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Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Lerner Publishing Group.
In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Ronny Khuri talks to author Chris Barton. Chris is the author of many acclaimed nonfiction picture books, including All of a Sudden and Forever, Dazzle Ships, Whoosh!, What Do You Do with a Voice Like That, and The Day-Glo Brothers, which was awarded a Sibert Honor. Chris lives in Austin, Texas, with his family, and you can learn more about him at his website, www.chrisbarton.info.
Chris’ latest nonfiction picture book is called How to Make a Book (about My Dog), which hits shelves on October 5.
You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
RONNY KHURI: Can you kick us off by introducing your new book, How to Make a Book (about My Dog)?
CHRIS BARTON: How to Make a Book (about My Dog), which I wrote and which Sarah Horne illustrated, is a nonfiction picture book about how nonfiction picture books are made, and it walks readers through the process of what would happen if I were to make a nonfiction picture book about my actual dog, Ernie.
Can you talk about your inspiration for the project as a whole and what you hope young readers will take away from it?
The inspiration comes from a couple of different places. When I was making Dazzle Ships with Carol Hinz at Lerner, I had a really hard time figuring out exactly how to tell that story, because there were so many different tangents and aspects to the dazzle-ship story. And for a while, I had a version of the manuscript called How to Write a Book About Dazzle Ships, and Carol quite wisely pointed out that maybe this structure would work better for a topic that readers were already familiar with. Then, she suggested How to Write a Book (about a Dog). So I kind of filed that away.
I do a lot of school visits. And one of the most common questions is, “How do you make the books?” And by this point in my presentations, by the time we get to Q&A, I’ve quite wisely shown the kids a picture of my dog, Ernie, because kids like pictures of dogs. And they’ll ask, “Are you going to make a book about your dog?” So I took my inspiration from those two questions. And often, they’re not so much asking how you write the books. Sometimes they’re talking about the physical object of the book, especially the cover of the book, that hard cover. That seems to be the thing that they are most intrigued by. But it was taking that seed that Carol had planted with, “Maybe this would be better suited for different type of topic” and those repeated questions I got from students at my school visits.
I really love that you focused on the professional publishing process and the collaboration, that huge collaboration, that goes into making a book, rather than just the story craft or the DIY bookmaking angle, because I think kids—and adults, frankly—are rarely exposed to the reality of publishing and the possibility of a career in publishing, or as an author. Can you talk about the choice to focus on the greater collaborative process?
When kids would ask me how I make the books, I would always answer, “Well, I can tell you about part of it. I can tell you about the part that I do. I know the research and the writing and the revision really well, but there are so many other people involved that I really don’t know. You’d have to ask that question of them.” And of course, those other people are not in the room in front of those kids. So, this got me thinking about how kids would ever learn what those other parts of the job are if I, or somebody else, doesn’t tell it to them? Plus, I’ve always loved writing nonfiction about things that, at the outset, I don’t know all that much about. Writing this book was a chance for me to learn more about the rest of this process that I’m involved in.
You’ve written multiple nonfiction books, often historical or biographical, but this seems to be somewhat of a new direction for you. How was the research for this book different? Did you learn anything new about the process, even though you’ve been publishing for a while?
I definitely learned more about the process because I was asking questions about parts of the process I’d never really needed to know. I’d say there were three parts to my research. Part one was looking back at the processes I’d gone through on my own in making my previous nonfiction books, just to make sure that I wasn’t overlooking or overestimating or underestimating some aspect of that process. I think, in the back matter, I say how long it takes me to write a book from the day I start actively working on it until the day it’s published, which is between four-and-a-half and five years. And I wanted to make sure I had that right. So there were lots of very nerdy calculations based on how long did it take me to create previous books of mine.
That was one aspect. And I also needed to give questions to the illustrator, Sarah Horne, who I’ve never met. She lives in London. And when I wrote the manuscript, there was this gap where information about the illustrator goes, and I couldn’t fill that gap until I talked with her about the process that she goes through.
