Tuesday, June 30, 2009

From "Huh?" to "Wow!" – and Beyond

"Will they like it?"

Can there be any more basic question for a first-time author as his debut effort finally reaches the marketplace? In my case, at least, yes there is.
And it's this:

"Will they get it?"

Since I began work eight years ago on The Day-Glo Brothers -- the story of how two polar-opposite siblings came together during the Great Depression to create daylight-fluorescent colors -- I've encountered two recurring reactions as reliably paired together as Goofus and Gallant.

From one of my partners at the very first critique group I ever attended: "Love the topic!"

Soon thereafter, from one of the first editors to see the manuscript: "This topic is too rarified."

In an introductory email from an already published author of nonfiction: "It had never even occurred to me that someone invented Day-Glo!"

Discreetly asked by one attendee of an author panel I'd just participated in: "What's Day-Glo?"

My all-time-favorite combination of these reactions came the day after I received Tony Persiani's final sketches. Without planning to, I found myself test-marketing the sketches to two very different audiences.

First was at my dentist's office. When the hygienist wasn't in the exam room, I pulled the sketches from my bag to review them. When she returned, she asked about the pages in my hands. I clarified that I'd done the text but not the art, and then I explained what Day-Glo is and hit the highlights in the story of how Bob and Joe Switzer had invented those colors.

"They sound like nerds," she replied.

Next was at my mechanic's. One moment I was giving him my email address for his mailing list, and the next thing I knew we were discussing the book-marketing plans behind my vanity web address.

For this tangent we'd gone off on, I was lucky enough to have not one but two visual aids: the sketches I'd again taken from my bag, and the daylight-fluorescent green service report on the counter between us.

I poked the report and said, "I've written about the guys who invented this color."

My mechanic's response was, "Wow!"

Until a month or two ago, I honestly had no idea which reaction would win out. Would audiences scratch their heads over why anyone would choose to write, let alone publish an entire book, about such a random topic?

Or would they share in my delight that this off-the-beaten-path story -- which struck me long ago as having the potential to be one cool-looking picture book -- had been so vividly executed by Tony and the folks at Charlesbridge? In other words, would they get it?

Early signs are encouraging -- reviews have been full of plays on "bright" and "brilliant" and "enlightening." While I had hoped for that response to the Switzers' tale, I hadn't counted on it. And I certainly hadn't counted on the reactions I've received to my own journey with this story. The obscurity of the topic, rather than being a handicap, is being seen as a virtue, as a sign that turning it into a book involved considerable legwork, much of it uphill.

It did, and it was. But I have to confess, it's also been fun. The research was fun, from interviewing Bob and Joe's spouses and little brother (all now in their 80s or 90s) to laying my hands on the actual, original notes from the Switzers' first experiments.

It was also fun to figure out how to tell this story in a way that takes the science seriously without letting explanations bring the narrative to a halt -- right up through the final, last-minute text change that my editor and I worked out in real time via cell phone and instant message.

And now that I think about it, not knowing how the end result would be received, or even what the end result would be -- well, that was fun, too. It reinforced the fact that I was chasing after this project not because of what others' reactions might be, but because I loved the story, believed in its possibilities, and was enjoying myself mightily.

I guess it must show. When Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast featured Tony and me at the end of June, one commenter noted, "Chris's enthusiasm not just for the subject itself, but for learning about it, is palpable and infectious."

I like that. I get it. And I can't wait to do it again.

Chris Bart
on is the "bright," "brilliant," and "enlightening" author of The Day-Glo Brothers, with "exhuberantly retro" illustrations (so says Publishers Weekly!) by Tony Persiant. New from Charlesbridge.

Download this activity and discussion guide.
Watch this animated explanation of the mechanics of fluorescent light and color.

"[T]hese . . . brothers shine even more brightly than the paints and dyes they created. "
--Kirkus Reviews

"The story is one of quintessentially American ingenuity... "
--Publishers Weekly

"This unique book does an excellent job of describing an innovative process."
--School Library Journal

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

How a Public Law Became a Children's Book

The quickest way to raise a public school teacher's anxiety level is to add something to an overcrowded curriculum. Public Law 108-477 does just that. It requires public schools to provide an educational program on the U.S. Constitution on September 17th, Constitution Day. In 2005, the year the law went into effect, the teachers at my elementary school wondered how they would find the time to present a meaningful Constitution Day lesson on short notice. Enter the specialist team, consisting of the librarian (me), the art teacher, and music teacher. We decided to lighten the classroom teachers' loads by taking responsibility for Constitution Day. The music teacher and the art teacher promised to plan lessons for grades K-3, and I took on grades 4-6.

