27 Feb

Thank you (again!), Pennsylvania school librarians


Earlier this month, my nonfiction picture book Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion (Millbrook Press/Lerner Publishing), illustrated by Victo Ngai, was named to the Pennsylvania Young Reader’s Choice Awards Program Master List for Grades 3-6 for 2019-2020.

All by itself, that was great news, and immediately I was tremendously thankful for the efforts of the PYCRA committee and for the award’s sponsor, the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association.

And then I thought, “PYCRA — that sounds familiar. Wasn’t Whoosh! on one of those lists?”

I did a little digging, and sure enough, it was. Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions (Charlesbridge), illustrated by Don Tate, was on the 2017-2018 PYCRA Master List for Grades 3-6.

But that’s not all I found when I searched my own website for references to the Pennsylvania Young Reader’s Choice Award.

It had slipped my mind that both The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors (Charlesbridge), illustrated by Tony Persiani, and Shark vs. Train (Little, Brown), illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld, were on PYCRA Master Lists (in two different categories) in 2011-2012. Shark vs. Train, in fact, had been the Kindergarten-Grade 3 winner that year.

I felt like a dope for those honors having slipped my mind, though I’d certainly appreciated them at the time. I’m going to chalk that memory lapse up to the fact that my knowledge and understanding of the children’s literature world have grown continually during the 18-plus years I’ve been pursuing this work, and that one aspect that it took me a while to grasp was the significance of state awards such as the PYRCA.

I fully appreciate now just how vital state award lists are for getting new books in front of young readers and their librarians. And that appreciation is multiplied by four for the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you.

20 Feb

Coming soon to Mobile, AL: the Lonnie G. Johnson Educational Complex

Don Tate’s depiction in Whoosh! of Lonnie and his Williamson High teammates at a 1968 science fair


Lonnie Johnson, the subject of my book Whoosh! (illustrated by Don Tate and published by Charlesbridge), went home to Mobile, Alabama, recently for quite a special occasion.

Lonnie’s alma mater, Williamson High School, is getting a $4 million addition that will include a science center. And it’s going to be called the Lonnie G. Johnson Educational Complex.

On hand for the groundbreaking was Lonnie’s high school science teacher Walter Ward. Of all the quotes in the article about the new learning center and Williamson’s new robotics team, this one from Lonnie stands out:

Having teachers who care is the most important thing you can have for a child. We think it’s just words, but it’s more than words. When you see greatness, they will live up to your expectations. If you have faith in children and believe in them, they will believe in themselves.

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.

05 Feb

“Her life is changed forever because of the kindness of strangers she meets along the way.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for February 2019)


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

My Q&A this month is with author Lesléa Newman and illustrator Amy June Bates, creators of the new picture book Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story, which is officially published today by Abrams Books for Young Readers.

Based on Lesléa’s own family history, Gittel’s Journey tells the story of a child’s immigration across the Atlantic — on her own, after a dramatic separation from her mother — and the compassionate welcome she receives from a port worker upon her arrival in America. This second collaboration by Lesléa and Amy has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal.

I’m giving away one copy of Gittel’s Journey 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 February 28, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Lesléa Newman and Amy June Bates.

Chris: Gittel’s Journey isn’t your first collaboration. How have your experiences of making this book and bringing it into the world compared to those of your previous effort together, Ketzel, the Cat who Composed?

Leslea Newman. Photo by Mary Vazquez.

Lesléa: I started writing Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed and Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story in the same way I always start writing: from a deep, heartfelt connection to the subject matter.

Ketzel and Gittel have a lot in common: Both books are based on true stories, both books contain Jewish themes that translate into universal themes, and both books are about finding home.

In the case of Ketzel, a homeless cat is taken in by composer Moshe Cotel. Because of Mr. Cotel’s kindness, Ketzel’s life is changed and in turn, she rewards him in a completely unexpected and delightful way. In the case of Gittel, persecution forces her to leave her home and journey to a new land. Her life is also changed forever because of the kindness of strangers she meets along the way.

In terms of writing, the idea for each book came about in a totally different way. Let’s start with Ketzel:

I found out about this story purely by happenstance. One day I was sitting in my writing room with a blank piece of paper in front of me and not an idea in my head. Bored, I picked up my synagogue’s newsletter from the coffee table in front of me, hoping for distraction. The theme of my Rabbi’s monthly column was the concept of being open to the unlikely opportunities that lie in every moment and which offer delight and surprise.

As an example, he cited the true story of Ketzel, who ran down Moshe Cotel’s piano keyboard one morning for no apparent reason. Mr. Cotel jotted down what he heard and sent it into a contest, and lo and behold, Ketzel’s composition won honorable mention and Ketzel became world famous! Before I even finished reading the Rabbi’s column, I knew this was a children’s book waiting to happen.