The biggest part of the research was making a road trip up to Minneapolis in the summer of 2019 to spend a couple of days with the folks at Lerner. I went desk to desk asking people to explain to me how they do what they do, their parts of the job, what their roles are, the tools that they use, where in the process they come in. So I learned a lot about the bookmaking process that way. I guess the other type of research I did—the only actual research I did into my dog—was getting his DNA tested. And I did that as an example of how, even when you know a subject really well, you still do your research. For instance, we’ve had Ernie for quite a few years. We know him pretty well. When somebody on the street would ask what kind of dog is he, we would say he’s a Jack Russell dachshund, because that’s what he looks like. He looks like a stretched-out Jack Russell.
But that’s not good enough when you’re making a nonfiction book for kids—or when you’re making a book about making a nonfiction book for kids. So we got his DNA tested, and the results came back and said more than terrier, more than dachshund; he’s a chihuahua and miniature poodle. And nobody in my family believed it. So what do you do? You get more information. We got a different DNA test; results came back more or less the same. That was the example I provide in the book of researching your subject, even when you think you know it really well.
You mentioned your illustrator, Sarah Horne. And I just have to say I really think she just knocked it out of the park with this. You have a lot of humor in your writing, and she really complemented it with this amazing comic energy that’s in every page.
Oh, absolutely. And a lot of the text, a lot of the illustrated text, is text that she provided, text that she wrote, to the point where sometimes, as I’m reading it, I have a hard time remembering whether that was a joke or an aside that I had in my original manuscript or something that she added in there. I think she was a perfect choice for this book, and I’m so glad to have gotten to make it with her.
I wanted to ask you about your physical presence in the book. Whose original idea was that? Was it always a part of the plan? And just what is it like seeing yourself in one of your books, where, I mean, you’re there forever? I think it’s a really cool thing for an author to achieve.
Once I began writing even the proposal for this book, the text was always kind of in the format that it appears on the first page, where I’m addressing the reader in first person. “Hi, I’m Chris Barton. I write books for kids.” And if someone had asked me, ”Hey, does this mean you’re going to be depicted in the book?“ I would have said, ”I guess so?“ But it really had not occurred to me that that was going to be how it was depicted. Maybe I’ve gotten so good at not thinking about what the book is going to look like, to leave illustrator room to do what they do best, that I didn’t even imagine what I was going to look like in this book. I provided lots of pictures of Ernie for Sarah to use as references. And I guess there were enough pictures of me around. And I may have made a point of saying, ”When I visit schools, I always wear cowboy boots when I’m on stage.“ And so it was hilarious to me to see, throughout the book, even when I’m out walking the dog, even when I’m lying on my hotel bed while I’m traveling to school visits thinking about what to write—even then, I’m wearing these cowboy boots, which is not exactly true to life, but I think it’s just hysterical.
You cohost, along with your wife, Jennifer Ziegler, a really clever video series called This One’s Dedicated To…, in which you interview authors about their book dedications. And I was really struck by your dedication, so I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about it.
I dedicated How to Make a Book (about My Dog) “to Karen Blumenthal, her excellent books, and her excellent dog, Franklin.” Karen Blumenthal, who I hope your readers already know about—and if not, I hope they will go racing to their bookshelves to find everything that she ever wrote—was a friend of ours, a terrific author of nonfiction books for kids. It was a second career for her after being a business journalist. She wrote about Steve Jobs. She wrote about Hillary Clinton. She wrote about Roe v. Wade. She wrote about the Tommy gun. She wrote about Bonnie and Clyde. She wrote about these disparate topics, these fantastic topics, mostly for young adult or middle grade. She died in spring of last year, very suddenly, and that was a big blow for many people.
But when Jennifer and I would be in Dallas, on school-visit travels or author travels of any sort, we would try to see Karen, and it would involve going to her home and getting to spend time not only with Karen and her husband but also their dog, Franklin. And Franklin is just a fantastic dog. Franklin is as good a dog as Karen’s books are nonfiction. And so I thought it was appropriate to honor Karen and her books, but also her dog, with this dedication.
That’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing that.
Thank you for asking.
And I will just tack on, for anyone interested right now—I believe it was Karen’s last book, Jane Against the World, which is this really amazing history of women’s reproductive rights, written for young adults. I highly recommend that, especially given the current state of things.
This Shelf Care Interview was sponsored Lerner Publishing Group, publisher of How to Make a Book (about My Dog), by Chris Barton and illustrated by Sarah Horne, available on October 5.
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