Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Guest Post: Chris Barton on Writing & Cross-Generational Interests

Via Public Domain Pictures
By Chris Barton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

There’s never an answer I that I find quick, simple, and faithful to the full truth when someone asks what inspired one of my books.

Take Shark Vs. Train (Little Brown, 2010), for instance.

Yes, I’m sure the seed was planted by my now 15-year-old son’s love of sharks and trains. But...

He loved reading books about sharks. He loved playing with wooden trains. Putting the two things together, however, just wasn’t his style of play. As a small child, he had a much more literal view of the world. Sharks were fascinating ocean creatures. Trains rolled on wooden tracks that he could build with all day long. There was no crossover.

My style of play as a kid, however, would have been to mash those two concepts together. And I guess that still is my style of play, because that’s how it worked with Shark Vs. Train.

The idea grew out of my paying attention to my kid, to what he loved, but the book that resulted was much closer to my imaginative comfort zone than to his literal one. I wrote it for me, not for him.

(See? It took me nearly 140 words to get close enough to the full truth to suit me.)

As another example, take my new book, Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet (illustrated by Joey Spiotto and published by POW!)

Once again the seed was planted by the interests of that now-15-year-old, along with his now-10-year-old brother. This time around, those interests were video games such as Legend of Zelda, Wizard101, Little Big Planet, and Minecraft.

But in this case, my comfort zone would have resulted in no book at all. Though I had played video games some as a kid, I hadn’t played in many years, aside from the occasional encounter with an old arcade game.

And I was deeply skeptical of my kids’ respective abilities to balance time spent in front of a screen with time spent on their own creative pursuits, on outdoor play, on reading.

I also, however, wanted to understand what the heck they were talking about when they spoke of mods, sandboxes, attacks, bosses, and cheats. And I wanted to demonstrate to them that I took seriously the things that they loved -- or, rather, their love of those things.

I guess I could have done that simply through playing video games with my boys. Instead, I chose to demonstrate my appreciation for their passions through my own work. In other words, I wrote Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! for them, not for me.

Even though those two books resulted from my going down different paths, they both offered a similar choice: Is it for them, or is for me? But then, isn’t the same true for every book for children?

Chris writing with fellow Austin author April Lurie and Greg Leitich Smith
Isn’t there always a decision to be made regarding how much the experience of a book reflects the interests of the adult -- be it an author or illustrator doing the creating, a parent or grandparent doing the buying, a librarian doing the recommending, or a teacher doing the assigning -- and how much the experience of that book stems from consideration of what the child audience will bring to it or is likely to take away from it?

Every book is an opportunity to navigate that territory in the middle, between what we adults want and love and think we know and what those kids want and love and think they know.

Through my experiences with Shark Vs. Train and Attack! Boss! Cheat Code!, I’ve come to appreciate just how much room there is to maneuver through that middle ground.

Yes, I wrote Shark Vs. Train for me -- but that didn’t stop me from trying out scenarios on my boys and trying to crack them up and seeing what they responded to before deciding with illustrator Tom Lichtenheld and our editor which competitions to keep.

Chris with his wife, fellow author Jennifer Ziegler at Texas Book Festival.
And yes, I wrote Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! for my boys -- but I couldn’t have done that without relying on my own research skills and my own judgment about what was important to include or exclude, even when that put me at odds with a 9-year-old who totally thought that “M” should be for Minecraft.

Each book we write, and each book we recommend, is partly about us and partly about them. If we keep that in mind before we put our fingers to the keyboard or pull a title off the shelf, and if we consider how best to strike a balance in that particular case, I think we’re all more likely to be happy with the outcome.

Not every book will fall squarely between our desires and those of our readers. But the more books we share -- truly share -- the more opportunities we’ll have to average out closer to the middle.

And the more we’ll learn to trust each other.

And the better the chances that we’ll each be able to think of a book -- one that we give and that they receive -- as ours.

Cynsational Event

Join Chris and K.A. Holt, author of Rhyme Schemer, at 2 p.m. Nov. 1 at BookPeople in Austin.

Cynsational Notes

Chris Barton is the author of the picture books Shark Vs. Train (Little, Brown, 2010)(a New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestseller) and The Day-Glo Brothers (Charlesbridge, 2009)(winner, American Library Association Sibert Honor), as well as the young adult nonfiction thriller Can I See Your I.D.? True Stories of False Identities (Dial, 2011).

His 2014 publications include picture book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet (powerHouse) and his YA fiction debut as a contributor to the collection One Death, Nine Stories (Candlewick), and 2015 will bring picture book biographies The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Eerdman's) and The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition (Millbrook).

Chris and his wife, children's-YA novelist Jennifer Ziegler (Revenge of the Flower Girls (Scholastic, 2014)), live in Austin, Texas, with their family.

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