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Chris Barton writes about Chris Barton's writing ... and other, more fascinating elements of the world of children's book publishing.
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1. Highlights of a week that’s a highlight of my year

The latest issue of my Bartography Express newsletter — focusing on the Texas Library Association conference, recent discussions of diversity in children’s literature, and Elizabeth Bluemle and G. Brian Karas’ new picture book, Tap Tap Boom Boom — went out to subscribers a few days ago.

Here’s an image of the entire newsletter. For the next few weeks, you can click the image to get a fully linked version.

And if you’ll give me a shout in the comments section of this post, you can still get in the running for the giveaway of Elizabeth’s lively, rhyming urban thunderstorm story, of which The Horn Book says, “The emphasis here is not on a child’s fear of storms but on the excitement of the experience.”

20140403 Bartography Express

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2. Interview Across a Breakfast Table: One louder

Today, Jenny asks me:

What’s your favorite movie line?

“These go to eleven.”

What question did Jenny get from me today?

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3. Interview Across a Breakfast Table: For the most party…

Jenny’s latest question for me is a timely one, as it comes the morning after a friend’s birthday celebration and the week before the festivities at the Texas Library Association conference in San Antonio:

What is guaranteed to make any party better?

More so than the setting, food, drink, or even music, it comes down the partygoers themselves. Some revelers love to talk about themselves, and some love to ask questions of others. The greater the percentage of the latter, the more spontaneous and unpredictable and real the conversation will be, and the better the party.

What did I ask Jenny?

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4. Interview Across a Breakfast Table: A real chore

Jenny’s question for me today is:

What is your least favorite household chore, and why?

Unclogging bathroom sinks. It’s not an everyday chore, or even an every week chore, but every so often, it has to be done. (“Not on my account,” he added, rubbing what few short hairs remained on his head.) And the typical options are:

1) Use some clog-busting chemical agent that gives off noxious fumes and does who-knows-what-else,
2) Use baking soda and vinegar, which in my experience is pretty ineffective, or
3) Take apart the drain and physically remove the gunk lining the pipes, which is highly effective but extremely nasty.

If there’s another option that doesn’t involve simply selling the house and moving away, I’d love to hear about it.

Or, actually, I can just research it myself and see that I do indeed have other options. Hmmm. Maybe I’ll need to come up with a new least-favorite chore, which will be fine by me.

What did I ask Jenny today?

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5. Interview Across a Breakfast Table: (Do) Call It a Comeback

Today, Jenny asks me:

What celebrity would you like to see make a comeback?

Well, it would have to be someone in music, because that’s what I pay attention to the most. So, that narrows the field a bit.

And it would need to be someone I’d actually want to hear make new music, not just someone who hasn’t had a hit for a while. That narrows it a bit more.

So, who’s got a terrific recording history but who hasn’t been — for far too long — pushed and prompted and handled and cajoled into working on new music for the public to hear? And who do I think might still be capable of delighting audiences and saying something worth paying attention to?

This guy.

I wish.

What question do I have for Jenny today?

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6. Interview Across a Breakfast Table: The area (singular) of my expertise

On our return from a long weekend, Jenny asks me:

What are you a self-proclaimed expert at?

Well, I hate to brag, but right now you are reading the blog of perhaps the world’s foremost expert on do-it-yourself supercheap microwave popcorn, the ingredients for which include 1/3 of a cup of popcorn, a paper lunch bag, and a microwave. Salt, butter, etc., are optional.

It’s not a foolproof method — quality control of paper sacks can be pretty spotty, and they sometimes lack the necessary structural integrity. As with any form of microwave popcorn there is the risk of a hideously stinky mess if you fail to pay attention and let it burn. And yes, I could cheapen things up even more if I bought my kernels in bulk at Costco instead of getting store-brand sacks one pound at a time.

But still. For quick, cheap, DIY popcorn, I’m your guy.

What question did Jenny get from me?

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7. Announcing my new series: Super Truck!

Bartography Express subscribers were among the first to hear my big news from yesterday. In case you missed it:

I’m so glad to announce my six-book Super Truck! series with HarperCollins. Starting in early 2016, illustrator Troy Cummings (Giddy-Up, Daddy!) and I will be introducing the world to ordinary dump truck Clarence and his revved-up, to-the-rescue alter ego.

