University of Texas at Austin

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Alumnus Offers “Color” Commentary on Writing for Kids

Chris Barton is a University of Texas alumnus and Austin-based children’s literature author who will be previewing his book The Day-Glo Brothers as part of the University of Texas Libraries’ “Books for Kids” program on March 7.

In addition to writing fiction and nonfiction for young readers, Barton has blogged at Bartography for the past four years.

The Day-Glo Brothers is being published by Charlesbridge Publishing and is set for release this summer.

Barton took some time out of his schedule to provide a peek into his influences, motivations and craft.

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As an alumnus of the University, do you have any fond memories of your time as a student you’d like to share?

Chris Barton: I graduated in 1993 with a B.A. in history, but what brought me to UT was the opportunity to work for The Daily Texan. Seriously – because of the Texan, which I discovered while visiting the campus while a sophomore in high school, UT was the only college I applied to, and I’ve never regretted it. My fondest memories are of the camaraderie I shared with other student writers, not just in the Texan basement, but also in Professor John Trimble’s English 325M expository writing class, and with the writer and fact checker I married 13 days after I graduated.

When did you discover your love for writing?

CB: As early as elementary school, I was writing stories and scripts and comic strips, a lot of times collaborating with one of my friends. All the way through middle school and high school, I’d team up with someone on parodies of this and that – Howard Cosell, superheroes, Dallas. I think my favorite was our mashup of Three’s Company and Sophocles, called Janetigone. And in high school I started writing for the student newspaper, and that really got me going down the path of writing for a living in one fashion or another.

You’ve written for a much different audience in the past. What made you take up youth literature?

CB: Well, I spent most of my 20s knowing I wanted to write something, but not really having a clue what subject interested me, or which audience, or even which medium. So, I was that much more open to inspiration, whenever and however it happened to strike. And it struck in the form of my near-two-year-old asking me over and over to tell him the story of how I had installed a smoke alarm, complete with drill sounds and alarm sounds. I still remember the morning I realized that if I could make him happy with that story, maybe there were others…

What are the differences you’ve come to realize between writing for an adult audience and writing for kids?

CB: I have a nonfiction book on the way for a teenage audience, and the differences there aren’t as stark, but definitely in the case of picture-book nonfiction like The Day-Glo Brothers, you can’t make the same assumptions about what a reader is likely to already know as you can with an adult reader. For an adult audience, in writing about daylight fluorescent colors, I could have just said, “Andy Warhol used them,” but in my book I had to provide at least a little context: “Artist Andy Warhol used them in his famous paintings.” That adds to the word count, of course, which is another big difference where picture books are concerned. It’s as much a visual medium as a textual medium, and big blocks of text don’t work so well visually. It took me a while to figure that out – my early drafts were over 6,000 words long, with lots of tangents, but the final book is much more streamlined, and closer to 2,000 words. And that’s still pretty long by picture-book standards.

How did you come up with the concept for The Day-Glo Brothers, and what about this subject did you feel would appeal to the younger audience?

CB: I had seen Bob Switzer’s obituary in The New York Times in 1997, and the story of how he and his brother had invented daylight fluorescent colors had these unlikely elements – a magic act and a terrible accident involving ketchup bottles – that made it unforgettable. It was another three years before I started writing for children, but when I did, the Switzers’ story stuck with me, and all I could think of was how cool a picture book printed with those colors would look. The day my publisher sent me the first pages printed with Day-Glo ink, I knew I’d been right.

Now that you’ve got the first book pretty much squared away, what plans do you have for the future?

CB: To keep writing. I’ve got another picture book – a completely silly one – coming from Little, Brown next year, and the year after that Dial will publish my young adult nonfiction book about impostors and others who faked their identities. In between revising those and supporting The Day-Glo Brothers, though, I’ve got several nonfiction ideas I want to pursue. I’ve done lots of my previous research at the PCL, and I suspect I’ll be spending quite a bit more time there in the months ahead.
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“Books for Kids,” will feature Chris Barton and area authors Brian Anderson, Jane Peddicord and Liz Scanlon providing readings and presentations of their work as an extension of The University of Texas’ “Explore UT.” For more information and a complete schedule, visit http://www.lib.utexas.edu/books4kids.html.

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