18 Oct

Bartography Express: “Mommas would tell him, ‘just don’t kill him!'”

Every now and then, I like to throw my newsletter subscribers a curve – or, in this case, a spiral.

The Q&A for the October edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here) is with my friend Michael Hurd, author of the new nonfiction book Thursday Night Lights: The Story of Black High School Football in Texas (University of Texas Press). Michael is a longtime sportswriter as well as the director of the Texas Institute for the Preservation of History and Culture at Prairie View A&M University.

Thursday Night Lights is geared toward adults, but it’s accessible to high school- and middle school-aged lovers of football and history. It’s an eye-opener, and it definitely would have been a revelation to the adolescent version of me, who played University Interscholastic League football in Texas without ever giving a thought to the story or structure (overseen by the Prairie View Interscholastic League, or PVIL) of the sport as it was played at African American high schools in the decades before desegregation.

(I wonder if Michael’s book might inspire students in other states to research the history of pre-integration high school sports closer to home. Any educators out there want to take that idea and run with it?)

This month, one newsletter subscriber will win a signed copy of Thursday Night Lights. (If you’re not a subscriber yet, there’s still time.) In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Michael Hurd.

Chris: The influence on and involvement in students’ lives by their coaches was one of the most striking aspects of Thursday Night Lights. Was there a particular relationship between a coach and his player – or players – that was especially meaningful or moving to you?

Photo of Michael Hurd by Taylor Johnson

Michael: That’s a great observation. What immediately comes to mind is Houston Wheatley’s Frank Walker. In the book, his daughter, Frances, talks about how her dad was so committed to building the program and taking care of his players that it confused the family’s budget.

Out of his own pocket, Coach Walker would buy needed practice equipment, maybe provide a meal now and then, and for his graduating seniors going off to college, he’d purchase their bus tickets, clothing, and give them some pocket money.

But, I doubt he was the only coach in the PVIL who did those kinds of things for his players. There was a real symbiotic relationship between the players and coaches at the PVIL schools and those relationships extended well off the field as nurturing experiences. Many of the coaches were father figures for boys who may not have had a male parenting figure at home, and even some who did.

In regard to that, my favorite quote in the book is from Joe Washington, Sr. who coached in Bay City and Port Arthur. He talks about the trust that parents had in him, and black coaches in general, to discipline and essentially raise their sons. He said the mommas would tell him to take their son and do what they needed to do, “just don’t kill him!”

Chris: Your interview subjects were frank about the bittersweetness of integration as it affected black high school football programs and the people in those programs. How did what you learned from them square with your own recollections about integration and the waning days of segregation?

Michael: That was one of the things that I really enjoyed about researching and writing the book. A lot of my interviews turned into old home week discussions, reflecting on the Sixties and what that was like for black people as segregation slowly eased into integration.

One day there were all these places – theaters, restaurants, neighborhoods – that before, we couldn’t go here, we couldn’t go there, couldn’t do this or that, then the next day, no problem, more or less. So I talked about those kinds of things with a lot of my interview subjects, especially the Houston guys, and those conversations brought back a lot of memories for me.

An example: I had always gone to segregated schools, elementary and high school, and graduated in the spring of 1967. Then, in the fall of that year, black and white schools played against each other for the first time. So, when I went back for homecoming it had a totally different feel. We were playing at a different stadium and against a white team!

10 Oct

School Library Journal weighs in (twice!) on Book or Bell?

One favorable writeup from School Library Journal would be a welcome thing for a soon-to-be-published book such as Book or Bell?, my upcoming (as in “due one week from today”) collaboration with Ashley Spires. So you can imagine how happy I am to see two such notices in SLJ.

First, there’s SLJ’s official review:

Designed to appeal to any child dreaming of the perfect read and a bit of control over their surrounding environment, this offering features plenty of action with a satisfying ending. A suggested general purchase for all libraries.

And while I love seeing the review quote my phrasing “mega-giga-decibel monstrosity illegal in seventeen states,” I especially love the reviewer’s description of the pivotal moment in the story as being the one when a boy’s teacher “discovers the call to his heart — a personal interest that builds and then surpasses his favorite book about bicycles.”