From the beginning I was enthusiastic. The students at my school in Northern Virginia are from all over the world. Many of them speak Spanish, Vietnamese, or Urdu at home. They can tell me about the history of Bolivia or the government of Bhutan, but they may not know how many U.S. senators we have from each state. One problem with standardized testing is that it assumes a homogenous society where all kids have the same healthy background knowledge of American culture. But a child who just came to the United States last year may not know how to pronounce the word 'constitution' or know that July 4th is considered America's birthday. Even children who were born in America may have gaps in their knowledge of American government. How many families discuss the Articles of Confederation at the dinner table? How many third graders can explain representation based on population?

American government is taught in elementary school. But it is presented on a particular schedule in prescribed amounts at specific grade levels. And Ancient Greece, Native Americans, map skills, economics, Mali, China, magnets, and simple machines must often be taught in the same quarter. When classroom teachers are held accountable for a long list of "essential knowledge" for standardized tests, it is inevitable that some topics will be "left behind" in the scramble to cover everything required. The dedicated classroom teachers I know work many additional unpaid hours to prepare students. And they are frequently frustrated by an inability to linger over subjects students are excited by or need more time to comprehend. In a test-driven educational environment, a teacher may have to accept that her class is able to spout the parts of the water cycle quicker than the houses of Congress, because she is responsible for the rest of the curriculum.

However, the rules in the library are different. While I am expected to support the curriculum, I also have the freedom to enrich it. When Constitution Day came along, I grabbed the opportunity to teach more than was "required" about the creation of our government. I spent hours researching the topic and crafting lessons that would leave an impression and be fun. The fourth through sixth graders come to me for forty minutes in the afternoons, tired from morning academics and often sweaty from the gym. Library lessons need to be engaging, or I spend the afternoon mentally counting to ten, biting my lip, and using my "teacher stare."

So I printed off copies of the original Constitution from archives.gov on gold parchment paper and encased them in plastic sleeves, allowing the kids to see the giant "We the People" that begins the document and examine the signatures at the end. I created a crossword puzzle, I made the pieces for a game I found on the Internet, and I wrote a play. It wasn't a long play. Only four minutes. That's all the time we have on our in-house television show, a program that I, like many school librarians, am in charge of. When I passed out the script to my fourth graders, I had the power to promise a live captive audience. The chance to be on television made my classes stand up straight and speak loudly with expression. I chose thirteen students to represent the thirteen original colonies in a play that briefly covered the weakness of the Articles of Confederation and how a new form of government was created at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. We held rehearsals and made costumes of poster board cut-outs in the geographic shapes of the colonies. And on Constitution Day, September 17, 2005, thirteen fourth graders proudly performed live via in-house television for our school. It was a moment of triumph for me and for them. But then it was over, and I was left with this four-minute skit. Was there a way to share it with other students? Could I expand the text and publish it as a play or a picture book? I brought the script to my writing group and we discussed it. There's not much of a market for plays. However, someone suggested that I try a graphic format. Why not? I am a writer who loves a challenge. So I laboriously expanded my skit into a document with text boxes and speech bubbles. This is no easy process because those little buggers migrate all over the page. But I learned how to manage them and ultimately produced a manuscript I sold to the wonderful Emily Mitchell at Charlesbridge. Under her direction, I further expanded the book with historical notes and a bibliography. Then off it went to the illustrator, Jef Czekaj, who somehow knew that it should be illustrated as a play. When Emily told me that he had devised the illustrations in the conceit of a school play, I was too flabbergasted to reply. Did Jef have a sixth sense about the performance at my school? I haven't had the courage to ask. But the result is Unite or Die: How Thirteen States Became a Nation, featuring thirteen exuberant young actors dressed as the original thirteen colonies, dramatizing the conflicts and compromises of the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

Watch a video trailer of Unite or Die.

Have fun with this Readers' Theater Guide and share Unite or Die with your students.

Visit Jacqueline Jules online.

Posted by Jacqueline Jules, author of Unite or Die: How Thirteen States Became a Nation.