Here’s an image of the entire newsletter. For the next few weeks, you can click the image to get a fully linked version. And if you act fast, you can still get in the running for the giveaway of Texas Bluebonnet-winning author Phil Bildner‘s new book, The Soccer Fence.

20140313 Bartography Express

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8. Interview Across a Breakfast Table: What frightens me?

Jenny’s question for me today is one that I could easily answer in a not-so-serious way:

What frightens you?

But my answer is as serious as can be. What frightens me, more than anything, is the amount of poverty amid such wealth in the United States.

More to the point, I’m frightened by our collective failure to recognize — or at least to act on — the fact that poverty is the primary crisis facing America’s efforts to educate its youngest citizens:

The 21st century has sharply increased the proportion of parents who are unemployed, whose jobs do not pay enough to provide basic food, shelter, clothing and health care for their children, and/or whose immigrant status limit their capacity to navigate the education system and restrict them to a shadow economy.

This devastating reality demands a set of education reforms radically different from those on which policy has fixated of late. Without a set of supports that enable all students to acquire basic literacy, problem-solving and communications skills, kindergarten teachers must tailor their instruction to an ever-broader range of academic capacities and behavioral challenges. And too many students will be doomed from a very early age to remedial education and dim prospects of life success. Until we ensure that basic, preventable medical problems do not keep large numbers of students out of class and lack of food does not prevent them from focusing, effective teaching will become further out of reach. So long as we put school nurses, social workers and counselors on the “expendable” list when budgets are tight, teachers will shoulder more non-teaching burdens, and instruction will be impeded. In the absence of systemic, consistent after-school and summer enrichment, a growing number of students will lose much of what they gain during the day and over the school year, wasting taxpayer dollars and future talent.

Not only have we not addressed these realities, we have exacerbated them.

I can’t think of anything scarier than our inability to recognize the facts for what they are, or the consequences of not fixing the situation.

What question did I ask Jenny today?

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9. Interview Across a Breakfast Table: By any (well, one) other name

Jenny’s question for the day:

If you were to change your first name, what would you change it to?


My good buddy Bubba (not his real name) has called me that for years, so I’m already used to answering to it. And I used to have an olive green bowling shirt for the team from High’s Nursery in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, that I found in a New York City vintage shop with that name already embroidered on it.

Given those precedents, how could I pick anything else?

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10. Meet the illustrator for my 2015 book Pioneers & Pirouettes!

The text is done for Pioneers & Pirouettes: The Story of the First American Nutcracker, my 2015 title being published by Millbrook, and now it’s time for the illustrator to do her thing.

But first, how about if I tell you who the illustrator is?

Cathy Gendron
will be providing the images for this true story of how small-town Utah brothers Willam, Harold, and Lew Christensen got into dancing and passed through vaudeville on the way to turning an old Russian ballet into an American holiday tradition.

I’m excited as can be about the talent that Cathy brings to this project. I’d say that I can’t wait to see how she brings the Christensens alive on the page, but the fact is that I do have to wait. And you do, too.

So, in the meantime, here are some of my favorite pieces from Cathy’s portfolio:

Izzy Makes Waffles

Izzy Makes Waffles

Cleaning House

Cleaning House

Night Owl

Night Owl

Waiting for a Kiss

Waiting for a Kiss

River Walk, San Antonio

River Walk, San Antonio

Bayou Boogie

Bayou Boogie

The Whatchamacallit

The Whatchamacallit

Spreading the Love of Food

Spreading the Love of Food

Welcome aboard, Cathy!

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11. Interview Across a Breakfast Table: On the boats and on the planes…

Today, Jenny decided I should answer this one:

What would other people be surprised to find that you enjoy?


And what question did I have for Jenny … TODAY?

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12. Interview Across a Breakfast Table: Postdisposed

Jenny‘s daily question for me is:

What is the best thing you accidentally disposed of?

My older son’s first lost tooth. It’s been the better part of a decade now, but as I recall, he lost the tooth while I was at work, and his mom put the souvenir into a container on the kitchen counter so that I could admire it when I got home.

