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Home News-Telegram News Chris Barton: Stringing words together seemed like the thing to do

Chris Barton: Stringing words together seemed like the thing to do

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Sulphur Springs native Chris Barton will make a swing through town next Friday to promote his new children’s book, “The Day-Glo Brothers.” The 1989 Sulphur Springs High School valedictorian now lives in Austin with his wife and two young sons.

Barton will be the featured guest at Sulphur Springs Public Library’s Community Story Time Friday, Sept. 18, from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. The library is located at 611 North Davis St. The event is free.

Barton, the son of the late Mike Barton and Nancy and Joe Moore, took time from his busy touring schedule to answer some questions about his love of writing, his favorite authors and the future of children’s books.

News-Telegram: How did you become interested in writing?

Chris Barton: I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember — once I knew how to read words, stringing them together myself just seemed like the thing to do. One of the things that has always kept me interested in writing in general is having friends to do it with. Many of my best times while growing up in Sulphur Springs involved collaborating with other writer friends of mine. J.B. Smith — now a reporter at the Waco Tribune-Herald — and I would write page after page of parodies of soap operas and superheroes. And Jason Sickles and I were devoted to writing for and editing the SSHS newspaper, the Cat’s Tale — he’s now with the Dallas Morning News.

What got me into writing for children was my older son. When he was just a toddler, he began asking me over and over again to tell him the story of how I had installed a smoke alarm — there were drill sounds, and beeping sounds and daddy going up the ladder, and daddy coming down the ladder. He just couldn’t get enough. One morning it struck me that if I could make him happy with that story, maybe I could come up with some other stories that other kids might appreciate as well. So I started making them up and writing them down.


N-T: How did you find a publisher?

CB: Finding a publisher in general was made easier by the thriving subculture and support network for children’s writers that I found online as soon as I began heading down the road of writing for children. That was a huge, wonderful, unexpected surprise. There were lots of resources then — and even more today — to help aspiring authors and illustrators improve their craft and find editors and art directors interested in having a look at their work.

For The Day-Glo Brothers in particular, it took a lot of patience and stubbornness and belief that the story I was trying to tell could make a really neat-looking children’s book. I had some strikes against me: My topic was pretty obscure; it cried out for using relatively expensive ink, and I was an unproven looking children’s book. I had some strikes against me: My topic was pretty obscure, it cried out for using relatively expensive ink, and I was an unproven writer with no commercial track record. It didn’t help that, at first, the manuscript I was trying to sell was 6,200 words long, which is four to six times longer than most picture book biographies — I still had a lot to learn, obviously. I received rejections from 23 publishers, but then a librarian in Austin read a much-shorter version of my manuscript and liked it enough to personally say so to an editor at Charlesbridge Publishing. They turned out to be the one — lucky number 24.


N-T: Describe the process once you got a publisher. How long did it take to get from contract to book release?

CB: First, my editor and I revised the manuscript — the length wasn’t a problem anymore, but I had managed to stop the story dead in its tracks twice with explanations of how light and fluorescence and daylight fluorescence work. We spent a lot of time finding the right balance between telling the brothers’ story and providing just enough scientific explanation in context. The rest of the science, we moved to the back of the book and supplemented with some online animation (http://www.charlesbridge.com/client/client_pages/day-glo-brothers/day-glo-home.html).

After the editor and I were essentially finished — aside from the sort of occasional tweaks we’d be making until the day the book went to the printer — Charlesbridge found an illustrator, Tony Persiani. He had never done a children’s book before, either, but his retro, cartoon-y style of art made him perfect for conveying the story’s 1930s setting, for using daylight-fluorescent ink, and for capturing the fun of Bob and Joe Switzer’s pursuit of their new colors. At that point, the project mainly became a collaboration between Tony and Charlesbridge’s art director, with the author mostly on the sidelines, which is pretty common in picture book publishing.