Then there’s the magazine’s roundup, Smiles of Bibliophiles: Celebrating Books and Reading:

Ultimately, a “mega-giga-decibel monstrosity,” which is more deafening than “the Daytona 500, a squadron of Blue Angels, and an army of door-to-door jackhammer sellers,” has a vibration strong enough to “jitter” and “jutter” clothing off individuals and fling backpacks “willy-nilly,” but leaves Henry unscathed and still reading. … Told with uproarious humor and illustrated with energetic, detail packed illustrations featuring a multicultural cast, Chris Barton and Ashley Spires’s Book or Bell? (Bloomsbury, Oct. 2017; K-Gr 4) will entertain youngsters while celebrating the intoxicating contentment of connecting with that perfect book.

If Henry’s love of his bike book is anything compared to my appreciation of SLJ right about now, then no wonder he doesn’t want to stop reading.

04 Oct

Come see me (if you can) at Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop

Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion and I will be at Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop next Tuesday, October 10, and we should be at least as easy to spot at the three (count ’em!) cats in this sample of Victo Ngai’s art from the book:

From Dazzle Ships, published by Lerner Publishing/Millbrook Press

I look forward to seeing you there. Unless you’re camouflaged.

28 Sep

Big news for the illustrations (and illustrator) of Dazzle Ships

I’ve seen speculation here and there about Victo Ngai’s art for our book Dazzle Ships being in the running for a certain award, but there’s one prize that her illustrations have already won:

The Dilys Evans Founder’s Award, named after The Original Art founder, celebrates the most promising new talent in children’s book illustration. The jury has selected Victo Ngai’s Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion (Lerner Publishing Group/ Millbrook Press).

The award comes from the Society of Illustrators, whose Museum of Illustration in New York City will feature Victo’s art in for Dazzle Ships its annual Original Art exhibit from November 1 through December 23.

Congratulations, Victo!

21 Sep

Get up, get out, get writing

On the occasion of the upcoming publication of Book or Bell? (illustrated by Ashley Spires and published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books), I’ve got a new guest post over at Mackin Books in Bloom about the intersection of physical activity and creative work.

Go have a look, will you? Here’s some of what I have to say:

The ending of Book or Bell? is a bit of a nod to one of my favorite pieces of writing advice: get outside and get active. Many story ideas have come to me while I’m walking or jogging through my neighborhood. They come from things I observe with my eyes, things I overhear (a good argument for leaving the earbuds at home), interactions with people I encounter, and random thoughts that occur to me while I’m on the move. Educators, if you ever need to point to someone to illustrate the benefits of recess, I’m your guy.

14 Sep

Modern First Library expands to Dallas!


You may have already heard me go on…

…and on…

…and on…

…and on about Modern First Library, the program that Austin bookseller BookPeople created a few years ago after I suggested an approach to getting more diverse books into the hands and onto the shelves of more families.

So given my track record, how could I not go on (and on) a bit more and celebrate the expansion of the Modern First Library concept to Interabang Books, the brand-new independent bookseller that just had its grand opening in Dallas?

To welcome Interabang’s Modern First Library into the world, the store’s children’s book buyer, Lisa Plummer, offers up this quick list of her favorites from their offerings, and it will give you a great sense of what the program is about.

And I got to play a part in the proceedings, too, with an essay I wrote for the store. Here’s a bit of it:

As I write this three years later, BookPeople’s Modern First Library continues to thrive. Every time I’m in the store, I stop by the display just to admire it.

You can bet I’ll be doing the same at Interabang Books. Knowing that from the very day the store opened, Interabang has had its own Modern First Library – well, that makes me glad all over again that I acted on my quite possibly naive idea, that I shared it, that I didn’t dismiss the notion or keep it to myself.

If you’re in or near Dallas, get yourself to Interabang and show them with your money how glad you are that they — and Modern First Library — have opened their doors.

06 Sep

On Dazzle Ships and creative problem solving

Victo Ngai’s endpaper design for Dazzle Ships

Over at my publisher’s blog, I’ve written about how I came to write my new book, Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion, and why I think this niche of World War I history is worth reading about today.

Here’s a bit of what I say in that post.

As with other unconventional subjects that I developed a deep interest in (e.g. how daylight fluorescent colors were created, John Roy Lynch’s ten-year rise from slavery to the U.S. Congress, how The Nutcracker became a holiday tradition, the invention of the Super Soaker water gun), after getting my first taste of dazzle ships, I had a couple of reactions:

1. I’d better hurry up and make a nonfiction picture book about this before somebody else does.

2. How did I not know about this already?

I hope you’ll read the rest, and that you’ll like what I have to say so much that you’ll get yourself a copy of Dazzle Ships from my beloved local independent bookseller, BookPeople.

