15 May

Fair winds and following seas for Dazzle Ships

By the time a nonfiction picture book of mine is published, I’ve already moved on to researching and writing other projects, and by the time that book has had a chance to make much of an impression on readers, there’s all the more distance between it and me. One result of that remove is that the arrival of any good news about that book is a pleasantly surprising blast from the past.

I’m feeling very fortunate lately. Here are the latest such blasts for Dazzle Ships (written by me, illustrated by Victo Ngai, and published last September by Millbrook Press):

The Bank Street College of Education has named the book to its list of The Best Children’s Books of the Year, 2018 Edition. Specifically, it’s on the list for ages Nine to Twelve, under the History heading.

Read On Wisconsin, a statewide literacy program operated by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, has included Dazzle Ships among its Intermediate (Grades 3-5) books for 2018-19.

Dazzle Ships has also been announced as one of the 2018-19 Junior Book Nominees for the North Carolina Children’s Book Award, just a year after Whoosh! was included on the same list.

And the book has been honored with a nomination for the 2018-2019 Crown Award from the Brackett Library at Harding University and the National Christian School Association, as well as a spot on the Lectio Book Award Master List 2018-2019.

I’m grateful for all of that good news. And I’m quick to tell students that of all my books, Dazzle Ships is the one that I needed the most editorial help with, so I’m happy to share this interview with the book’s editor, Carol Hinz. I’ll close with a bit of that:

[B]y and large, nonfiction has changed so much from my own childhood—when the norm was text-heavy books with small, black-and-white photos or illustrations. So in some ways, I would say I’m now making the type of books I wish I’d had when I was a child.

04 May

“If you’ve never drawn a steamroller, I recommend it.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for May 2018)

Mighty Truck: On the Farm
Welcome to the Q&A for the May edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).

This month I’m talking with illustrator and author Troy Cummings and giving away three signed books: his new picture book Can I Be Your Dog? (Random House) and our even-newer easy readers Mighty Truck: On the Farm and Mighty Truck: The Traffic Tie-Up (HarperCollins).

Our I Can Read books come on the heels — make that wheels — of our two picture books about Mighty Truck, his ordinary-pickup-truck alter ego Clarence, and various vehicular acquaintances.

In Can I Be Your Dog?, the canine main character embarks on a letter-writing campaign to come up with a human companion. Kirkus says in its review, “A large format and bold, exuberant illustrations are well-matched with Arfy’s enthusiastic personality and can-do attitude. The letter format makes this a fine choice for early-elementary students learning to compose letters.”

If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want to be the one lucky, lucky, lucky winner of signed copies of On the Farm, The Traffic Tie-Up, and Can I Be Your Dog?, 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 Troy Cummings.

Chris: There were some pretty big differences for me between the process of writing our Mighty Truck easy readers and my previous experiences writing picture books, but I’m curious about your perspective as an artist. How did illustrating for the I Can Read format compare to your prior work on picture books and your Notebook of DOOM series?

Troy: It’s been really fun to learn how to illustrate for these different types of books, and the types of reader each book serves.

Troy Cummings

In a picture book, the audience ranges from a baby on a lap, to pre-K kid studying the pictures, to a grade-schooler who can read, to the parent/teacher/librarian/stevedore reading out loud. It’s a wide audience, and I feel like we have lots of room to play in the illustrations.

I can put in some little background details that might be a surprise for the second or third reading, or visual jokes/surprises that happen across the page turn. And I think picture books work best when the illustrations aren’t just showing us what the words are saying, but instead are complementing — or even contrasting — what’s happening in the text.

As for the Notebook of DOOM series, which is a heavily-illustrated early chapter book series, my readers are a more focused group: students who know how to read, and are ready to transition into full chapter books. The DOOM books are structured like a middle grade book — many chapters, multiple characters, with a mystery in each book and an arc that connects the books together.

