Sulphur Springs, Texas, native Chris Barton, author of The Day-Glo Brothers and the New York Times bestseller Shark vs. Train, is passionate about inspiring young readers and writers and frequently speaks to students about his work. His recent book, The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, was named to the Texas Library Association’s 2016-17 Bluebonnet Award Master List. A father of four, Barton and his wife, novelist Jennifer Ziegler, reside in Austin.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve written for nearly as long as I’ve been a reader, but the revelation that I wanted to write books for kids came only after my first child—by then a toddler—began asking me over and over to tell him the story
of how I had installed a smoke alarm. When I visit schools, I explain to my audiences that they will never, ever get to read that smoke alarm story I wrote, or any of the similar stories that followed, because those stories were absolutely terrible. But those stories got me started, and I got better.
What were your favorite books as a child? Why were they your favorites?
The books I read the most were probably John D. Fitzgerald’s semi-autobiographical Great Brain novels. He made the small town of Adenville, Utah, at the end of the 1800s so vivid, and I loved how his older brother Tom—the title character—alternated between using his smarts to save the day and to swindle the rest of the kids in town out of their birthday and Christmas presents.
What advice do you give young people who are interested in writing?
I have three pieces of advice for them:
1. Always carry a notepad and pen so that you can capture your ideas whenever they occur to you.
2. Go for long walks or hikes without earphones. Let your mind wander as you take in your surroundings. It’s a great way to come up with new story ideas or to think up solutions to whatever character or plot problems you’re dealing with in your writing.
3. Find or create a writing community, even if it’s just one other person with whom you can share your stories and feedback. It’s a great way to get better as a writer, and there’s nothing more motivating than having another person who can’t wait to read what you’re writing.
What tips would you give parents for encouraging their children to read?
Model it. If you want your kids to read, you yourself should read. Let them see you do it. And have lots of books around for them so that they can choose what they want to read. Don’t worry about them reading something you think is too mature for them—in my experience, kids are great at self-regulating, and if a book isn’t for them for whatever reason, they’ll set it aside and pick up something else.
But also don’t push them away from books you think are too easy for them. They’re reading those for a reason, and just because that reason isn’t clear to you doesn’t mean they aren’t getting anything out of it. I’m a grown man who reads picture books (among other things), and I’m turning out OK so far.
What’s the best part about writing books for elementary-age kids? Middle schoolers?
My favorite moments as an author occur when I’m doing a school visit and I’m standing by the door as the kids file into the library or cafeteria or gym where I’ll be speaking. I stand there so that I can make eye contact with them, so that I can make a connection with individual kids as soon as they walk into the room. And no matter the audience’s age, often there’s a double-take as they see me, keep walking, see my giant face on the presentation screen in front of them, stop, and turn back to me.
“You’re the author!” they’ll tell me....At that moment, I know that “author” has gone in their mind from being some remote, abstract concept to being an actual, real-world thing. And for kids who themselves want to write, at that moment the work I do becomes much more attainable to them. I’m a living, breathing example of something they can strive for and reach, and I love that.
What advice would you give PTOs and PTAs that want to encourage kids to read and write?
It’s terrific to know that PTOs and PTAs are so engaged in something that’s so essential yet so easily taken for granted. I would just add that there’s no better investment of time, money, or effort than supporting school libraries and school librarians. I’m a little biased, but I believe this is truly a golden age for children’s literature....We need to make sure that there’s budget to acquire those books, a welcoming space in which to display them, experts on hand who can emphasize the connections between engaging new works and great books published previously, and time and opportunity for kids to discover and embrace those books.
Do you have any suggestions or tips for PTOs and PTAs that want to host an author visit?
For the booking itself, be prepared to pay a reasonable fee for an experienced, quality speaker. What’s reasonable? Well, compare the cost per student audience member to the cost of a movie ticket, and consider the value of having a person right there in front of students answering their most burning questions about books, writing, reading, stories, ideas. Consider the value of having someone there who can strengthen the connection between those students and every book in their library, each of which was written by a person similar to the one right there before that audience and who serves as an example of figuring out what you love to do and how to make a living at it.
As far as the visits themselves go, I’ve got three pieces of advice:
1. Prepare the kids. The more that students know ahead of time about the author and about her books, the more they’ll anticipate her visit, the more attentive they’ll be during her presentation, and the more substantial their questions for her will be.
2. Allow plenty of time. Trust me—an experienced presenter won’t expect preK students to sit still for a full hour. But the more time the author and students have together—after the kids are seated and before they stand up to leave—the more the author can truly engage with your students without having to rush through the presentation.
3. Have books available for the author to sign. For my visits, this is not a requirement. But I do find that adults who have lots of books in their lives sometimes overlook how special—inspiring, even—it can be to a child to own one particular book signed by a real-life author who they actually met at their actual school.