21 Nov

Starred PW review for Fire Truck vs. Dragon: “Frustrated expectations have seldom been so funny”

There’s been another encouraging assessment of Fire Truck vs. Dragon, which I wrote and Shanda McCloskey illustrated, and which will be published March 10 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Behold, a starred review from Publishers Weekly!

This time, the joke is on readers: unlike the rivals in Shark vs. Train, Fire Truck and Dragon are besties (“We get along great!” says Fire Truck. “Why wouldn’t we?”). Each time there’s a possible confrontation involving Dragon’s incendiary talents and Fire Truck’s capacity to extinguish them, the result is comically companionable. … Frustrated expectations have seldom been so funny; Barton’s misdirections are beautifully timed, and McCloskey’s digitally enhanced pencil-and-watercolor drawings are bright and exuberant.

12 Nov

Fire Truck vs. Dragon review: “McCloskey’s daffy cartoons make a perfect complement to Barton’s high-wired hilarity”

Fire Truck vs. Dragon — written by me, illustrated by Shanda McCloskey, and coming next March 10 from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers — just received its first review. And it’s a good one from Kirkus:

From the title, fans of Barton’s Shark vs. Train (illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld, 2010) will be prepped for some major fire-and-water action. The three child protagonists certainly anticipate a humdinger of a battle, but unfortunately, antipathy is not on the menu. Turns out, Fire Truck and Dragon are the best of buds. Worse, they won’t even take advantage of their natural gifts. … Barton deftly upsets expectations, both for those familiar with his previous book and newcomers who know what “versus” means. Laughs come equally from the disappointed children in the book as well as readers’ thwarted guesses as to what is going to happen.

There’s more good stuff in there, too. In fact, this one review brings up pretty much everything I’d want anyone to say about the book. Just to be clear, though, that phrase in the excerpt above is “disappointed children in the book,” not “children disappointed in the book” — a key distinction!

04 Nov

“I’ve definitely become the Betty Crocker of fry bread since production of the book started. People expect it now wherever I go.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for November 2019)

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

My Q&A this month is with Kevin Noble Maillard, a New York-based author and law professor who is a member of the Seminole Nation, Mekusukey band, and Peruvian-born, Arizona-based, Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal.

Kevin and Juana are the creators of the new picture book Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story, which was published last month by Roaring Brook Press. The text begins:

Flour, salt, water
Cornmeal, baking powder
Perhaps milk, maybe sugar
All mixed together in a big bowl

In one of several starred reviews that the book has received, Booklist said:

Fry Bread celebrates the thing itself and much, much more. … Maillard and Martinez-Neal bring depth, detail, and whimsy to this Native American food story, with text and illustrations depicting the diversity of indigenous peoples, the role of continuity between generations, and the adaptation over time of people, place, and tradition. Fry bread becomes a metaphor for resilience, born ironically, as Maillard explains, from the most basic of government-issued ingredients. Martinez-Neal’s (Alma and How She Got Her Name, 2018) illustrations are meant to be relished, lingered over. … A lengthy author’s note provides valuable context and history, as well as the author’s personal evolution into the “fry bread lady” with his own modern take on the recipe.

I’m giving away a copy of Fry Bread 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 November 30, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Kevin Noble Maillard and Juana Martinez-Neal.

Chris: Fry Bread is a visual feast, a feast of story, and a feast of information. There’s just so much to it. What’s the one thing that you each learned in the process of creating this book that you believe most contributed to its succeeding in all those ways?

Author Kevin Noble Maillard

Kevin: That picture books are one of the purest forms of creative collaboration. It literally took a children’s book village to make this thing.

We have not only the author and the illustrator, but also our editors, publicists, agents, tribal members, bloggers, influencers, and librarians. I may have had a semantic idea in my head, but then Juana put it to picture and it turns into something greater. Then our editors ask questions and request justifications for these choices, and the publicists seek crystal clear articulations of what this book really means. And when it comes to media influencers and librarians, they directly promote our book to parents, teachers, and students.

This process of creation is dialectical. Everything is push and pull. Other eyes see opportunities or problems in the smallest of potentially huge issues. We debated over the shape of grandma’s hips for a few weeks, and we also had many deep discussions about whether the characters should wear shoes, the curve of a facial expression, and the amount of redness in the skin tone of the characters.

Because picture books are resplendent with meaning and the representation of Native subjects is a very complicated issue, we really wanted to cover all possibilities and preempt any missteps. None of us could have done this alone.

Illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal; photo by Jade Beall

Juana: I agree with Kevin. This book has been a collaborative project which wouldn’t be what it is now if it wasn’t for the participation, support, and vision of everyone involved in it. We all poured our own personal life experiences while working on Fry Bread. It was very important to push back on common misconceptions, and avoid stereotypes.

Chris: Kevin’s author’s note states, “Fry bread as a daily cuisine is no solution. Like the previously mentioned birthday cake, fry bread is not an every-meal staple, like naan bread or jasmine rice. It is best enjoyed in moderation.”

That said, did either of you consume more fry bread than usual during your making of this book, and what’s your plan for handling all the fry bread — which may or may not have been made according to Kevin’s recipe — that’s sure to await you at school visits and other events?