But they’re also heavily illustrated, with a lower word count and an easier vocabulary (both in terms of what the words mean, and how to “decode” the words for students learning to read). In these books, my illustrations can behave similarly to those in a picture book, but they also need to be a little more direct, in terms of supporting vocabulary or keeping the story clear for readers who come back to chapter 9 a couple days later.

But still, the DOOM books work as read-alouds for parents/teachers/librarians. They kind of straddle that line.

Finally, the I Can Read books have a very specific audience: students who are learning to read — right now! So to that end, I think my job is to support what’s going on in any given moment of the story. The illustrations need to be clear, and simple, and explicit, and show exactly what’s happening in the sentence on that very page. We can still put in some jokes and surprises, but they should never overcomplicate things, or make the reader have to pause and puzzle out what’s going on.

Chris: Mighty Truck and Mighty Truck: Muddymania! have centered on Clarence and his best pal, Bruno, but one of the things I’ve enjoyed about making these easy readers is that they’ve given us a chance to focus on the side characters. Stella is prominent in The Traffic Tie-Up, and Hattie and Mr. Dent get their turns in the upcoming third and fourth I Can Read books.

As the illustrator, do you have a favorite Mighty Truck supporting character, or one that you’re especially hoping to see more of?

Mighty Truck: The Traffic Tie-UpTroy: The supporting characters have all been a blast to dream up. I think my favorite may be Hattie, though, because steamrollers are super-fun to draw. (If you’ve never drawn a steamroller, I recommend it. Very therapeutic.)

I also really enjoyed drawing Zip and Beep, Hattie’s young bulldozer cousins. [Chris adds: These little ones were Troy’s idea, and they’ll be the title characters in our third I Can Read book, coming this December.] They’re loosely based on certain fast-running, sand-digging, early-reading family members of my own!

The character I want to see more of would have to be Throttle, the cat belonging to Mr. Dent, the surf wagon. Throttle has some funny surfing scenes with Mighty Truck in the fourth I Can Read book.

If you’ve never drawn a cat surfing with a monster truck, I recommend it! Less therapeutic, but really fun.

26 Apr

Upon closer inspection

This was one of several thank-you cards I received from students at a school in Maryland last week.

It contains one of my favorite elements that I sometimes see in such cards: a depiction of the author himself!

Really, just look at this:

I mean, seriously:

One of these is by photographer Sam Bond, but I’m not saying which one

But the best part? If you’ll look verrrrry closely at one of the eyes, you’ll see it looks just like a heart:

That’s certainly how I feel when I look out on an audience that’s excited about reading and writing and drawing and creating their own stories, but I never realized I was so obvious about it.

23 Apr

A great idea for local authors and indie booksellers

And it comes from Austin, Texas — home to me, a thriving chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), and my favorite bookstore, BookPeople.

Just one sign — literally, and from 8 years ago this week — of BookPeople’s longtime support for me and my books.

Meghan Goel is the store’s children’s book buyer and programming director, and she also contributes to Publishers Weekly‘s ShelfTalker blog.

In her post last week, Meeting the Authors in Our Neighborhood, Meghan introduces what I think is a great idea — one that can benefit local authors and independent booksellers alike, not just in Austin but far beyond.

Here’s a little bit of Meghan’s ShelfTalker post:

[T]his July we’re going to test out a new bookseller intro and q&a for Austin’s SCBWI author class of 2018. If it works well, we’ll make it an annual thing. We’ll obviously emphasize that this is a great opportunity for new authors to tell us about their books, but authors new and old can come and ask us anything at all—general questions about bookselling, best practices for working with us on book launches, ideas for how to help promote their books between releases, or anything on their minds about working with a bookstore like ours.

Retailers and children’s authors/illustrators elsewhere, what do you think? Worth a try in your community?

11 Apr

“It’s the story of female smarts and strength saving the day” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for April 2018)

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

This month I’m talking with author Sayantani DasGupta and giving away one signed copy of her demon-filled and very funny new middle-grade novel, The Serpent’s Secret (Scholastic Press).