Well, when I arrived home, nobody else was around. I saw an opportunity to tidy up the kitchen, in the course of which the container went into the dishwasher after its contents went down the drain and into the garbage disposal.

Oddly enough, I think the Tooth Fairy left more money than the going rate that night, even though there was nothing for her to haul off.

And what did I ask Jenny?

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13. A comprehensive list of U.S. college- and university-sponsored or -hosted children’s and young adult literature conferences, festivals, and symposia

(All of them that I could find, anyway.)

In 2011, I was looking for such a list, wondered why I couldn’t find one, and decided to just go ahead and make one myself. Since then, I’ve periodically updated and reposted it, and I plan to continue doing so. If I’ve missed any, or included some that no longer exist, won’t you please let me know?

Children’s Literature Association
Diverging Diversities: Plurality in Children’s & Young Adult Literature Then and Now at University of South Carolina

University of Alabama National Celebration of Latino Children’s Literature

University of Arizona Tucson Festival of Books

Antioch University Los Angeles Children’s Literature Conference
University of Redlands Charlotte S. Huck Children’s Literature Festival

University of Connecticut Connecticut Children’s Book Fair

Kennesaw State University Conference on Literature for Children and Young Adults
The University of Georgia Conference on Children’s Literature

Northern Illinois University Children’s Literature Conference

Northern Kentucky University, Thomas More College, University of Cincinnati, and Xavier University Ohio Kentucky Indiana Children’s Literature Conference

University of Kentucky McConnell Conference

Simmons College Children’s Literature Summer Institute

Frostburg State University Spring Festival of Children’s Literature
Salisbury University Read Green Festival

University of St. Thomas Hubbs Children’s Literature Conference

University of Central Missouri Children’s Literature Festival

The University of Southern Mississippi Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival

Concordia University Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival

New Hampshire
Keene State College Children’s Literature Festival

New Jersey
Rutgers University One-on-One Plus Conference

New York
Stony Brook University – Southampton Southampton Children’s Literature Conference

North Carolina
Appalachian State University Children’s Literature Symposium

Kent State University Virginia Hamilton Conference

Kutztown University Children’s Literature Conference

Sam Houston State University Jan Paris Bookfest: Children’s & YA Conference
Texas A&M University – Commerce Bill Martin Jr Memorial Symposium

Brigham Young University Symposium on Books for Young Readers

The College of William and Mary Joy of Children’s Literature Conference
Longwood University Summer Literacy Institute
Shenandoah University Children’s Literature Conference

Western Washington University Children’s Literature Conference

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14. Interview Across a Breakfast Table: Macaroni, cheese, and…

Today, Jenny picked for me the following Loaded Question:

What was your favorite meal when you were growing up?

Macaroni, cheese and hot dogs. We’re talking homemade cheese sauce, and a package of hot dots cut up, boiled, browned in a skillet, and baked in with the macaroni and cheese.

I’m kind of surprised I don’t make that more often than I do. But then, I feel the same about French toast, which I used to get every Thursday morning.

Who knows what meals our own kids will remember fondly, but not make all that often for their own families?

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15. Interview Across a Breakfast Table: What, Me Lazy?

Today, Jenny asks:

Is there anything you do that would make someone describe you as lazy?



Funny that she should ask me that on a rare, rainy day when my main ambition is to lie about reading (Grasshopper Jungle). And working on taxes. And training the dog. And completing a costume for an upcoming victory — I mean, contest. And…

So, lazy and I don’t get along nearly as well as I sometimes wish we did.

But I am pretty lazy when it comes to shopping. I’m not a browser or much of a hunter or a good waiter-for-bargains. My wants and needs are pretty simple — most things, I don’t mind getting secondhand — but when one arises I’ll figure out what it is I’m looking for and buy it for the best price I can get that day or weekend rather than search or wait for an opportunity to get it or an acceptable substitute for less in the not-so-distant future. I’d usually rather save the time than the money.

All of which is to say that I’ve just paid retail for the last piece of my costume. I’m done, and now I’m in it to win it. Check back around Memorial Day to see how that went.