The last big phase of the project was figuring out how to use the daylight-fluorescent inks — other than black, the only colors of ink used in the book were Day-Glo orange, yellow, and green, but we couldn’t use those at full strength throughout because, for most of the story, those colors hadn’t been invented yet. It was a challenge, but Charlesbridge came up with a terrific, Wizard of Oz-like approach, with the illustrations gradually moving from black-and-white to increasingly intense color.

There were also some stretches of waiting — the time from signed contract to published book was more than 4 1/2 years, which was longer than any of us had had in mind — but I’ve been so happy with the finished product that, in retrospect, those years seem to have dashed by.


N-T: Who are some of your favorite children’s writers? Why?

CB: Many of my favorite children’s authors are friends of mine in Austin — of all the places in the world where I could have stumbled into writing books for children, I could not have picked a better place than Austin. There’s a large, friendly, active community of talented and published children’s writers and illustrators there — one of our best is Liz Garton Scanlon, whose brand-new picture book, All the World, is a big-hearted thing of beauty.

The author whose books I consistently look forward to the most is Don Brown, who specializes in writing and illustrating picture book biographies — Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein is one of his best — but who has also written a couple of historical novels for older kids. He has a knack for capturing the quirks and details of his subjects and their stories in a way that makes you feel you know these people, whether famous or obscure, very personally.


N-T: Who do you read?

CB: A lot of what I read is research for my current projects, so the time I have to read purely for pleasure is more limited than I’d like. At my older son’s insistence, I’ve finally begun reading the Harry Potter books. Rebecca Stead’s new middle-grade novel, When You Reach Me, is out of this world. But the most recent thing I’ve read for fun isn’t a children’s book at all — it’s Ted Gioia’s Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music, a spot-on birthday gift from my mom. That one was so good that I didn’t want it to end — and it gave me an idea for another picture book biography I’d like to write.


N-T: What kind of program will you be presenting at the library?

CB: Right off the bat, I’ll relate the colors in the book to the colors the children have seen their entire lives. They may not know the names “Day-Glo” or “daylight fluorescence,” and they probably don’t know how those colors work, but we encounter these colors every day. Where? What effect do the colors have? Why are they used? What else do we see every day without truly becoming aware of, without knowing the stories of the people who made them happen?

I’ll read some from The Day-Glo Brothers, and then I’ll talk about various aspects of the Switzers’ story, the colors they invented, how those colors work, and how I came to write this book. My program has a flexible format that allows me to tailor it to the interests of the children in attendance, so if they want to get into the science of why Day-Glo glows, we can do that. If they’re more interested in finding out about the important role that ketchup played in the invention of those colors, we can do that, too.


N-T: Are you encouraged by young readers’ reactions to books like the Harry Potter and Twilight series?

CB: Because so much of what I write is biography, what I’m really encouraged by are the less-heralded developments — and potential developments — in nonfiction for young readers. Especially in biographies, there’s currently a wide-openness and willingness by publishers to go off the beaten path that’s exciting to me. Marc Tyler Nobleman’s recent picture book, Boys of Steel — about the guys who created Superman — is a perfect example. That’s such a great topic for young readers — as meaningful to some as Einstein or Edison or the Wright brothers — that it’s astounding to me that it hadn’t been done previously. Other examples are Buddy, Anne Bustard’s picture book biography of Buddy Holly, and She Loved Baseball, Audrey Vernick’s upcoming book about Effa Manley, the first woman elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Kadir Nelson’s We Are the Ship: The Story of the Negro Leagues is a great, great book — beautiful to look at, fun to read.

I love the fact that an increasingly diverse array of books like these are available to entertain and inform and inspire young readers, even if none of them individually come anywhere close to obtaining the following of Harry Potter or the Twilight series. Add in the promise of nonfiction for young readers becoming more interactive, making use of the possibilities of multimedia content, and you can see why this is going to continue to be a fun field to be involved in as an author.

*

For a quick lesson on how light and color work, check out http://www.charlesbridge.com/client/client_pages/day-glo-brothers/day-glo-home.html. For more information on Chris Barton, check out his website, http://www.chrisbarton.info.

 

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