Chris: Sometimes a significant piece of the text for a nonfiction book will come to me even before I’ve researched the subject to my satisfaction, and this happened with Dazzle Ships.
On the last morning of 2014, when the book was just something that editor Carol Hinz and I were discussing, I wrote this introduction:
There is a large ship depicted on this page, but you probably can’t even see it because it is camouflaged.That’s pretty close to the opening lines of the finished book:
Oh. You can see it?
Well, then. Let’s talk about what you’re looking at.
One of the ships on this page is painted in sneaky, stripy camouflage.But the ease with which those opening lines came to me was nowhere to be found when I tried to figure out what should come next.
You probably can’t even see it.
Oh. You can see it?
I mean, the very next activity was research -- lots of it, all of which would determine what came next in the text. But the more I researched, the more I realized how unlike my previous nonfiction books Dazzle Ships would be.
Those previous books focused on the lives of one or two or three people -- Bob and Joe Switzer, John Roy Lynch, the Christensen brothers, Lonnie Johnson -- and the stories I told followed their lives pretty linearly.
But the story of dazzle camouflage didn’t seem linear at all. There were multiple people with roles in bringing it about, and they each had backstories, and there were tangents galore involving such famous names as Picasso and Roosevelt and Titanic.
And topping it all off was the inconclusive nature of the dazzle camouflage experiment. The Americans said after World War I that, you bet, this stuff worked great at keeping ships from getting sunk by U-boats, while the British were much more hesitant to declare whether dazzle was effective. That discrepancy doesn’t easily lend itself to a climactic conclusion that’s both dramatic and honest. I tried to address both the bevy of tangents and the lack of a tidy outcome with a meta approach where my process of creating this book became part of the story itself. I’ve got several drafts saved under the title How to Write a Book About Dazzle Ships. Here's a taste:
And a Royal Navy commander named Norman Wilkinson had another idea to try. His idea was to camouflage the boats. His idea was called --Eventually my editor took matters into her own hands, cut out the self-indulgent elements in what I’d written, and reordered the rest. And that gave me a fresh perspective on this story -- enough that I could see that its heart lay in the attempt to solve a life-and-death problem by trying (among other things) something “seemingly bonkers,” rather than in any measurable effectiveness of that bonkers solution.
Wait a minute.
Was Wilkinson the first person to suggest camouflage for ships during World War I? No, he wasn't. To find out what made his idea different, I had to read about those other suggestions and the people who made them.
Chris: For picture book illustration, I’d say that Heart Art is any illustration that serves and advances the story that it’s telling -- be it beautifully, dramatically, humorously, what have you -- while also inviting the reader to linger over the art for its own sake and ponder how the artist landed upon the decisions that make up that particular image.
Chris: Funny to me, anyway, is the story of the other two nonfiction books I submitted proposals for to the same editor at the same time.
Dazzle Ships was an idea that Carol had brought to me, but the other two book ideas I had come up with on my own.
Lo and behold, it turned out that Carol preferred the book she suggested over the ones I suggested. (Go figure.) But the upside of that is that Dazzle Ships was a finished book, from beginning to end, in less than three years -- easily the fastest path for any of my nonfiction picture books, even with the difficulty I had zeroing in on how to tell the story.
Chris: This project began when Carol heard the “Razzle Dazzle” episode of the design podcast 99% Invisible.
This was about a year before the publication of the first book of mine that she edited, The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition. We were already looking ahead to doing another book together -- we just didn’t know what the subject would be.
Neither of us had heard of dazzle camouflage, but she was intrigued and very soon I was, too! I knew it could be a interesting-looking book, which -- thanks to Victo Ngai’s art -- turned out to be a complete understatement.
Chris: I love the freedom that I’ve enjoyed to bounce back and forth, from one book to the next, between seriously researched nonfiction and completely ridiculous fiction. I wouldn't have nearly as much fun as an author if I had to choose one or the other.
Chris: If they read our bios on the cover flap, and dig a little further, they’ll notice how different my background is from Victo’s. We’re from different generations and opposite sides of the world. I grew up in a 14,000-person Texas town and have lived in this state almost my entire life, whereas she’s gone from Hong Kong (6 million in population while she was growing up) to the Rhode Island School of Design to New York to Los Angeles.
Victo and I have never met or even spoken on the phone. But as with the efforts that went into getting dazzle camouflage onto the sides of thousands of ships during World War I, collaborations and creative undertakings can emerge from and flourish under all sorts of conditions, as long as there’s trust and goodwill and openmindedness at hand.
Chris: Carol Hinz and I have been working on the text for our next nonfiction project together, All of a Sudden and Forever, about recovery from and memorialization of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Millbrook will publish that one in late 2019, and it will be the picture book debut of illustrator Nicole Xu.
And I’m putting the finishing touches on the text for What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?, my picture book biography of Texas Congresswoman and teacher Barbara Jordan. Ekua Holmes is illustrating, and the book should be out from Beach Lane in fall 2018.
I’ve got lots of stories in the works that will, I hope, turn into dream projects. But the dreamiest dream project would probably to be create a novel together with my wife, Jennifer Ziegler. She’s published several novels, and I’ve published zero, so not only would I learn a lot in the process, but I think it would be a lot of fun.
My recent and upcoming titles for young readers include WHOOSH! (included on a dozen state reading lists), DAZZLE SHIPS (an Orbis Pictus Honor book), BOOK OR BELL? and WHAT DO YOU DO WITH A VOICE LIKE THAT? (a picture-book biography of Barbara Jordan). I'm also the author of THE DAY-GLO BROTHERS (winner, Sibert Honor) and SHARK VS. TRAIN (a New York Times bestseller). You can visit me at www.chrisbarton.info. (See Chris's workspace with doggie Ernie below.)
e: Thanks Chris!
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