Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Chris Barton's Five Favorite Picture Book Biographies

Today, we are honored to welcome CHRIS BARTON to the Cottage! Chris is the author of many award-winning fiction and nonfiction picture books including THE AMAZING AGE OF JOHN ROY LYNCH (out this month), ATTACK! BOSS! CHEAT CODE! A GAMER'S ALPHABET, THE DAY-GLO BROTHERS (winner of the American Library Association Sibert Honor), and SHARK VS. TRAIN, a New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestseller.

Chris has another picture book biography THE NUTCRACKER' COMES TO AMERICA: HOW THREE BALLET-LOVING BROTHERS CREATED A HOLIDAY TRADITION coming in September. We can't wait!

We asked Chris to share his five favorite picture book biographies with us--a nearly impossible request, says Chris, given how many amazing titles there are to choose from. Here are a few books that have inspired him along the way.

"There are too many excellent picture book biographies -- and too many excellent authors and illustrators working in this field -- for me to narrow them down to my all-time favorite five. But there are a handful that have been especially meaningful to me at one time or another, so I'm going to limit my list to those.

After realizing that I might like to write books for kids, the first picture book biography that I really took notice of was the then-brand-new The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, which was written by Barbara Kerley and won a Caldecott Honor for illustrator Brian Selznick. This book perfectly married fascinating subject matter (Hawkins was one of the first dinosaur scientists) and artistic approach (who could resist the depiction of a dinner party held inside a iguanodon model?). It made me realize how much children's nonfiction had changed from the Childhood of Famous Americans volumes I read in elementary school. More importantly, it made me realize that a picture book -- one printed with Day-Glo ink -- would be the ideal medium for telling the story of how daylight fluorescent colors were invented.

Some time later, I was wondering which publisher might be a good fit for The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch. Meanwhile, I had gotten onto friendly terms with Anita Eerdmans through years of visiting with her at her company's booth at the Texas Library Association conference. I knew that Eerdmans Publishing specialized in religious books, so I wasn't thinking of them for my own work -- until I saw A River of Words, their Caldecott Honor-winning biography of poet and physician William Carlos Williams, written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet. It wasn't a religious biography, but it was a deeply meaningful book, with text and art and design obviously created with a lot of love and thought and care. I wanted that treatment for my biography of John Roy Lynch, not only for my sake but for the benefit of readers. Who wouldn't want a book like that?

I offer a picture book biography presentation called "Who Did It First? Who Did It Best? Who Did It Differently?" for inspiring writers to find the biographical subject that's just right for them. Often, my students have never considered writing nonfiction, and some may even be disinclined to think they would find it interesting. So the very first thing I do in that presentation is read a dry summary of the life of author Gertrude Stein, followed by the beginning of author Jonah Winter and illustrator Calef Brown's book Gertrude Is Gertrude Is Gertrude Is Gertrude. ("And Alice is Alice. And Gertrude and Alice are Gertrude and Alice.") It's the best example I know of how the brevity of a picture book text can allow an author to distill and convey the essence of a nonfiction subject more effectively than a longer book can.

When my 16- and 11-year-old sons were younger, I blogged about my efforts each month to find a set of books -- ideally, nonfiction picture books -- that could help introduce them to a period or theme in United States history. One standout for the middle of the 20th century was Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez. Kathleen Krull's detailed text makes clear the human toll of injustice and the bravery and sacrifice required for effective social action, while Yuyi Morales' art manages to be both earthy and magical at the same time. I still find this book so moving, so inspiring. I reread it as I prepared these these comments, and it gave me goosebumps all over again for the umpteenth time.

To offer my boys some insight into the worlds of business and entrepreneurship, I was looking for a good rags-to-riches picture book biography. I found a great one in Vision of Beauty: The Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker, written by Kathryn Lasky and illustrated by Nneka Bennett. In too short a lifetime, Walker made the journey from the daughter of former slaves in Reconstruction-era Louisiana to the inspirational employer of hundreds across the country. Lasky and Bennett vividly depict the determination, ingenuity, and activism that contributed to the rise of beauty products magnate known as Madam C.J. Walker."

Chris Barton's newest books are THE AMAZING AGE OF JOHN ROY LYNCH and ATTACK! BOSS! CHEAT CODE! A GAMER'S ALPHABET. Chris is also the author of SHARK VS. TRAIN (a New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestseller) and THE DAY-GLO BROTHERS (winner, American Library Association Sibert Honor), as well as the young adult nonfiction thriller CAN I SEE YOUR I.D.? TRUE STORIES OF FALSE IDENTITIES. He has five more picture books on the way through 2016, including THE NUTCRACKER' COMES TO AMERICA: HOW THREE BALLET-LOVING BROTHERS CREATED A HOLIDAY TRADITION. Chris and his wife, novelist Jennifer Ziegler (REVENGE OF THE FLOWER GIRLS, REVENGE OF THE ANGELS), live in Austin, Texas, with their family. You can visit Chris's website at

By Chris Barton
Illustrated by Don Tate

Eerdmans Books for Young Readers (April 1, 2015)

★ Publishers Weekly (STARRED review)
"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."

Kirkus Reviews
"Published while the United States has its first African-American president, this story of John Roy Lynch, the first African-American speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, lays bare the long and arduous path black Americans have walked to obtain equality. The title's first three words—'The Amazing Age'—emphasize how many more freedoms African-Americans had during Reconstruction than for decades afterward. . . . A picture book worth reading about a historical figure worth remembering."

By Chris Barton
Illustrated by Joey Spiotto
POW! (October 2014)

"Here's a new book, gorgeously illustrated, that takes a lighthearted look at the lexicon of game culture."
- Polygon
"It’s a novel concept – take gamers from A to Z and give them nostalgic images that will spark great or not so great memories. It will be at home on a coffee table, in a dorm room or in your Man Cave."
- The Houston Chronicle

“It combines common gaming terms and lingo with colorful illustrations by artist Joey Spiotto to create an introductory book that people of all stripes can learn from and enjoy.”
- The Escapist

Coming Soon!

By Chris Barton
Illustrated by Cathy Gendron

Millbrook Press (September 2015)

Every December, The Nutcracker comes to life in theaters all across the United States. But how did this 19th-century Russian ballet become such a big part of the holidays in 21st-century America?

Meet Willam, Harold, and Lew Christensen, three small-town Utah boys who caught the ballet bug from an uncle in the early 1900s. They performed alongside elephants and clowns on vaudeville, immersed themselves in the New York City dance scene, and even put on a ballet featuring gangsters at a gas station. Russian immigrants shared the story of The Nutcracker with them, and during World War II–on a shoestring budget and in need of a hit–they staged their own Christmastime production in San Francisco. It was America's first full-length version and the beginning of a delightful holiday tradition.

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