Meanwhile, what did I ask Jenny today?

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16. Interview Across a Breakfast Table: ROWLF-L

The question Jenny selected for me today is:

Who is your favorite Muppet?

Any Muppet can be my favorite if it gives me a chance to introduce someone to one of my all-time-most-beloved conversational subjects, the Chaos Muppet/Order Muppet theory of human relationships.

When discussing how that theory fits Jenny and me, I explain that I’m Rowlf –

THE MUPPETS"..Ph: John E. Barrett..© 2011 Disney

– an Order Muppet, but a moderate one.

My favorite Muppet, though, is the one that Jenny claims as her spirit Muppet, the lovably chaotic Grover:


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17. Interview Across a Breakfast Table: Tattoo Me

Jenny and I are back in the Interview Across a Breakfast Table business, with a little help from this here board game:


Each day between now and the start of the Texas Library Association conference — a date both arbitrary and not that far off — we’re each going to answer a question selected by the other, choosing from one of four on a randomly picked game card.

Did I explain that right? I think I explained that right. Let’s get going, and you can decide for yourself whether I explained that right.

Here’s the question Jenny picked for me for today:

If you had a tattoo, where would it be and what would it be?

Man, I thought this would be an easy one! “A Woody Woodpecker tattoo on my chest or shoulder,” I was going to say, reasoning that a few folks out there would know exactly what I was referring to: the matching tattoos sported by H.I. McDunnough and the Lost Biker of the Apocalypse in one of my favorite movies, Raising Arizona.


smalls tattoo

Then I went looking for a video clip, only to discover that the tattoo is not of Woody Woodpecker after all. It is, in fact, the logo for muffler maker Thrush. Or maybe it’s the logo for Clay Smith Cams. Or both. There’s a lot more backstory and debate about that tattoo than I would have expected.

But whatever it’s called, that’s what I would get. And I would agree with the name used by anyone who recognized it, though I would suspect that anyone who didn’t call it a Woody Woodpecker tattoo had too much time on his hands.

And just what question did Jenny get?

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18. What the cover of Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! will look like

Or might. Sort of.

It’s not final, and the dimensions have changed from an 8″ x 8″ square to a 7″ x 9″ horizontal rectangle, but here’s an idea of what the cover of my upcoming book with Joey Spiotto will look like:

ABC preview cover

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19. Picture book biographies coming in 2015

Inspired by Greg Leitich Smith’s annual list of books from our Austin writing community, I thought I’d start compiling the picture book biographies scheduled for publication in 2015 (including a pair of mine).

I know there are lots more picture book biographies on their way from publishers recognized by SCBWI, so if you’re interested in helping keep this list reasonably complete and up to date, please let me know in the comments which ones ought to be added.

The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Eerdmans), written by Chris Barton and illustrated by Don Tate

Emmanuel’s Dream (Schwartz & Wade), written by Laurie Ann Thompson and illustrated by Sean Qualls

Pioneers & Pirouettes: The Story of the First American Nutcracker

(Millbrook), written by Chris Barton

Slave Poet of Chapel Hill (tentative title; Peachtree), written and illustrated by Don Tate

Step Right Up: The Story of Beautiful Jim Key (Lee & Low), written by Donna Bowman Bratton and illustrated by Daniel Minter

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20. February edition of Bartography Express: Nikki Loftin giveaway, more JO3BOT art

Earlier this month, I wrote a guest post about author newsletters at Cynthia Leitch Smith’s Cynsations blog — the mechanics of how I do mine, the benefits to me as an author, and what I think the subscribers of Bartography Express get out of it.

Here’s a look at the latest edition of Bartography Express. It’s a static image, so the links won’t work, but you can subscribe through the big yellow box on my home page or this direct link.

(And if it helps seal the deal, here’s a preview of the books I’ll be giving away to Bartography Express subscribers over the next few months.)

cb-20140216-February 2014 Bartography Express cropped

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21. “Do you get to pick your illustrators? Do you ever meet them in person?”

