"Find the nearest chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and attend the next meeting that you possibly can."
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Mr. Barton, you wrote your first book as a student at Lamar Elementary in Sulphur Springs, Texas. You went on to write for the student newspaper in high school, and for The Daily Texan at UT Austin when you went to college. What is it about writing that feeds you?
CHRIS BARTON: I’m getting better at writing, and I’m always learning a lot from it — I think we all enjoy doing things where we can sense our own improvement, and we all enjoy the feeling of getting smarter. And with writing, going all the way back to elementary school and all the way up to the present day, I’ve long found that there can be a great sense of community with other writers and readers, and I find that hugely fulfilling. I guess I’ve taken that sense of fulfilment to the extreme by marrying another author, Jennifer Ziegler, who writes novels for teens and tweens.
You’ve said that you tried your hand at children’s books because one of your sons repeatedly asked you to tell him a story. What were you doing for a living when that happened, and how did you transition to writing for children full time?
When I was still in college I had started working for an Austin-based company called The Reference Press, a publisher of consumer-friendly, somewhat cheeky profiles of companies. I was a writer and then an editor for that company, which became Hoover’s, Inc., and eventually got bought by Dun & Bradstreet. I was there for more than twenty years, and for the last fifteen and a half of those, I was pursuing my work as a children’s author on the side, getting up at 5 a.m. to do so.
Three things happened that led me to leave that job in June 2016: The office was relocating far enough from my house that the commute would have cut considerably into my author time. My book The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, illustrated by Don Tate, was named to the Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List, which created opportunities to give presentations to a lot of schools in Texas and receive income from those school visits. And I was invited to be the author-in-residence at the Singapore American School, which I was not about to turn down but which used up all my vacation days for the year by mid-May.
It ended up not being much of a transition—it was time to make a leap of faith. I resigned, wrapped up my day job on a Friday, and woke up on Saturday as a full-time author.
I believe I counted sixteen books you’ve written, not including a couple of anthologies which have included your work. Your books are evenly split between fiction and nonfiction, which seems unusual to me. Where does inspiration find you most often?
More than anywhere else, I get a lot of ideas—fiction and nonfiction, ideas for new stories and fixes for stories I’m already trying to tell—while running or walking. I cover between thirty-five and forty miles each week, so that’s turned out to be time well spent.
Please introduce us to your newest picture book, What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan.
It’s the biography, written by me and illustrated by Ekua Holmes, of a true Texas hero. Barbara Jordan was born and raised in Houston’s Fifth Ward, and through her service in the Texas Senate, in the U.S. House of Representatives, and on the faculty of the LBJ School of Public Affairs she set a shining example of how to take a natural gift and put it to use for the benefit of one’s community, state, and nation.
I’ve read that you began work on this biography of Jordan in 2013. Where did the inspiration for this work come from? How did you decide on a title?
The inspiration came from my friend and Texas author Kathi Appelt, who emailed me more or less out of the blue one day and told me she thought I needed to write a picture book about Barbara Jordan. The lesson here is to always do what Kathi Appelt tells you to. I began by reading Mary Beth Rogers’s 1998 book for adults, Barbara Jordan: American Hero. My plan was to not take any notes, to not commit myself mentally to doing this project, to just see if, after reading the book, Barbara Jordan’s story resonated with me in a way that I thought would make sense for young readers. I don’t think I was two chapters into Rogers’ book before I was all in for this project.
One of the first things people tend to say when I mention Barbara Jordan is, “Oh, that voice!” Her speaking voice was so distinctive, so authoritative, so clarifying. But she wasn’t born speaking that way, just like none of us is born doing the thing that we’re best at or knowing for sure what to do with that thing once we figure out what it is. The phrase “What do you do with a voice like that?” is a refrain throughout the book as Barbara and the reader are both challenged to ponder how best for Barbara to move forward through her life with her most notable natural gift.
You’ve said that in these unsettling times you often ask yourself, “What would Barbara Jordan do?.” What do you think she would do today as the country faces extraordinary times again?
