30 May

“This is Chree-yus!”

In 1976, when I was four years old, members of my family recorded audio greetings for my great-grandmother on the occasion of her 87th birthday. My Northeast Texas accent (and that of my older brother) was a lot stronger back then. Listen for yourself!

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.

06 May

“It was meant to be funny. This little zombie kid embracing a big ol’ root vegetable like it was his teddy bear. But then it hit me: That was Mo.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for May 2019)


Welcome to the Q&A and giveaway for the May edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).

My Q&A this month is with married collaborators Megan and Jorge Lacera, the creators of the picture book Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies!, published last month by Lee & Low Books.

In a starred review, Kirkus said, “Tasty and homegrown, this hits a strange and specific trifecta: a lightly bilingual book that feels inclusive not only for Latinx kids, but also for different eaters and for those who aren’t afraid of gory, monster-themed humor.”

To a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address, I’m giving away one copy of Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies! If you want to be that winner, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on May 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Megan Lacera and Jorge Lacera.

Chris: Side-by-side collaboration between author and illustrator is the exception in picture books — usually the author creates the text and then, for the most part, steps aside while the illustrator brings in the visual aspect of the storytelling.

What’s something that Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies! would have lost if the two of you had worked on it in that traditional way? Is there a particular page or attribute or other element of the book or story that comes to mind?

Megan Lacera

Megan: Such a great question, Chris! I don’t think we would have arrived at the same story if we hadn’t collaborated so deeply.

Early on, after I had written several versions and Jorge had storyboarded out the book numerous times, we were looking at all of the different pieces together. There was good stuff happening, but it wasn’t gelling the way we hoped. While we talked about the issues, Jorge sketched. The result was an image of Mo hugging a carrot. It was meant to be funny — and it was! This little zombie kid embracing a big ol’ root vegetable like it was his teddy bear. We both cracked up.

But then it hit me: That was Mo.

Veggies were much more than something he liked to eat. He loved them. Growing them, harvesting them, mincing them, dicing them. All of it. They were essential to who he was. That realization led to a key discovery for our story: that Mo had to fully embrace his differences. There wasn’t another choice because this wasn’t a food preference. It was love.

Jorge: Megan is a pun master, and we tossed a lot of them back and forth that we thought were funny and worked with the story.

Early on in the story we had a series of vignettes where Mo is trying to convince his parents to give veggies a try. We knew we wanted a bunch of visual gags, so I went to the list we kept of puns and spotted “head of lettuce” and immediately the visual of a scarecrow but with a lettuce head popped into my head.

I think the whole time it was an organic back and forth between the art and the text.

Jorge Lacera

Chris: Your website credits your six-year-old as “Studio Lacera’s Chief of Research and Story Development.” Reading abilities and interests can grow and change so quickly at that age — are there ways that your own storytelling has evolved as a result?

Jorge: Thankfully for us, Kai’s interests seem to match ours. From the start we knew we wanted to collaborate on a variety of stories, from picture books to middle grade and beyond. We hope Kai keeps up with us — otherwise he might need to be transitioned to another department.

Megan: Maybe because he is a only child, or maybe it’s just who he is, but Kai has always wanted to be involved in our work. He loves stories of all kinds and has a gigantic imagination.

The truth is that part of including him on our site is because he wanted to be — and he certainly is a big part of what we do. He loves to share his thoughts on projects and has very strong, definite ideas.

I think our own storytelling has evolved with Kai because we see how he (and other kids) has so many things vying for his attention, like tablets and smartphones and all kinds of gadgets. Instead of being deterred by that, we embrace that there is “competition.” We think about how we can grab his attention with a character or idea — and tell stories that keep that attention. It’s a big challenge!

03 May

My seedling from the Oklahoma City Survivor Tree


Three years ago, a book tour took me to Oklahoma City, and before I left town, I made my first visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. The experience — especially the storytelling achieved by both the Memorial and the Museum — made a big impression on me.

Among the many facets of the story that began with the bombing of Oklahoma City’s Murrah Building on April 19, 1995, is the Survivor Tree that stands between the Museum and the Memorial. Here’s a photo I took of the tree on the day I visited:

After my visit, I could not stop thinking about the bombing and the effect it had — and still has — on the lives of so many people. That’s always a pretty good sign, for me, that there’s a book I should write.

I began reading a lot about the bombing and the resulting Memorial. In June 2017 I returned to Oklahoma City to do more research, which included quite a bit of time in the Museum’s archives. That’s where I saw this photo showing the Survivor Tree soon after the bombing:

Collection, Oklahoma National Memorial & Museum

I also took some close-up photos of the tree itself, demonstrating just how carefully it is tended to —

— and how healthy and full of life it became in the two decades-plus after the bombing:

Not long after, Lerner Publishing agreed to publish my picture book, All of a Sudden and Forever: Help and Healing After the Oklahoma City Bombing, with illustrations by Nicole Xu. The book is almost finished and will be published next February.

