Friday Wrap Up- Good News is Blooming in Central Texas

(why can’t I place images whereever I want? Honestly, no matter what I do, pictures always land at the head of the post. How frustrating!)

I’m looking back at my week now and feeling pretty good about how I’ve spent my time. You see, I made a New-School-Year Resolution to utilize my days more wisely. I’m working my way into a routine that includes designated times for: social networking, blogging, exercise, industry news and, most importantly, writing. My new “office hours” are paying off. This week, I’ve revised an old nonfiction manuscript that’s been vying for my attention, and I’ve done more research on two new projects that have me really exciting. All in all, it’s been a productive week and nothing crumbled around me. Yay!

A lot of good news has been blessed upon some of my writing friends. Here’s some of the latest news. My sincerest apologize for anyone I’ve missed.

Chris Barton is full of good news. His YA nonfiction book, CAN I SEE YOUR ID? is scheduled to be released in April 2011.

SHARK VS. TRAIN has spent five weeks on the NY Times Bestseller list and is being translated to Korean. Check out the book trailer

The DAY-GLO BROTHERS(a 2010 Sibert Honor book)is also being translated to Korean and is showing no signing of slowing in popularity.

The lovely Bethany Hegedus has announced that her latest MG novel, TRUTH WITH A CAPITAL T, will be released in October. And we’re all celebrating news of her latest sale, a nonfiction picture book titled GRANDFATHER GANDHI (release date TBD)

K.A. Holt‘s BRAINS FOR LUNCH is on shelves now. Check out this fun book trailer.

Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s latest picture book, HOLLER LOUDLY will be released in November 2011. Check out this adorable book trailer. Then, be sure to check out Cyn’s new website design. It’s amazing!

Brian Yansky‘s ALIEN INVASION AND OTHER INCONVENIENCES is due out in October. I have a tiny invested interest in this one, so I’m doubly anxious.

Liz Garton Scanlon‘s ALL THE WORLD has been named a PEN finalist Of course, nobody is surprised.

The Texas Book Festival
has announced it’s lineup for 2010 and boy is it a whopper! Check out the impressive author lineup. Our Austin writing community is well represented.

If you’re a writer or illustrator, you won’t want to miss the Austin SCBWI regional conference, Books, Boots, and Buckskin conference in February 20111. Registration is now open!

Nonfiction Picture Books – Defining Tight Focus

For the past nine months or so, I’ve dug deeply into the structure, tone, focus, and storytelling techniques of hundreds of nonfiction picture book biographies. Picture book writing is itself an incredible challenge, but telling a true story in a compelling and creative way, with very few words, is a unique art. I thought it might be fun to blog about some of my observations, choosing just a few different titles for each post. For consecutive blogs, I’ll talk a bit about different structural considerations of this wonderful genre. Today, I’ll start with focus.

Why is focus so important to nonfiction picture books? Because the author generally has a great big story, often covering a lifetime, to squeeze into a teeny tiny space. Picture book biographies, as Tanya Lee Stone wrote in 2007, “strives to capture that which is least tangible- the essence of an individual’s life.”

I’m sure there are more succinct definitions for the term, but here’s my take on what focus means: As if zooming a lens into the life of an individual, Focus is the marriage of a specific time frame within a subject’s life, and a unique talent of, event of, or global contribution by the subject.

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, by Mordicai Gerstein, Caldecott Medal winner (Roaring Brook, 2003)
775 words – Time Frame – a single day- August 7, 1974
Angle: Rather than chronicling the entire life of famous rope-walker, Philippe Petit, the book begins with it’s focus, a singular event- The day Petit walked a 5/8″ cable stretched between the rooftops of the New York Trade Center Towers.