The story of Gittel is one that I have known all my life.

My Aunt Phyllis’ mother, the real Gittel, came to America at the turn of the 20th century by herself when she was just a child. She was given a piece of paper with the name and address of a relative written on it and told to hold that piece of paper tight and give it to an immigration officer when she got to the USA. She did so, but to her surprise, all the ink had worn off on her hand and the note could not be read. Her photo was put in the newspaper and her relatives recognized her and came to Ellis Island to claim her.

In 2015, I kept seeing images of Syrian refugees in small boats washing ashore with fear, relief, sorrow, and hope etched on their faces. I kept thinking of the fact that my own grandparents traveled across an ocean with the same hopes and fears. And that’s when the story of Gittel resurfaced in my heart and my mind and I knew it was time to tell this story.

I wrote many many drafts of both books and did a great deal of research, so that I could get the details right. The absolutely gorgeous illustrations for both books added so much depth and brought the stories to life in a way that I never could have imagined. I know Amy June Bates worked very very hard on both books, and in my opinion, she is a genius!

Amy June Bates

Amy: I love hearing these stories, Lesléa. Lesléa is an amazing genius writer and I have been profoundly lucky to work with her on these two books.

In the case of Ketzel: The year I illustrated Ketzel, I did two books back to back about stray animals being befriended. Now I have two dogs.

It’s a funny process illustrating a book, getting into the mind of the characters, sympathizing with them and imagining how they must have felt. One of the things that I love about Ketzel is that the two, they save each other. Moshe saves Ketzel, but Ketzel also saves Moshe. I really feel like that is what animals do for us. Especially when you rescue an animal, it is A LOT of work to rehabilitate an animal, but I also feel like it is repayed in full.

I took piano lessons for 18 years, and my mother was very happy to learn that I put my piano knowledge to good use. For example, in the spread where Ketzel the cat was across the keyboard, the keys that the cat is walking on are the notes in the music.

I want to emphasize, however, that dogs should not play the piano. If my dog Chester walked across my keyboard, we would none of us recover.

Gittel’s Journey is such an important book for this time, and for all times because it is the story of so many Americans, no matter if you immigrated today or hundreds of years ago. Many don’t want to leave their homes, but are forced to leave because of danger or economics. Either way it is difficult and dangerous.

In light of recent events it is particularly excruciating to think of the fear that Gittel must have felt with no way to communicate or find her mother or family. Terrifying. Her story is everyone’s American story. Every immigrant is America’s story.

I enjoy illustrating history. I love doing the research. I found travel logs of boats that carried immigrants like Gittel and traced their routes. I could look up a specific steamer, find its brochure with pictures of the bunks and and even menus. Sometimes I do fall down a rabbit hole…but that is the fun of it, I guess.

Chris: Your dedications for this book each seem so fitting. Amy, you dedicated Gittel’s Journey “For all children who come to this country seeking freedom and safety,” and Lesléa, you went with “For Aunt Phyllis — I love you to pieces!”

I’m curious — whenever either of you dedicates a book to a specific person, as you both did with Ketzel, when and how do you let them know? Or do you let them discover that for themselves?

Amy: This is dedicated to the one I love:

Usually when I do a book there is a sentiment or a feeling, or something going on in my life that connects me to this book at this time and in a specific way. Sometimes that is outside my immediate friends and family, for example in the the case of Gittel’s Journey. I have ancestors that crossed that ocean to escape famine and hunger and economic despair or religious freedom, and I am grateful for their sacrifice, but when I was making this book I was thinking of the people that are going through those same sacrifices right now.

When I dedicate a book to a specific person, I like to let them find it themselves.

Lesléa: I never realized how much a book dedication meant until a book was dedicated to me (Cat Talk by Patricia MacLachlan). Usually I know to whom I am going to dedicate a book the moment I start writing it. Though I keep that knowledge to myself until the book is published (which in at least one case took ten years!). Luckily I am very good at keeping secrets! When the book comes out, I send a copy to the person named in the dedication.

In the case of Gittel, the choice was obvious. The book is about my Aunt Phyllis’ mother, so of course I dedicated the book to Aunt Phyllis, from whom I heard the story. My Aunt Phyllis ends every phone call (and I speak to her almost every night) with the words, “I love you to pieces.” I presented the book to her in person, and when she read the dedication she laughed and then she cried. Being able to give my aunt that much joy is one of the highlights of my literary career.

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.

24 Jan

A great day with My Favorite Author in the Whole Wide World


Yesterday was pretty terrific, because I got to spend it visiting schools with my wife — and, as it happens, My Favorite Author in the Whole Wide World — Jennifer Ziegler.