If you’re in Austin, I’ll be there at BookPeople tomorrow night — Thursday, September 7 — to read from and talk about the book.

And if getting to BookPeople tomorrow night isn’t an option, they’ll have freshly signed copies you can buy from wherever you are.

01 Sep

Dazzle Ships sails today!

Today is the official publication day for Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion, written by me, illustrated by Victo Ngai, and published by Millbrook Press.

I’ve posted a lot about the book recently, and you can see those collections of Dazzle Ships interviews, reviews, and articles here.

There’s still more about the book that I haven’t yet mentioned here, so how about if I correct that?

For starters, here’s this peek at the printing process for Dazzle Ships.

Then there’s my editor’s post about the element of surprise in Dazzle Ships and other picture books.

And for your listening pleasure, how about three minutes and 43 seconds of me telling (via TeachingBooks.net) the story of how this book came about?

Shelf Awareness reviewed our book about naval camouflage and saw (GET IT?) a lot to like:

Paired with Barton’s welcoming language and accessible story, Victo Ngai’s illustrations sparkle. Using mixed analogue and digital media, she re-creates historical map templates and incorporates her own dazzle, creating overlapping and interconnecting patterns with strong lines and bright colors. Ngai’s illustrations are inviting, drawing the reader in and slowing the pace of the narrative, each double-page spread an abundance of color and texture and shape, demanding time and reflection.

Finally, for any of you who landed on this page expecting something related to Dazzle Ships, the 1983 album by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD), I don’t want you to go away disappointed. The album included a track called “Dazzle Ships (Parts II, III & VII),” which left four parts unaccounted for. Well…

“First shown at the Dazzle Weekend at the Museum of Liverpool, November 2014,” explains the band. “We were initially asked to create something visual to accompany Dazzle Ships (Parts I, IV, V & VI) just in case of inclement weather and for those who may struggle to access the ship’s engine room.”

For more context, see OMD to ‘dazzle’ at Museum of Liverpool:

Our interest in Dazzle Ships began in 1983 when artist and sleeve designer Peter Saville showed us a Vorticist painting by Edward Wadsworth entitled ‘Dazzle Ship in dry dock at Liverpool’ and asked if we could write some appropriate music as he wished to create an album sleeve inspired by the fractured imagery. We duly obliged with a record that not only contained a title track Dazzle Ships, but also reflected the dark and fearfully disjointed mentality of early eighties geo-politics.

Here’s hoping that the Dazzle Ships created by Victo and me will be just as appreciated 34 years later as OMD’s “Dazzle Ships” recordings have been.

29 Aug

Bartography Express: “Something vast and dazzling, something constantly unfolding”


The Q&A for the August edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here) is with author Paige Britt and illustrators Sean Qualls and Selina Alko. The three of them have collaborated on Why Am I Me? (Scholastic), which is being officially published today.

This month, one newsletter subscriber will win a copy of Why Am I Me?, which The New York Times included in this past weekend’s book-review roundup, “You Can’t Teach Kids Empathy, but These Picture Books Inspire It.

Chris: What can you tell me about the inspiration for the book? I think my readers would be interested in knowing how the concept came to you and took shape, Paige, and how you arrived at the specifics of the characters and the setting, Sean and Selina.

Paige: The inspiration for Why Am I Me? came straight out of my own life. When I was four years old, I was like most kids — curious about everything. I was constantly asking questions. What’s this? What’s that? Who are you? Who am I?

The last question was the one closest to my heart … and the most baffling. Who am I?

Sometimes I would look at a person — a boy or girl, a man or woman (it didn’t really matter) — and wonder why I was me and not them. The question was way too big for my little brain. It went round and round inside my head — whyamIme? whyamIme? whyamIme? — until my mind gave up. And in that moment of giving up, everything gave way and I felt that I was part of something BIG — something vast and dazzling, something constantly unfolding. That’s when it dawned on me. Maybe there actually wasn’t a “me” and “you” after all. Maybe there was just us.

Even though I’m grown up now, the question “Why am I me?” is still rattling around in my head. That’s why I wrote the book. To this day, I’ve never come up with an answer, but I do have a hint. The answer is in the asking. Certainty creates labels, but curiosity creates space — space for empathy and connection, for wonder and delight. So … stay curious!