The Mermaid Queen, by Shana Corey, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham (Scholastic Press, 2009)
1022 words – Time frame- From early childhood in 1903 when “Annette Kellerman loved to make waves.” to presumably early adulthood (no date progression is offered in text, but illustrations fill in the blank.)
Angle: A true snapshot of a large life, the book’s story offers a broad introduction to how Annette Kellerman swam her way out of leg braces, into sports history, and into her role as role-model for women.
(The author’s note offers a much more indepth look into Kellerman’s life, making me appreciate the difficulty of narrowing this story with such artful treatment.)

Sandy’s Circus, by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Boris Kulikov
952 words (Viking, 2008) Time frame- early childhood through perhaps mid career.
Angle- Rather than a broad introduction to the career of well known artist/sculptor, Alexander Calder, inventor of the mobile, the book focuses on his invention of and performance of the famous tiny circus, created entirely from every day objects like wire, cork, buttons, cloth, etc.

The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors, by Chris Barton (Charlesbridge, 2009) 2010 Sibert Honor book
2084 words – Time Frame – early childhood (first brother born in 1914) through approx. 1940’s.
Angle: Though the book offers generous insight into the individual talents and interests of brothers, Bob and Joe Switzer, the story zeroes in on the brother’s invention of and popularization of the famously glowing hues known as Day-Glo colors.

What I’ve learned from examining these and other titles is that focus is key. If, like me, you’re writing a nonfiction picture book, it’s important to ask yourself, which part of my subject’s great big story am I going to tell?

Quote for the day: “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” Henry David Thoreau

Chris Barton’s Day-Glo Brothers- What an Event!

photo descriptions- 1.) My son peeks into the black-light viewing box to see the Day-Glo book illustrations literally glow 2.)Donna Bowman Bratton (L), Jenny Ziegler (c), and Carmen Oliver (r) holding signed copies of the book 3.)One angle of the room 4.)Interactive question and answer session with the kids 5.)The happy author signing for a fan-with fluorescent pens of course.

Chris Barton’s much-anticipated book signing for his debut picture book, The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors was-ahem-a glowing success. As you can see in the photos, the turnout was incredible.

The first thing I noticed as I ascended the stairway to Book People’s second floor, was the neon colors splashed everywhere. The edible treats and punch, the kids’ craft table, the black-light viewing box, even Barton’s own tie was an unmistakable Day-Glo color. The countless children in the audience were mesmerized by it all.

Before engaging the audience in a well-planned question and answer activity, he shared the story behind the writing of this book. He was inspired by a 1997 obituary of one of the Switzer brothers, which gave a brief history of their famous invention. The story stuck with him for several years before Barton decided to try his hand at writing a children’s book about the topic. The surviving Switzer family members were apparantly thrilled by the prospect of sharing their loved ones’ story with young readers, so they offered the most valuable of sources for Barton’s research. For further information about his inspiration, refer to Cynthia Leitich Smith’s recent interview as mentioned in my most recent blog post.

There are several reasons to pick up this book: If you’ve ever wondered who invented the fluorescent colors seen on everyday objects like highlighters, traffic cones, and safety vests (not to mention the iconic colors of the 60’s); If you are a writer or teacher interested in dissecting the structure of a successful nonfiction picture book; For the fun retro-style illustrations by Tony Persiani that actually glow under black light; or to be entertained by the true story of a little slice of Americana as told by a delightful author.

Here’s a little peek- “Bob wanted to make his fortune by becoming a doctor, and Joe wanted to make his mark on the world through magic. At first it may seem that neither brother ended up where he wanted to be. But in that darkened basement, the Switzer Brothers began to look at the world in a different light.”

Chris Barton began writing this book eight years ago and, admittedly, learned a great deal in the process. Amid the 23 publisher rejections, he whittled the story down from its original 6200 word count. Writers will understand the painful process of cutting details from a manuscript that is as much a part of you as your children. Charlesbridge Publishing picked up the book in 2004 and the long wait to publication began.

Keep your eye on author Chris Barton ( who has several other books on the way. His next book, Shark vs. Train will be released in 2010.