Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Day-Glo Brothers: The true story of Bob and Joe Switzer's bright ideas and brand-new colors, by Chris Barton, illustrated by Tony Persiani - revie

The Day-Glo Brothers: The true story of Bob and Joe Switzer's bright ideas and brand-new colors, by Chris Barton, illustrated by Tony Persiani

One of the things I do, as I state in my sidebar over there, is manage the collection for my kids' school library. I buy the books. The school is opening a new school next year, and they've asked me to select all the books for the new school's library. It's a labor of love, believe me. It may sound like fun, spending $30 grand on kid books, but when you think about covering the entire span of human knowledge, for children aged 5 to 14, it's kind of brain-melty. Just when I think I have assembled a nice, even collection, I smack myself on the forehead and go, "I FORGOT ANCIENT CHINA!" or "CRAP! THE CIVIL WAR!"

There's also the problem of picking lots of nonfiction without relying too heavily on series books. Now, lots of fine authors write series books, and I'm not saying that all series suck... but it's a fact that all series should be scrutinized carefully before purchase. Publishers do not always put their best design teams on series books, for one thing. For another, the pictures on the cover may be, er, AWFUL.


Which is why, when possible, I will always snatch up stand-alone juvenile biographies instead of series biographies. I read 94 series biographies this winter for an assignment - and exactly 8 of them made me say, "Oooh!". (I will not count the number that made me go, "Aaack!") For example: there are 176 biographies of Ella Fitzgerald written for children, but I will pick the one by Andrea Davis Pinkney every time - because I believe that Andrea Davis Pinkney sat around and thought about Ella Fitzgerald while she wrote the book, that Brian Pinkney had some Ella playing in the studio while he did the paintings, that they put a little heart and soul into that book.

The Day-Glo Brothers is another of these books. Chris Barton's author's note reminds me of that scene in Working Girl when Melanie Griffith hauls out a Page Six clipping to explain just how she got the idea that the Big Investor might be interested in buying a radio station. Barton read Bob Switzer's 1997 New York Times obituary and realized that the story of Day-Glo paint was one that he wanted to tell.

You get the feeling that he had to explain that in some detail to the publisher when he proposed this, his first book. I would bet that Day-Glo, to most people, is just kind of an annoyance that we've learned to live with because it saves lives, and as long as we avoid Spencer Gifts, we don't have to deal with it much. Just saying: it might not seem like the most captivating subject at first blush.

And there we would be wrong. Not only is this biography chock-full of arresting details: a fluorescent angel food cake, a headless Balinese dancer, a flaming billboard, and a terrible accident involving a railcar full of ketchup, but also... oh come on, do I really have to finish this sentence? With facts like that, who needs skill?

But. If I had a checklist of Things To Look For In Kid Nonfiction (and I kind of do), every box would be checked (except for the "photo" box - I think kids always want an author photo and a subject photo, just to prove it's really nonfiction).

Barton sets the context swiftly, helps us distinguish Bob from Joe with a few easy-to-remember character illustrations, documents the process of discovery, provides lots of examples, and follows through on the applications of their inventions. As befits a mid-century success story, the illustrations are swingy and hep. The color palette is all black and white and grey at the beginning of the book, and as Bob and Joe embark upon their lurid journey, the colors get more and more intense - clever! Back matter and web content expand the science documentation, and Barton shares his own process of discovering the Switzer family story, in the above-mentioned author's note.

Of the things that I want the students at our school to take away from a book, this last may actually be the most important to me.

The Day-Glo Brothers is a real winner. Assignments for Chris Barton: the story of Mike Nesmith's mom, the lady who invented Liquid Paper; and the story of Hedy Lamarr - seriously? the screen siren who invented a torpedo guidance system? I want our new friend Chris to be the one to tell those stories.


Peaceful Reader said...

You are right about non-fiction series books-especially biographies. Too many librarians make the easy quick pick to buy a whole set and they are formula-written, non-emotional books. I'm glad you are taking the time to look at the books and not just random-ordering.

Jeanette Larson said...

Wait, wait, don't give Chris Hedy Lamar. I read about her years ago and want to do that one. 176 biographies of Ella? Wow!

Unknown said...

Well, when you search "Ella Fitzgerald" on Amazon and then narrow by "Children's Books", you come up with 176 results. That probably includes different editions of the same book, and group biographies, and stuff like that. But...

peaceful reader, there are often good reasons for choosing series books. They're often backed up by ancillary material such as quizzes, teacher guides, etc. They are also absolutely built for reports, making them attractive to kids, even if they feel a little uninspired. It really depends on the library, and the usage.

Scope Notes said...

That Ashton Kutcher cover is a complete failure on the part of the publisher - who okayed that? They must have been playing a prank. Thanks for your endorsement of Day Glow Brothers - it sounds great. I'm adding it to my list as we speak. Well not right now, but when I'm done typing.

Unknown said...

Travis - Kutcher cover not fluke:

I think the editorial assistants responsible for getting a photo for the cover HATE celebs!

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Elsewhere I've made no secret what a fan I am of this book, in terms of both subject matter and execution. This review adds more great points to the dialogue about the potential of picture book nonfiction. Great job CB and great job PW (the blogger, not the magazine).