Keeping It Real
Chris Barton, History ’93, is an award-winning, bestselling children’s author of Shark Vs. Train, The Day-Glo Brothers and Can I See Your I.D.? He lives in Austin with his wife, Jennifer, and their four children.
Who are your favorite authors?
Aside from the one I’m married to—Jennifer Ziegler, who writes novels for young readers—the authors that come to mind are Texas journalist, novelist, and playwright Larry L. King (start with Warning: Writer at Work and None But a Blockhead: On Being a Writer) and Isabella Wilkerson, whose The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration is a magnificent piece of reporting and storytelling.
What inspired The Day-Glo Brothers and Can I See Your I.D.? Both are based on true stories.
The Day-Glo Brothers: I couldn’t stop thinking about what I learned in Bob Switzer’s obituary: how he and his brother Joe invented daylight fluorescent colors in the 1930s and 1940s. I thought that a picture book actually using the colors they invented would be the ideal format for telling this story about how part of our everyday world came to be.
Can I See Your I.D.? True Stories of False Identities: Connecting the dots between John Howard Griffin (the author of Black Like Me, about his experiences as a white man traveling the segregated South with artificially darkened skin), Solomon Perel (a German Jewish teenager who masqueraded as a Hitler Youth during World War II), and Keron Thomas (a 16-year-old New Yorker who impersonated a subway motorman and drove the A train for three hours in 1993). They had all pretended—for diverse reasons— to be someone they weren’t. Because trying on new identities is an essential part of growing up, I believed that young readers would relate to these stories and others like them.
How do you stay connected to your community?
When I was an undergraduate, the key to not feeling tiny and insignificant on a campus of 50,000 was to find meaningful communities within the place. The Daily Texan was the community that drew me to UT in the first place, but it wasn’t the only one that sustained me: There were my fellow students from Sulphur Springs, and other recipients of the same scholarships, and the guys I met at Jester. I couldn’t walk across campus without running into someone I knew. That’s been the key to retaining a sense of community in Austin…those relationships are crucial to making Austin feel like home, no matter how big the place gets.
What lessons would you like to impart to your young readers?
That the world is an endlessly interesting and frequently amusing place, and that there are authors who respect young readers enough to honestly share with them the things we’re learning for ourselves along the way.
I’m always working on a new book or three. Over the next couple of years, I’ll have new nonfiction books published about video games (Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet), a young man who in ten years went from teenaged field slave to U.S. congressman (The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch), the three ballet-dancing Utah brothers responsible for a certain holiday tradition (Pioneers & Pirouettes: The Story of America’s First Nutcracker), and the inventor of the Super Soaker water gun (Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super Stream of Ideas). Oh, and one about a bird of prey who can’t quite nab the bunny he’s aiming for (Carrot Hawk), because sometimes it’s fun just to make stuff up.