Juana: I’m SO waiting for the chance to taste Kevin’s fry bread. But in the meantime, I have a few places around Phoenix where I have to stop by. As for what I’ll do with all the fry bread that may be waiting for us at school visits and events, I plan to enjoy it with no moderation.

Kevin: It’s so easy for me to make fry bread now, which is a huge turnaround since I started making it on my own. I’ve definitely become the Betty Crocker of fry bread since production of the book started. People expect it now wherever I go.

But the way I make it is pretty time consuming, so it’s hard to throw it together quickly like guacamole or fruit salad. It tastes best right out of the skillet, so I like to fry and serve immediately.

If I can plan ahead of time, and make it in my own kitchen at home, I can really crank it out. But I made enough fry bread for 98 students last week, and while I was waiting for the dough to rise, I prepared for class, did some radio interviews, and checked my emails. When the dough was ready, I kept on doing these three tasks — all while frying the bread.

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.

23 Oct

“An affecting story of loss rooted in one specific tragedy.”

I awoke this morning to the first review of my upcoming nonfiction picture book All of a Sudden and Forever: Help and Healing After the Oklahoma City Bombing, illustrated by Nicole Xu and coming next February 4 from Carolrhoda Books/Lerner Publishing.

It’s a starred review from Kirkus, which notes that “Grief knows no boundaries” and concludes by calling the book “An affecting story of loss rooted in one specific tragedy.” I’m so thankful to the people at Lerner who saw the same need for this book that I did.

17 Oct

All right, let’s go! Next time at Target…

…spend some dough on Mighty Truck: On the Farm and Mighty Truck: The Traffic Tie-Up (HarperCollins), written by me and illustrated by Troy Cummings.

Paperback editions of these first two early readers in the I Can Read! series of Mighty Truck books are available at many Target stores.

And remember: The rest of the Mighty Truck early readers as well as both picture books are available anywhere that wheely really fine books are sold.

07 Oct

“While there certainly are rivalries that grow into friendships, it generally takes more than one kickball game (and possibly more than one freakout) to get there.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for October 2019)

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

This month my Q&A is with Texas illustrator and author Beth Mills. Beth’s debut picture book, Ella McKeen, Kickball Queen, was published last month by Carolrhoda Books. School Library Journal summed up its review of the book by saying, “Emotions ring true in this relatable story. A good read-aloud choice to spark discussion.”

I’m giving away a copy of Ella McKeen, Kickball Queen to a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address. If you want that winner to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on October 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Beth Mills.

Chris: There’s an attention-getting, epic freakout at the center of Ella McKeen, Kickball Queen, but I think readers are also going be intrigued by something much lower-key: the ending, which has a sort of itchy, unresolved feeling, as things don’t get entirely squared away between Ella and her new kickball rival, Riya Patel.

Was that always how you envisioned concluding this story? Were you ever tempted — or pressured — to wrap things up a bit more neatly?

Beth: I knew from the beginning I didn’t want a completely tied-up ending. In fact, the last line of my first draft is essentially the same as the last line in the published book.

Part of my motivation was wanting Ella and Riya to stand out from the plethora of “enemies to friends” characters out there, but I also wanted to reflect real life. While there certainly are rivalries that grow into friendships, it generally takes more than one kickball game (and possibly more than one freakout) to get there. I wanted to leave some space for the reader to think about Ella and Riya’s relationship and imagine where they might go from there.

I was lucky enough that both my agent, Claire Easton, and my editor, Carol Hinz, liked my ending, so changing it was never brought up. I don’t think the story could end any other way — Ella and Rita are both way too competitive!

Chris: Readers of this Q&A may not know that in most picture books, typically on the copyright page, there’s a mention of the medium that the illustrator used. For Ella McKeen, Kickball Queen, it says, “The illustrations in this book were painted digitally.” What’s the appeal to you of working in digital media, and when do you prefer not to work digitally?

Beth: I work from home where I also have a two-year-old and a five-year-old, so I love the “pick it up and put it down easily” aspect of digital media; I don’t have to worry about dry times, mixing colors (and then matching that mix when I invariably run out of paint), cleaning brushes, or scanning and formatting final art. I can jump into a piece and do a little work in the small increments of time I might have during the day.

That said, I don’t like doing my preliminary sketches or character designs digitally. If I work on them digitally, I tend to get too locked into a concept too early. Honestly, I would love to go back to mostly traditional work – it’s what I did in art school, and I miss it a lot! I think there’s often something in my work that’s lost when I do everything digitally; the finished piece can look too slick to me. I am currently exploring a work process that combines digital and traditional tools and am excited with some of the effects I’m getting.

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.

26 Sep

Ernie vs. author shamelessness

Who will win?

It’s remarkable to me that, as uneasy as Ernie appears in his promotional role in the first photo, he somehow seems even less comfortable with it in the second one.

Not me, though. I’m an old hand at this, and I could not be more enthusiastic about sharing with the world Fire Truck vs. Dragon, illustrated by Shanda McCloskey, which will be published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers next March.