On Facebook recently, a high school friend now teaching school in Japan passed along some questions from his second-graders:

  • Do you get to pick your illustrators?
  • Do you ever meet them in person?
  • Is a book written before the illustrator ever gets picked?
  • Here’s how I answered:

    My experiences have differed from book to book. Sometimes, I’m just flat-out told who the illustrator will be, sometimes I’m asked what I think of a candidate (or two) that the publisher has in mind, and sometimes I’m asked for suggestions. Generally, the text is “finished” before the illustrator gets to work, though there’s always room for adjusting the text if that will make for a better marriage with the art. Shark Vs. Train, though, involved LOTS of collaboration between illustrator Tom Lichtenheld and me. Some illustrators, I’ve known for years before they start working on my books, and some I still haven’t met in person even years after the book is published. Tell your second graders that they’re asking great questions!

    Their questions are also timely ones, as each of the illustrators that I’m currently — or about to be — working with has arrived at our collaboration by way of a unique path. Some were suggested by the publisher, some were suggested to the publisher by me, some were settled on by the publisher before I ever knew who they were considering, and one I passed my manuscript along to before any editors or even agents knew we were up to anything.

    A couple of them had sat my kitchen table before the topic of pairing up ever arose. A couple are brand-new to illustrating picture books. A couple are experienced picture book illustrators who so far are strangers to me.

    In each case, I try to strike a balance between a) making myself as available to them as they want me to be, and b) staying the heck out of their way. Making oneself available may come a lot more easily than lying low, but I believe both are important for authors of picture books who want illustrators to happily do great work that puts their own stamp on a project and makes a book into something more than the author alone ever could have envisioned. We have to trust them.

    I wish I could share with you the latest happymaking visual evidence suggesting that my approach seems to be working. You’ll have to trust me.

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    22. Bad reviews in good fun

    Author Marc Tyler Nobleman (Boys of Steel, Bill the Boy Wonder) asked a bunch of children’s and YA authors if they’d be willing to video themselves reading bad reviews of their own books. (“It’s simply a self-deprecating nod to a universal author experience that is already public anyway,” he reasoned, reasonably.) Several authors, including Jenny and me, said yes.

    Then, lots more said, “Wait — me, too!”

    Marc compiled the authors’ contributions into six videos, offering the disclaimer, “We lurve kids, of course, but this is for teens and adults only.” Here’s the one with me and Jenny:

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    23. “Going for the Gold: Using Award-Winning Books to Make Readers Winners”


    Authors and illustrators of state-award-winning books, I’d like to hear from you.

    At the Texas Library Association conference in San Antonio this April, I’ll be part of a panel entitled “Going for the Gold: Using Award-Winning Books to Make Readers Winners.”

    The ringleader for this panel discussion is Jane H. Claes of the University of Houston – Clear Lake. Fellow panelists Janet Hilbun (University of North Texas) and Roger Leslie (North Shore Senior High School) and I will “explore book awards chosen by children and young adult readers, tell why they are important, and show how they can help build popular collections.”

    I’m included because I’ve been fortunate enough to have The Day-Glo Brothers and Shark Vs. Train both recognized by the young readers in many states.

    I saw for myself in schools in Norman, Oklahoma, last month the effect of having a book included on the master list for the state’s Sequoyah Book Award. It’s easy for authors to mistakenly think that the window for connecting a book with its audience is very short, but even though The Day-Glo Brothers was published nearly five years ago — when some of the kids I spoke to in Norman weren’t even toddling — I’ve never seen groups of students more interested in the book.

    I credit their teachers and librarians for making that preparation a priority, but I believe such preparation wouldn’t have happened at all without the Sequoyah. From my own perspective, I can see how students’ giving more consideration to the books on a list can make for a richer reading and learning experience, regardless of whether the author ever shows up in person. And that makes for a more enjoyable experience for me as an author, as well as more sales of my books.

    But I’m just one author, and that’s just one anecdote. Other authors who have been on state lists, what difference has your books’ inclusion made for you and for the readers you’ve encountered during visits to those states? I’d love to add your perspective to my part of the conversation in San Antonio this April so that we send librarians home more enthusiastic than ever about the Bluebonnet and Lone Star and other state award lists.

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    24. O Trem Contra O Tubarão!