Jennifer and I talk with an Oklahoma couple who had just received Survivor Tree seedlings (photo by Danielle Carnito)

Two weeks ago, for the 24th anniversary of the bombing, I returned to Oklahoma City again, along with the book’s editor, Carol Hinz; art director, Danielle Carnito; and my wife, Jennifer Ziegler. We attended the annual Remembrance Ceremony, after which Survivor Tree seedlings were distributed to attendees.

Though our book is not only about the Survivor Tree, the tree and its offspring definitely are integral parts. Yet this was the first time I had seen the seedlings, some of which were larger than I expected.

It was also my first opportunity to meet some of the people I had interviewed by phone, including Mark Bays, an urban forestry coordinator with Oklahoma Forestry Services.

Mark, Jennifer, Carol and me in front of the Museum (photo by Danielle Carnito)

Mark has helped lead efforts to revive, preserve, and propagate the Survivor Tree since shortly after the Murrah bombing, and he was stationed at the entrance to the Museum to distribute seedlings.

By the time I got there, only a few seedlings remained, but the line of recipients had dwindled down to nothing, and I took a seedling for myself.

Later that day I visited the Memorial at night for the first time — by the light of a full moon, as it happened — and got a view of the Survivor Tree that I’d never had before:

Early the next morning, Jennifer and I got on a flight home. I heeded the advice I received from her — and from Carol, and from Danielle — not to try to pack my Survivor Tree seedling inside my carry-on suitcase. (No, I was told, not even if I tried to do so carefully.)

So, from Oklahoma City to Dallas to Austin, my seedling poked out of my leather messenger bag that I kept between my feet.

When we got home, I bought a new blue pot and planted the seedling. That won’t be where it stays permanently, but I don’t know that our pecan trees leave enough room for an American elm to grow and thrive. There’s a good chance that I’ll offer to plant the my Survivor Tree seedling — by then, perhaps, a sapling — next spring, sometime close to the 25th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.

In the meantime, I’ll appreciate seeing it outside my front door — and remembering all that it represents — each time I come and go.

30 Apr

Now available: A full-Throttle Mighty Truck adventure!


Surf’s Up!, the fourth book in the Mighty Truck early reader series (written by me, illustrated by Troy Cummings, and published by HarperCollins) is officially published today.

This is especially good news for those of you who enjoyed the excitement surrounding surf wagon Mr. Dent and his beleaguered cat, Throttle —

— in the original Mighty Truck picture book.

This time around, Mr. Dent is, like, way involved in the story, and Throttle is totally part of the action:

If any of the Mighty Truck books have revved the engines of a young reader you know, I think you and they will love Surf’s Up!

If it’s not yet on the shelves of your favorite library or bookstore, please do Mighty Truck the favor of requesting his latest adventure.

I have it on good authority that his ordinary-pickup pal Clarence will appreciate it as well.

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.

11 Apr

2020 pub-date updates

For a while, my next two picture books had the easy-to-remember tentative publication dates of 1/1/2020 and 5/5/2020. Now, they have new dates that are closer together and less tentative, and if these two dates together no longer seem quite as memorable, well, that’s why we have calendars.

If you’re so inclined, you can mark yours for:

February 4, 2020: That’s the planned publication date for my next nonfiction picture book, All of a Sudden and Forever: Help and Healing After the Oklahoma City Bombing, illustrated by Nicole Xu and published by Carolrhoda Books/Lerner Publishing.

March 10, 2020: Five weeks later is when you can expect my next fiction picture book, Fire Truck vs. Dragon, illustrated by Shanda McCloskey and published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

03 Apr

“Being able to recreate a slice of my border town was a truly magical experience.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for April 2019)


Welcome to the Q&A and giveaway for the April edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).

My Q&A this month is with Raúl the Third, the illustrator of the Lowriders graphic novels (written by Cathy Camper) and now a creator of picture books.

Raúl’s first book as author and illustrator, ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market!, was published yesterday by Versify/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He now lives in Boston, but the book evokes Raúl’s childhood in El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

¡Vamos! has received four starred reviews, including one from the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books that says the book’s “grab bag of bilingual terms embedded in dialogue, signage, and stray scraps of text invite[s] all readers to have a grand time latching onto what they know and figuring out what they don’t.”

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

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Raúl the Third.

Chris: After illustrating the three Lowriders graphic novels, what were the biggest surprises in making your first picture book?

Raúl: I would say that the biggest surprise was how many more books I would complete if I was only making picture books! We are nearly done with the second ¡Vamos! book.

I really enjoyed the entire process and being able to recreate a slice of my border town was a truly magical experience.

Chris: The title page for ¡Vamos! has a credit that may be familiar to graphic-novel readers, but one that I don’t think I’ve seen before in a picture book: “Colors by.”

For the uninitiated, what does a colorist do, and for this picture book where did your work leave off and her work begin?

Raúl: Elaine Bay is the colorist for ¡Vamos! Let’s go to the Market! I am so incredibly lucky to be working with her on this series as the colors have the feel of the border town we were both raised in.

As the illustrator, I am turning over black and white line art to Elaine Bay that she then colors using a wide array of media. She has a library filled with stains and marks, and using a Cintiq she colors the book both digitally and traditionally.

I love exploring the different marks, patterns and textures she has been using.