Even better, we were not presenting at the same time, so Jennifer and I got to watch each other at work. This was such a treat for me, y’all, because she is so good at what she does. Jennifer has a great rapport with kids —

— and is generous as can be about sharing her writing advice, messy/marked-up drafts, and egregious typos.

We spent the day at schools in the Houston area. “These are some of my books,” Jennifer told her audience. “They are all set in Texas, because when I was growing up, all the books I read were set in New York for some reason.”

Then she told them about the time a New York copyeditor marked on a manuscript, “Tacos are not a breakfast food.”

This being Texas, where breakfast tacos are indeed a thing, 500 sixth-graders gasped.

But, she assured them, she stood up for breakfast tacos, and that’s what the Brewster Triplets ate in Revenge of the Angels.

At that point, a cafeteria full of sixth-graders cheered for Jennifer Ziegler. And for breakfast tacos.

Just to prove that I did indeed do a presentation of my own, here are a few photos of me discussing my What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan.

But I like the pictures of Jennifer better — I could watch her talk to students all day, and I highly recommend that you give it a try.

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.

09 Jan

“I hadn’t anticipated how the story would resonate with so many readers.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for January 2019)

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

My Q&A this month is with Donna Janell Bowman, author of the nonfiction picture book Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter and published by Lee & Low.

Step Right Up tells the true story of how formerly enslaved William “Doc” Key relied on the power of kindness to transform a sickly colt named Beautiful Jim Key into an astounding equine specimen capable of feats of reading, writing, and math. The book has been selected as a finalist for readers’ choice awards in six states, including the Bluebonnet Award in Donna’s home state of Texas.

Donna is also the author of Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, a 2018 picture book (illustrated by S.D. Schindler and published by Peachtree) about a little-known scrape that Lincoln got himself into as a young man — a duel that could have ended his career or even his life. And like me, Donna loves doing school visits.

I’m giving away one signed copy of Step Right Up. If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want that winner to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on January 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Donna Janell Bowman.

Chris: Step Right Up was published in October 2016, which means that librarians and other educators have now had more than two years to try out ways of connecting young readers to the story of Doc and Jim Key. There’s been time for word of their efforts to get back to you, and for you to see some of those efforts for yourself.

During that time, what has stood out to you about the ways that kids and adults have responded to Step Right Up?

Donna: There’s an extra dose of my heart woven into Step Right Up, but I hadn’t anticipated how the story would resonate with so many readers. The ways Doc and Jim inspired kindness is worthy on its own, but the fortuitous timing of the book’s release — a month before the presidential election that put families and neighbors at odds — elevated the story’s appeal even more. The time was ripe for a kindness story then as now.

It is heartwarming to know that schools and libraries are using Step Right Up to spark discussions about kindness and to promote anti-bullying environments. I occasionally receive fan mail or the unexpected gift, like the kindness book made up of twenty or so pages illustrated in watercolor — an Iowa class’ random act of kindness to me. Yep, they instituted a random-act-of-kindness tradition. Be still my heart!

Through letters and photos from educators and at the schools I visit, I am humbled by hallways plastered with student-signed copies of the downloadable Step Right Up Kindness Pledge, artwork inspired by Daniel Minter’s exquisite illustrations, painted kindness-inspired keywords, paper kindness chains with links produced by every student, Popsicle-stick horses, horseshoe-shaped compliments exchanged between students, pet blankets made for local animal shelters. And on and on. Educators are brilliant at weaving impactful lessons into fun art projects. They know that, while kids busy their hands making things, their minds and hearts are connecting to the story.

Chris: Is there a book that you’ve come across — either in your creation of Step Right Up or since your book was published — that you think complements Doc and Jim Key’s story especially well? Something that readers who love Step Right Up might also enjoy?

Donna: I’m gonna be a rebel here, because it’s almost impossible for me to zero in on a single recommended title for young readers, in part because Step Right Up seems to appeal to a very broad age range, and it touches on several concepts, especially kindness.

I hope Step Right Up primes kids to learn more about the people who championed the humane treatment of animals, and Nancy Furstinger’s Mercy: The Incredible Story of Henry Bergh, Founder of the ASPCA and Friend to Animals is a great introduction.

For a contemporary true story about a woman who took extreme measures to rescue a horse from an abusive situation, I recommend G. Neri and Corban Wilkin’s middle-grade graphic novel, Grand Theft Horse.

For picture book readers who love animal stories, Maria Gianferrari and Luisa Uribe’s Operation Rescue Dog ticks a lot of boxes, including information about animal shelters.

And, goodness, I hope readers will rediscover the preeminent book to spark empathy for animals — Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, which has the bonus appeal of a connection to Beautiful Jim Key. You see, Jim was seen as the living example of Black Beauty’s message.