What do you do with a Bluebonnet book like that?

You celebrate it!

It was a thrill to be in the audience in Austin last Saturday at the Texas Book Festival for the announcement of the Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List books for the 2020-21 school year:

I try to attend the announcement every year, but it was especially exciting this time because among the 20 titles on next year’s list is my picture book biography What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster), illustrated by Ekua Holmes.

Ekua Holmes and me in Austin, the day before the announcement

As a native Texan long residing here in our capital city, I am beyond delighted that this biography of an inspiring hero from my home state will reach so many readers participating in the Texas Bluebonnet Award program during the next school year.

I think the world of this program, and I am honored and immensely grateful that the selection committee chose to include What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? Among students and classes that invest their time in voting for their favorite Bluebonnet books, the excitement — not only for those titles, but for reading, writing, and literacy in general, all of which contributes to greater academic achievement — is palpable, and I’m so proud to again be a part of that.

From my two previous stints on the list (both times with books illustrated by my friend Don Tate), I know that having a Bluebonnet author or illustrator visit a school is a powerful way to generate student enthusiasm and drive participation. And I appreciate the fact that my being based in Austin means lower travel costs for my hosts here in the Lone Star State.

While I do still have some author-visit dates available in winter/spring 2020, I am already beginning to actively schedule visits to Texas schools for September 2020 and beyond.

With two new picture books next year — All of a Sudden and Forever: Help and Healing After the Oklahoma City Bombing and Fire Truck vs. Dragon (a companion to Shark vs. Train) — along with my third appearance on the Bluebonnet list, there will be lots for students and me to talk about.

If you’d like me to visit your school, or if you have a friend or colleague looking for an author to host, I’m more than happy to start having that conversation. Here’s a good place to start.

04 Oct

“…and Congress had to decide what to do about it.”

I don’t know what resources educators might have used in 1973 and 1974 to try to put Watergate into some sort of context for their students, or to what extent they even tried. Perhaps in that era before round-the-clock marination in media coverage, the subject of a president’s misdeeds and Congress’ obligation to investigate and address them could be easily sidestepped during the school day.

But as so many of us are reminded each hour (at least) that we’re awake, times have changed. One way that they’ve changed is that Watergate now is the context — or at least some of the context — for viewing the current impeachment inquiry by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Another change is that, thanks to the increasingly expansive view within children’s publishing of what stories can and should be told for young readers, there are age-appropriate resources for a variety of difficult topics. Topics including presidential abuse of power, Constitutional violations, and impeachment.

I could not have imagined, when I began writing What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan in 2013, how relevant it would be in 2019.

I viewed Congresswoman Jordan’s story as essential history, and I strove to both show her timeless significance and the explain the momentousness of her specific times in the main text (excerpted above) as well as in the timeline at the back of the book:

How I wish that we, as a nation, had made different choices — choices that would have kept What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? from being quite so timely, quite so relevant.

But here we are, and here’s my book, wonderfully illustrated by Ekua Holmes and published last year by Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster. I hope educators will put Barbara Jordan’s story to use, so that maybe we won’t need it quite so much a generation or two from now when the young readers of today are leading our country.

19 Sep

Celebrating Constitution Day with What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?

Something terrific happened across the Houston area on Tuesday:

The Houston Bar Association has compiled photos from many of the readings, along with a list of the readers, campuses, and area bar associations that partnered in the effort, which spanned 18 school districts and four private schools.

Thank you all for making time to bring What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? to so many students. My appreciation of y’all is whole, it is complete, it is total.

06 Sep

Literacy in Action: next Saturday’s Bill Martin Jr. Symposium in Mesquite, TX

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

12 Jul

“What was Left Out, Powered by PechaKucha,” from TLA 2019

Twenty presentation slides, 20 seconds per slide, no stopping. Four hundred seconds long, period. That’s PechaKucha.

At the Texas Library Association conference this past April, I participated — alongside Christina Soontornvat, Susan Fletcher, Traci Sorell, and Varian Johnson — in what we believe to be the first-ever PechaKucha TLA session, orchestrated by our fellow author and friend Kathi Appelt.

Here’s the official description of our session, “What was Left Out, Powered by PechaKucha“:

This will be a panel of five children’s book authors who will discuss their revision process on their latest books, with special focus on “what was left out.” The panel will occur at the annual conference for the Texas Library Association, and is focused toward an audience of librarians and educators

And here’s what that looked like in my case, as I talked about aspects of Barbara Jordan’s story that I did not include in What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan.

Please take a look (it’s six minutes, 40 seconds!), and don’t miss Christina’s, Susan’s, Traci’s, or Varian’s. I loved this session as both presenter and audience member, and I hope we’ll see more of the PechaKucha format at TLA 2020.

28 Jun

In which I discuss Barbara Jordan with a shaggy blue puppet

Hey, it’s me on The Van Show!

Talking about What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? with the Austin Public Library’s spokespuppet was truly a highlight of my experiences at this spring’s Texas Library Association conference.

And a highlight of that highlight was being able to show Van the Barbara Jordan statue that he’s been missing from inside the box he’s usually in when passing through the Austin airport.

23 May

Come “dig deep” with me!

This week, I’m a guest on author Melissa Stewart’s blog with a contribution to her “Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep” series.

The title of this series is no joke: Melissa urged me to dig deeper than I’d been inclined to on the first draft of my post, and I’m glad she did. It’s probably no surprise that in my post I talk quite a bit about Barbara Jordan and What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?

Thank you, Melissa, for that encouragement, and for the opportunity to share what I’ve learned about what young readers, Barbara Jordan, and I have in common.

Here’s a bit of what I had to say:

This great woman whose oratorical powers inspired her constituents, brought out the best in her colleagues, and helped end Richard Nixon’s shameful presidency had once possessed a talent as undeveloped as it was promising. Just like the talents of the students I’m speaking to. Just like my own.

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.