Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep by Chris Barton

Today we continue the Nonfiction Authors Dig Deep series with an essay by author Chris Barton. Thank you, Chris.

There’s a question I ask student audiences immediately after I read aloud my book What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. It’s a question whose answer is so easy that they think it must be a trick.
“What natural gift was Barbara Jordan born with?”
“Her voice?” they reply.
“That’s right,” I say. “But when Barbara Jordan was your age, did she know exactly what to do with that gift?”
They know the answer to this one, too. No, she didn’t.
Chris talking about Barbara Jordan's gifts, Forth Worth, TX
And it’s true. This great woman whose oratorical powers inspired her constituents, brought out the best in her colleagues, and helped end Richard Nixon’s shameful presidency had once possessed a talent as undeveloped as it was promising.
Just like the talents of the students I’m speaking to.
Just like my own.

I can point to the moment I got the idea to write a biography of Houston-born Jordan. It was the moment when I opened an email from fellow Texas author Kathi Appelt suggesting I do so.
But what drew me to the topic—what made Jordan’s story one that I could not turn away from—came a little later.

Like many Texans, I had some idea of the basic outline of Jordan’s career. I knew what they meant when they responded to her name with, “Oh, I miss her” or “Oh, we need her” or “Oh, that voice.”

Only after I started my research did I realize what, in retrospect, seems obvious: Barbara Jordan’s voice was not always THE VOICE OF BARBARA JORDAN.

It was something that grew. Something that developed over time. Something that took shape because of efforts and choices she made, and because she heeded an inner voice that eventually took her from the halls of Congress to the front of a classroom.
It was that growth—that journey of the attribute for which she is best known—that pulled me in. I related to that.
You see, I loved writing when I was a kid. It came naturally to me. But as I ask those same student audiences today, when I was their age, did I know exactly what to do with that ability?
Chris as a second grader and the book he wrote that year
Again, they know the answer. And its answer would be every bit as true for me well into my 20s when I heard my own inner voice telling me to try writing books for children.

Just as Jordan grew the natural gift of her speaking voice through practice, through education, and through putting it to public use, there are things that I’ve since learned are essential to my development as a writer.

Chris with with Jordan's college debate
coach, Dr. Thomas F. Freeman
Research. I couldn’t write any of my nonfiction books with only the information that’s already in my head.
Rewriting. Again and again and again. I figure I revise each picture book of mine, in ways large and small, on at least 100 different days.
Collaboration. I never make a book all by myself. Besides illustrators such as Ekua Holmes, there are critique partners, editors, art directors, copy editors, and so many others.

Chris with some of his critique partners: Jennifer Ziegler,
Cynthia Levinson, Donna Janell Bowman, and Don Tate

Emphasizing all of this to my young audience sets up the question I most want those students to consider: What are their natural gifts, and what can they do to grow them?

Their individual talents may be as different from mine as mine is from the one that Jordan was blessed with. But the specifics of our gifts are not the point.
I want my audience to see in my personal example the same elements that I found so powerful—so compelling—in Jordan’s story.
I want them to see that we all have gifts, but often, we have no idea where those abilities might lead us until we begin to actively, deliberately put them to work. And I want them to see that, unless we pay attention to our own inner voices, we may not be able to fully realize—or even recognize—our own potential.

Barbara Jordan’s gifts took her into the hearts of admirers across America. Mine brought me to my spot right in front of these students. Where will their gifts take them?

Photo by Sam Bond
Chris Barton is the author of bestseller Shark Vs. Train, Sibert Honor-winning The Day-Glo Brothers, and Whoosh!, included on 19 state reading lists. His newest books include Dazzle Ships, the Mighty Truck early-reader series, and What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?. He visits schools by the score and loves speaking to professional gatherings of librarians, educators, and fellow writers. Visit him at


  1. How I love the eloquence and passion in this post, Chris. All kid sneed to here this talk. Bless you.

  2. I so appreciate that, Kathy. Melissa deserves credit for pushing me to dig deeper than I had on my first try. (That's right -- revision goes for blog posts, too!)