The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, is a new picture book biography created by two Austinites – author Chris Barton, and illustrator Don Tate. Eight years in the making, this incredible, emotional, and important book about a unique and brave person is finally here and garnering praise.
Published while the United States has its first African-American president, this story of John Roy Lynch, the first African-American speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, lays bare the long and arduous path black Americans have walked to obtain equality. The title’s first three words ‘The Amazing Age’ emphasize how many more freedoms African-Americans had during Reconstruction than for decades afterward. . . . A picture book worth reading about a historical figure worth remembering.–Kirkus Reviews
Barton offers an immersive, engaging, and unflinching portrait of the difficulties of the Reconstruction era, while Tate’s cartoon-like artwork softens moments of cruelty and prejudice without diminishing them.–Publishers Weekly, starred review
We usually share interviews Chris Barton conducts with other authors, but for this book, he turned the tables and asked us to interview him. Our BookKids staff happily accepted. To keep up with all of Chris’s great conversations with authors, and to be eligible to win free books from him – and this month he’s giving away The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch – sign up for his newsletter.
John Roy Lynch, born enslaved, became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives during Reconstruction. And that era began when the Civil War ended 150 years ago next month.
BookPeople: Where did you first hear about John Roy Lynch, and what drew you to his story?
Chris Barton: The first I heard of John Roy was in the PBS documentary Reconstruction: The Second Civil War. It uses his story — including his tantalizingly close brush with freedom when he was a toddler — as one of the lenses through which the changes of the era are shown. When he finally did exit slavery as a teenager, he and his world changed so fast — within ten years, he was a U.S. congressman — and I could not stop thinking about those transformations.
BP: What’s the most memorable story you’ve unearthed about John Roy Lynch? And was there any story or anecdote that you love about him that didn’t make it into this book?
CB: The most memorable — literally — story has to be that one about how he, his mother, and brother were nearly emancipated when John Roy was around two. When he died at age 92. he’d been working on his memoir, and what he knew of his white father’s uncompleted plan to free his family was still very central to John Roy’s narrative of his own life. Because he lived so long, he had many second acts after he left Congress, and there’s a timeline at the back of the book that touches on some of those. But just this morning, I looked at a draft of my text from February 2007, and all the stories I wanted to tell about John Roy Lynch back then are in the resulting book today. Most of my manuscripts change a lot more than that.
BP: What do you think are some of the challenges in teaching modern kids about the period of Reconstruction? What do you hope this story will teach them about that time period?
CB: A major challenge, I think, is that adults in this country don’t know much about Reconstruction, though reading Eric Foner’s A Short History of Reconstruction can remedy that pretty fast. Perhaps a bigger challenge is that many parents and teachers are inclined to share stories of the United States at its best, and Reconstruction is not one of those stories — we made great progress in civil rights, and then we reversed course. How did that happen? Why did that happen?
BP: If you had to pick one thing, what do you hope kids will take away from the story of John Roy Lynch after reading this book?
CB: I hope they’ll come away hungry for more stories, and for even more understanding, of the path that Americans took between the Emancipation Proclamation and Martin Luther King Jr.
BP: You’ve mentioned that this book took you years to bring to fruition. What do you think was the biggest challenge in telling this story the way you wanted to?
CB: A couple of editors who turned down this project wanted a stronger sense of John Roy Lynch as an individual, and the editorial notes that I got from Eerdmans also emphasized the need to “humanize Lynch more and make him more engaging as a person for young readers.”
The difficulty for me was that his memoir gave much more attention to, say, the parliamentary workings of the Mississippi House of Representatives than to his personal feelings and relationships. But with time, and closer rereading of his memoir, and visits to places he had lived and worked, I was able to tease out some observations and details that got closer to him as a character.
For instance, a passage that originally read (in verse!), “For John Roy, true emancipation came/not from the President’s pen/but from the arrival/of 200 blue-clad men on horseback/the summer he turned 16,” ended up this way:
For John Roy, true emancipation came the summer he turned sixteen. It did not come from the President’s pen, or even from the arrival of two hundred blue-clad men on horseback. It came instead when he sold a chicken for a dime to a Yankee soldier and bought himself a boat ride across the river back to Natchez.
BP: It’s unusual for an Austin author and an Austin illustrator to collaborate on a book. Did you know that you wanted to work with Don Tate on this project? And why do you think he was the right person to bring your story to life?
CB: Five years ago, after Eerdmans had already bought this book, I was seated next to the art director at an American Library Association dinner. I made sure she knew by the end of the evening that my friend (and critique partner) Don was an illustrator I hoped she would consider for this book. I don’t know that I could articulate then why he would be a great artistic choice, but his style turned out to be just right both for making John Roy Lynch accessible as a person and for conveying acts of violence and terrorism in a vivid but not overwhelming way.
BP: Picture books are such a unique genre in the way that the visions of author and illustrator enhance and build on each other along the way. Was there anything that surprised you or especially delighted you about Don’s visual interpretation of this story?
CB: It might be the smallest detail in the entire book, but I love the fact that, if you look closely enough, you can see that chicken.
Copies of The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch are available for pre-order via bookpeople.com. The book releases Wednesday, April 1st.