In its starred review of The Serpent’s Secret, Booklist writes, “Inspired by Bengali folktales, this is an exciting, fantastical debut grounded by Kiran’s wry, clever voice and her experiences as a child of immigrants. With a vibrant supporting cast, a world steeped in Bengali folk stories, and an action-packed story line, this is a series starter that rivals Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief (2005). A breathtaking adventure.”

If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want the winner of The Serpent’s Secret to be you, just 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 Sayantani DasGupta.

Chris: You’ve written about how your own children’s love of the Percy Jackson books helped inspire The Serpent’s Secret (“a story in which my own kids could see themselves being brave, dashing, smart, funny, strong and true”). Was the freshness of these Bengali folktales to American readers — compared to the familiarity of the Greek myths adapted by Rick Riordan — liberating to you as a writer, or did you feel a responsibility to be faithful to elements of these stories that you grew up with?

Sayantani: The Serpent’s Secret draws from many beloved Bengali children’s stories and folktales — regional stories that have, for the most part, an oral tradition to begin with. These were tales my grandmothers and aunts would tell to me when I was young, and would go on my long summer vacations to Kolkata, India. Even then, I was aware that each teller would slightly change the story as they were telling it, adding their own embellishments and moral lessons. (Say, if a cousin had been caught lying that day, suddenly a character in the story might have to face consequences for lying too!) Because oral stories have this tradition of adapting to context, of changing at each telling, I actually felt free while writing The Serpent’s Secret to mix and match, trying to stay true to the heart of any one character or story, but simultaneously putting them in a 21st century diasporic context.

Kiranmala, my heroine, is a Bengali folktale heroine — she comes from this story called “Arun, Barun, Kiranmala.” In the original folktale, Kiranmala’s older brothers Arun and Barun go off on adventures, leaving her at home because she’s the youngest and she’s the girl. Of course, when they get in trouble, it’s Kiranmala who has to go save them — so it’s the story of female smarts and strength saving the day, and I loved that even as a kid. So I wanted to stay true to that. But in The Serpent’s Secret, I got rid of Kiranmala’s brothers and made her the only daughter of loving, if kooky, immigrant parents living in New Jersey. Her friends, Lalkamal and Neelkamal, are princely brothers from an entirely different folktale, as is her talking bird companion Tuntuni. So clearly, I was playing fast and loose with many tales.

The one important point I want to make too is that while I draw from many children’s and folk stories, I don’t draw from myths in The Serpent’s Secret — in other words, stories based primarily on spiritual or religious traditions. While my own family’s particular identities undoubtedly creep into the novel, the Bengali folktales I draw from are regional not religious in nature — beloved by people of many faiths and multiple nations — both West Bengal, India and the country of Bangladesh as well, not to mention the entire Bengali speaking diaspora! I want to make that point because it’s really important to me that these wonderful stories don’t get falsely attributed to one nation of people or any one religious group. Bengal all used to be one common region prior to the bloody 1947 Partition of South Asia at the time India and Pakistan gained our independence from the British (Bangladesh later gained its independence from Pakistan in their own independence battle). So these are pre-partition stories shared by Bengalis of many faiths and nationalities!

Chris: With the arrival of The Serpent’s Secret, you’re now a published author of children’s books in addition to being a pediatrician and a teacher. Which of those three pursuits would be most surprising to those who knew you while you were growing up in Ohio?

Sayantani: While pediatrician, narrative medicine scholar, and children’s writer seem like they are three disparate careers, they’re ultimately each about giving and receiving stories, and being wholly present for another person. They’re also, of course, about power and justice — paying attention to issues like whose stories get heard and whose silenced, whose are centered and whose are marginalized. They’re about questioning who gets to tell the story, and who gets to be the hero.

As a lifelong lover of stories who grew up in an activist, immigrant household, I’m not sure any of my careers would surprise anyone who really knew me well as a kid growing up in Ohio. My best friend from third grade on is still a dear friend and actually flew out recently for the launch of The Serpent’s Secret. (Hi, Kari!) Would she be surprised at any of my careers? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. We were the kids who lived in the library and inside the pages of books, we were always imagining our way into fantasy tales or out into the galaxy through our favorite space shows and movies. We were into science, and we were into stories — so really no surprise my careers are at the intersection of those two things!