    SVT in Portuguese

    And now you know how to say Shark Vs. Train — or, rather, Train Against Shark — in Portuguese.

    I’d received word a while back that a Brazilian translation of SVT was in the works, but it was still a surprise when copies arrived yesterday, especially when I saw the cover of my book peeking out from a mailing envelope that I knew full well was too small to contain it.

    It turns out that the trim size of the Brazilian edition is considerably smaller than that of the US edition. This difference will add another point for audiences and me to discuss when I display this book alongside the Korean version of Shark Vs. Train and The Day-Glo Brothers during my school visits.


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    25. You never know who you’ll meet in Norman

    Between presentations at an elementary school in Norman, Oklahoma, last month, a woman around my age approached me and introduced herself.

    I blathered a little bit about that morning’s proceedings, how glad I was to be there, etc., and then she said, “You don’t remember me, do you?”

    I didn’t. Not at first, anyway, but my brain started going like sixty trying to figure it out. Was she another children’s author who happened to live in the area? A blogger or other children’s literature enthusiast that I’d crossed paths with online? Someone with the school district that I’d previously been in touch with?

    That last possibility was correct, in a sense. About 30 seconds into our exchange, I realized that this stranger was a former classmate of mine — not just briefly, but for eight entire years in our hometown of Sulphur Springs, Texas. (In my defense, she had spent considerable time hidden inside our school-mascot costume during the last two of those years.)

    We’d been in school together from fifth grade through high school graduation. And graduation had been the last time I’d seen her until, nearly 25 years later, she greeted me in Norman, where her family had moved recently and where she’d begun working as a substitute teacher.

    It was great to see her.

    It was an enjoyable coincidence.

    And it was — by a mile — only the second oddest coincidence during my time in Norman.

    To set the stage for the Grand Champion Oddity, we must go back to a Sunday morning a few weeks prior to Norman, when Jenny noticed a woman a few pews ahead of us in church.

    Specifically, Jenny noticed this woman’s beautiful hair — long, red, and curly but not something that we just walk up and touch, because that’s just not what we do to the hair of people we don’t know. No matter how touchable it looks, Jenny. There was some discussion on this point, but we definitely agreed that this woman had one great head of hair.

    OK, so, Norman. My second morning there, again in between presentations, the mother of a student entered the library while the librarian was elsewhere and I was on my own.

    The student’s mother was dropping off a payment at the last minute (uncharacteristically for her, she swore) for a signed book. She and I began talking while waiting for the return of the librarian and the beginning of my next presentation.

    We chatted about my adopted hometown of Austin, and about a writer friend of hers who had recently moved to my city, and within moments I was on my phone looking at the Facebook profile of this Norman mom’s writer friend in Austin to see if she and I had any friends in common.

    We did, but only one, and her privacy settings kept me from seeing who it was. So I gave the book-payment-dropping-off woman a business card for Jenny and me in case the transplanted-to-Austin writer wanted to get in touch with either of us for networking or general hobnobbing purposes.

    And that was the end of the story, unless my new Norman friend — Julia, I’ll call her, since that’s her name and I’ve grown tired of referring to these various characters without using any proper nouns — actually passed the contact information along to her Austin friend. And that certainly wouldn’t have guaranteed that Julia’s Austin friend would actually get around to contacting Jenny or me.

    (As it happened, the librarian invited Julia to join us for lunch, which was lots of fun. Note to parents: This is not the usual outcome when you’re late dropping off payment to your child’s librarian for a signed copy of a book by a visiting author.)

    But that’s not how the story actually ended at all. And Julia wasn’t the one who mentioned our encounter to her Austin friend.

    Because the Sunday after my return home, when Jenny and I were back at church, I looked across the sanctuary and saw a woman with a familiar face — the same face I had seen in a little-bitty Facebook profile photo on my phone when talking with Julia in Norman a few mornings before.

    It wasn’t just her face that was familiar, though. It was also her hair.

    Yes, the one Austin friend of the student’s mom who happened to drop off a check while I was alone in the library at the elementary school in Norman was the same woman whose long, curly, red hair my wife had admired from afar just a few weeks earlier.

    Admired, but — I must emphasize — not touched, because that’s not what we do.

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