Selina: When Sean and I first read the manuscript for Why Am I Me? we fell in love with the idea of creating a picture book asking life’s biggest questions by our littlest people. Right away we connected with the themes of empathy and wonder. But, we knew it would be a challenge to create a narrative to go along with the simple — yet profound — words.

Our first task was thinking of a setting where a variety of very different people would naturally come together. It took some brainstorming before we came up with the subway, but when we did it was an “Aha!” moment for us. It just felt right.

As Brooklynites we frequently ride into the city along with people from all walks of life. Each subway car can seem almost like a microcosm of the world; so many people from all over coming together (often uncomfortably close to one another) to ride to their destinations in peace.

On the subway platform our protagonists (a biracial African American/Caucasian boy and biracial Asian/Caucasian girl) gaze at each other and simultaneously wonder the same things. The crowded setting is ripe for the two to indulge their curiosities beyond each other, as more and more people join them on their journey home.

At a certain point we decided to have them look beyond their subway car to parks and outdoor concerts, places where we could show even more people mixing together — demonstrating that this is the diverse and beautiful world we live in. We wanted the main characters to look very different from each other initially only to realize by the end, after they have gazed up at the sky and then into each other’s eyes, that essentially they are made from the same “star stuff” and are not so different from one another after all.

Why Am I Me? author Paige Britt (left) and illustrators Sean Qualls and Selina Alko (right)

Chris: Advance copies of Why Am I Me? have been out in the world for a few months now. Of the early responses to the book, is there one that’s been especially memorable or meaningful to you?

Sean: What I like about the reviews overall is that they each discuss the book as a whole unit, focusing on how both the words and illustrations work together to tell the story. As Selina has already said, we immediately fell in love with Why Am I Me?, and one of the reasons for me was that Paige left plenty of room for the illustrations. Her words created an ideal backdrop for us to imagine and bring to life the characters and world that her words suggest, in a way that is unique and personal to us.

I see the book as one indivisible whole, words and art unified by its universal themes. It makes me happy that reviewers seem to think the same.

Paige: I absolutely agree with Sean! Why Am I Me? has received multiple starred reviews and in each case the reviewer has acknowledged how the words and pictures work together to evoke these universal themes. My favorite early response, however, didn’t come from a reviewer. It came from my 86-year-old aunt with Alzheimer’s disease from Sulphur Springs, Texas.

Chris, you’re from Sulphur Springs, so you know that it’s a small and extremely conservative town in East Texas. My aunt has lived there for 60 years. When I showed her Why Am I Me? she pored over it, commenting on the colors, turning it this way and that to examine the collage, and reading the words out loud. The questions made her laugh and every so often she’d look at me and ask, “What’s the right answer?” I told her to keep on reading.

When she got to the last page and saw the image of the boy and the girl with their faces overlapping, she said, “They each have one eye of their own and one eye shared.” I held my breath and then asked, “Do you have an answer now?” She thought about it a long time and then said, “White people think they are all there is, but they’re not. We need to think about that.” I burst into tears.

This book is about unity and diversity. It’s about that one eye of your own and the one we share. And if an 86-year-old woman with dementia can realize this, then it means the words and pictures are working together on multiple levels. Because, after all, these aren’t lessons of the mind, so much as the heart.

24 Aug

Speaking of Victo Ngai’s art in Dazzle Ships


(as I was just the other day)

…today there are two generous posts showing off her illustrations for our book.

Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion will be published next Friday, September 1, by Millbrook Press, which is an imprint of Lerner Publishing. The Lerner blog is featuring 5 Questions for Dazzle Ships illustrator Victo Ngai, a post that includes two full spreads from the book in addition to the one you see here. And you’ll get to hear from Victo herself:

[W]hen I showed an advance copy of the finished book to my friends, most of them thought I’d made up the wild patterns on the ships! I had to show them the historical photos at the end of the book to set them straight.

And at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Julie Danielson treats us to The Art of Victo Ngai — specifically, another three spreads from Dazzle Ships.

Many thanks to Jules, Lerner, and especially Victo.

Oh, and a reminder: I’ll be sharing Dazzle Ships with Central Texans at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 7, at BookPeople in downtown Austin. If you think you might be there, please let me know, and if you know someone who should be there, please spread the word!