Well, let me just say that the first complete draft of this book, written five years ago this month, contains a passage matching almost verbatim this text from the finished book:
Soon came a troubled, confusing time for the nation. [The President], it seemed, had broken the law, and Congress had to decide what to do about it.
... Barbara used her voice to show them the way. ...
"My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution."
The Constitution, Barbara said, must be preserved.
The president, Barbara said, must go.
The president went.
I don’t think Barbara Jordan would need to do one thing more than she did when she was on the House judiciary committee in 1974. What we need to do is pay attention to what she said then and see to it that our elected officials do as well.
You worked with award-winning artist Ekua Holmes to illustrate and enhance your words in this book. How did you decide you wanted to work with Holmes? What can you tell us about the collaborative process between the two of you?
As soon as I saw the art for Ekua’s first book—Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, written by Carole Boston Weatherford—I knew that Beach Lane Books had made an excellent decision to have Ekua illustrate Barbara Jordan’s story. Like Barbara, I’m a native Texan. But Ekua lives a stone’s throw from Boston University, where Barbara got her law degree, which just seemed to make a perfect choice all the more so.
I’m adamant about staying out of the way of the artists who illustrate the texts that I write. But I did make a point of sharing with Ekua many images that I received from Barbara’s archives at Texas Southern University, and I provided feedback on the sketches that the book’s editor passed along to me. The most significant collaboration between Ekua and me was her suggestion that the text address Barbara’s close relationship with her maternal grandfather, which I had much earlier cut from my manuscript in an effort to streamline it. Ekua’s insight was a great one, I found a new place for that relationship, and her artwork on the pages where I mention Grandpa Patten is my single favorite illustration in the entire book.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors and illustrators of children’s books? How do they find each other?
Find the nearest chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and attend the next meeting that you possibly can. Texas alone has several SCBWI chapters. Without the Austin chapter I would have missed out on a lot of vital relationships and professional and creative growth, and I wouldn’t be where I am today.
What can you tell us about your next project?
My next nonfiction book comes out about a year from now. It’s a picture book, illustrated by Nicole Xu, called All of a Sudden and Forever: Help and Healing after the Oklahoma City Bombing. It’s not so much about the bombing itself as it is about the recovery from and memorialization of a highly visible public tragedy. You know how you mentioned that unusual split between my nonfiction and fiction work? Well, my next fiction picture book will be out in spring 2020 with illustrations by Shanda McCloskey, and it’s called Fire Truck Vs. Dragon. So, yes.
What books are on your nightstand?
Only one: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. I listened to the audio book years ago, and on the strength of that, this book has become the one that I have recommended the most in my life. I’m re-reading it now in hardcover as part of my research for a new nonfiction project, but nobody needs a reason to read it. It’s simply a great, great book.
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Praise for Chris Barton’s works
What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan
“Striking mixed-media illustrations capture the relationships between people and the influence of place. ... A moving portrait of a true patriot who found ways to use her gift to work for change.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch
“Barton offers an immersive, engaging, and unflinching portrait of the difficulties of the Reconstruction era, while Tate’s cartoonlike artwork softens moments of cruelty and prejudice without diminishing them.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Shark vs. Train
“[I]maginative and very funny... The cleverly chosen contests reflect the imaginative powers of kids while retaining the consistent logic that’s also essential to play. ... Energetic cartoon illustrations take full advantage of the visual possibilities. ... This inspired pairing, executed with ingenuity and packed with action and humor, is a sure winner.” —School Library Journal (starred review)
Book or Bell?
“Barton couples engaging storytelling with Spires’ hilariously chaotic scenes featuring a multicultural cast of comical characters. With a balanced mix of anticipated and unpredictable moments and lots of onomatopoeia, this sidesplitting story will keep young readers highly amused till the very end.” —Booklist
Chris Barton is the author of many picture books, including the bestseller Shark vs. Train, Sibert Honor–winning The Day-Glo Brothers, and Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List books The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (2016–17) and Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions (2017–18). His other books include Book or Bell?, Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion, and What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. Chris visits schools by the score and also loves speaking to professional gatherings of librarians, educators, and his fellow writers. Chris and his wife, novelist Jennifer Ziegler, live in Austin, Texas, with their family. www.chrisbarton.info