I’ve been so lucky — to be able to explore so many different approaches to my interests and passions, to be able to contribute to the world in these different ways.

04 Apr

“Even though I’m a boy and the main characters are girls…”

A young reader recently wrote my wife, Jennifer Ziegler, a letter that began, “Even though I’m a boy and the main characters are girls, I quite enjoy your book Revenge of the Flower Girls.”

Jennifer and I have had discussions along these lines so many times — discussions that boil down to the facts that

1) often the books she writes are described as “girl books” whereas mine are categorized as “books,” and

2) some adults would consider her books to appeal to half a classroom while mine are there for everyone.

We were both so glad that this student read what he wanted to read and felt free to say so. But Jennifer went further and wrote something powerful in response.

Here’s a bit of it:

If we want boys to read, why are we limiting their choices? Why are we effectively cutting the number of books available to them in half? If we want boys to be able to empathize with women, to be good friends, siblings, spouses, bosses, coworkers, etc., why are we going along with the idea that a story told from a girl’s/woman’s POV is not for them to read?

Read the rest of “It’s the Grown-Ups with the Hang-Ups — Not the Readers.”

28 Mar

Entirely uncamouflaged good news about Dazzle Ships

Photo, taken by Susan Thomsen, of patron art created in February 2018 at The Westport (Connecticut) Library


It’s been nearly three months since my previous update about Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion (written by me, illustrated by Victo Ngai, and published last September by Millbrook Press). What’s new?

The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) division of the American Library Association (ALA) has included Dazzle Ships on its 2018 Notable Children’s Books list.

The 2018 list of Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, a joint effort by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and the Children’s Book Council (CBC), also includes Dazzle Ships.

CCBC Choices 2018, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s annual best-of-the-year list, includes Dazzle Ships as well.

Elizabeth Dulemba interviewed me about the book.

Dazzle Ships is the runner-up for the 2018 Denton Record-Chronicle Award for Best Children’s Picture Book, coordinated by the Texas Institute of Letters. (Be sure to check out the winner, Xelena González and Adriana M. Garcia’s All Around Us, which was also named a 2018 Illustrator Honor Book by the Pura Belpré Award committee.)

You might also enjoy…

Millbrook Press art director Danielle Carnito on Page Counts Demystified (or, Why Publishing People Need to Know Their Multiplication Tables):

After printing, the large paper sheets are folded down to the size of the individual pages. With every fold of the press sheet, the amount of pages doubles. One of the most common amount of pages in a signature is 16—as DAZZLE SHIPS was printed—so there are 8 pages on the front of a press sheet and 8 on the back. 8 is also used often, so there are 4 pages on the front and 4 on the back.

The Calling Caldecott post on Dazzle Ships:

Recurring graphic elements weave throughout the pages, from the gentle curves of the ocean waves to the zigzag dazzle patterns. Ngai’s deft use of scale allows the people — such as, painters, artists, and naval officers — to share the same spreads with the massive battleships. Particularly stunning is the spread of an awestruck King George V; he is staring, mouth agape, at a small dazzled model. The smoothness of the monarch’s face and uniform contrast sharply with the geometric edges of the model and its pattern.

And the review of Dazzle Ships in the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books:

“So just how well did dazzle work? Nobody really knows,” Barton admits. There’s no denying, however, that dazzle boosted morale and makes a heckuva great story. Barton’s lively text is matched by Ngai’s engrossing artwork, which employs dazzle techniques throughout [her] inventive spreads. Contrasting colors, unexpected curves, eccentrically layered design elements, and cleverly deployed chiaroscuro walk the line between instructive playfulness and an art deco fever dream.

I love hearing reports of Dazzle Ships (and dazzle ships) sightings out in the wild and on the web, so if you see something you think I might be interested in, there’s a very good chance that you’re right. Please let me know in the comments section, won’t you?

15 Mar

How to Diversify Your KidLit-Related Lists #kidlitwomen

Often, those of us involved in children’s or young adult literature make lists without realizing that we’re making lists.

Four panelists that you’re considering for a session proposal for an upcoming conference? That’s a list.

Books selected for display face-out on a library or bookstore shelf? Also a list.

Authors or illustrators selected one by one for a recurring feature on your blog or in your newsletter? It may come together gradually, but over time, that’s a list, too.

Whether you’re creating a list of your own or thinking about sharing one that somebody else made, you’ve got an opportunity to better reflect the diversity that exists among the readers of children’s and YA books.

But how, exactly?

For my contribution to the March 2018 conversation on #kidlitwomen (join on Facebook,and Twitter), I’m happy to offer this downloadable guide, How to Diversify Your KidLit-Related Lists.

It’s an updated version of a graphic I’ve previously posted here. This new version has been edited by Karen Blumenthal, redesigned by Janie Bynum, and considerably improved by their efforts.

We hope you will share it widely (don’t forget the #kidlitwomen hashtag) and refer to it often (wouldn’t a color print look great on a wall in your office?). And, of course, we welcome your feedback in the comments below.

07 Mar

Two-question Q&A and giveaway for March 2018

There’s a story behind the Q&A for the March edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).

Last November I was speaking on a panel of nonfiction authors at the annual conference of the National Council of Teachers of English. There was a question about subjects we’d wanted to write about, but which another author had gotten to first.

I mentioned two musicians that I had written multiple drafts about: trombonist Melba Liston (subject of Katheryn Russell-Brown and Frank Morrison’s Little Melba and Her Big Trombone) and bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, whose picture book biography — as I told the crowd — was on its way from author Barb Rosenstock.

I didn’t know Barb Rosenstock. All I knew was that she had beaten me to the punch.

Well, right after the panel ended, a grinning stranger approached me up at the dais. “I’m Barb Rosenstock,” she said.

Here we are a few months later, and I’m so glad that there’s now a splendid version for young readers of this tale I had hoped to tell, Blue Grass Boy: The Story of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass Music (Calkins Creek). And I’m also glad to be able to share that book with you through a giveaway — and with a quick Q&A with my friends Barb Rosenstock and illustrator Edwin Fotheringham.

In its review of Blue Grass Boy, School Library Journal says, “The author adeptly and squarely aims this book at the intended audience by highlighting details young readers can connect with, such as Monroe being the youngest of eight children and growing up with a left eye that turned inward (esotropia). In both the narrative and the back matter, readers witness Monroe’s trials with his eyesight and his resulting development of a fine-tuned sense of hearing which helps him make a big impression on the music world. The digital illustrations are vibrant with a retro feel. Natural elements ranging from trees to blue skies and animals are the most dominant images and complement the imagery of Monroe’s music.”

To a single winner, I’m giving away two author-signed copies of Blue Grass Boy — one to keep and one to share. If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want the winner to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on March 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Barb Rosenstock and Edwin Fotheringham.

Chris: Blue Grass Boy is one of relatively few literary-quality nonfiction books for young readers about country music or about musicians who have frequented the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, despite the massive, longstanding popularity and cultural influence of that genre. Did that lack of other books have anything to do with what drew each of you to the story of Bill Monroe and bluegrass music?

Barb: Yes and no. Initially, like almost all my books, the idea for Blue Grass Boy came about by accident. In this case while driving my older son back to college in Indiana, I wound up a bit turned around in the town of Bean Blossom, home to the longest-running bluegrass festival in the world.

I filled up my car in town, and kept seeing references to someone named “Bill Monroe.” I stopped near the festival site and found myself fascinated by some Monroe memorabilia in the small museum there. My younger son and my father are both traditional-country fans, but I was not at all familiar with bluegrass history. I could not believe Monroe was credited with inventing an entire genre of music — and really that no other human had ever done that before (or since!).

On the long way back to the interstate, I [listened to] Blue Grass Junction … as I drove through rural Indiana with the windows down. Something about this music and the landscape stuck in my head. At home when I started researching Monroe, I realized that there were few (any?) children’s books about bluegrass, country, or the Opry — this whole important, influential set of American music history. Since it didn’t already exist, that motivated me even more to tell Monroe’s history to children. I learned so much and hope kids will, too.

Edwin: Being the illustrator and not the author, when Barb’s manuscript about Bill Monroe was offered to me, I figured there was probably a void in this category, to be honest. ;)

Seriously though… I had an extraordinary prior experience that made me view Bill Monroe with real interest as a character for young readers. I was traveling on a solo overnight bike tour from my home in Seattle to Lopez Island in the San Juan archipelago, and decided to camp halfway at a place called Fort Worden outside Port Townsend.

Making my way to my campsite I noticed, unexpectedly, the sound of fiddle music — live fiddle music, not recorded. After setting up camp I walked to the common area and saw multitudes of folks outside their tents and vans playing fiddle music. I was astounded that the ages of these people lay in two distinct generations: younger (teens, twenties, early thirties) and older (late fifties, sixties). My generation (I’m now 52), having had punk rock take our musical interests elsewhere, was not very well represented!

The event, I found out, is called Fiddle Tunes. Attendees participate in workshops, impromptu late night jams, breakfast breakouts, concerts, and square dances, all while camping out together. Fiddlers (as well as bassists, guitarists, banjo and mandolin players) from all over the world converge and strut their stuff… be it Celtic, Old Time, Quebecois, Cajun or Bill Monroe’s American bluegrass. I could see that there was a connection between seemingly disparate generations that was linked by this music. I was impressed, and felt lucky to observe the scene completely by chance (bike touring is like that, by the way).

In Barb’s writing I felt the excitement that I witnessed at Fiddle Tunes. I was attracted to the notion that Bill Monroe was able to create a brand-new genre, an American genre, by keeping his ears open and putting together elements from physical and artistic sources borne by his interactions, history, and experiences. It is a great thing to impart on young readers: that new things come from what you already know and what you are about to find out.

Chris: Once you got involved in the actual creation of this book, what role did music — Monroe’s, or others’, or other sounds, or silence — play in your process?

Edwin: I listened to Monroe’s music to get a feel for the elements that make bluegrass distinct from other string genres — namely the banjo and his mandolin playing. After that I went back to my 20-year-old self and put on the Stooges. There’s nothing like music to pull back a few years and feel great, whatever the genre may be. I’m sure those kids playing bluegrass (and everything else) at Fiddle Tunes will feel the same way, just like their much older peers have figured out!

Barb: My writing process is not smooth — it’s a lot of stops and starts, with research before and between, so I keep my office pretty quiet (except for two old dogs snoring.) I look at a lot of pictures throughout a day, but I don’t typically write with any music or other sounds playing.

Blue Grass Boy was different. When I was writing and especially when the story got “stuck,” I listened to two things: nature recordings of Kentucky hill sounds, and Monroe’s own music. His lyrics are really autobiographical too, so I tried to focus on what was important by listening to him. There’s a great two-part video interview of Monroe on his farm in 1986. In a short section near the end, Monroe plays out in the open on his porch, you can hear the sounds around him.

One piece of music that helped a lot for emotional content is a recording of Monroe’s song “My Last Days on Earth.” It starts with water rushing, bird sounds, and then single notes on his mandolin. That song expresses everything I was trying to write about him. No one else’s music could really do that. Basically, Bill Monroe played his life better than anyone could ever write it down.

28 Feb

Priority number one for my day off

I got home yesterday evening after nine days away, which I spent visiting schools in the Dallas area and presenting at the Dublin Literacy Conference in Dublin, Ohio.

So, today has sort of been a day off. Or at least a day of taking care of the highest-priority to-dos that stacked up while I was traveling.

I started with this one:

Go vote, y’all. Vote early, if you can. Vote in the runoff, if there is one. And, come the fall, vote with as many of your family, friends, and neighbors and you can round up. It matters.