The “sneaky, stripy” camouflaged ships of World War I, painted with unconventional patterns so as to confuse the enemy, may be the subject at hand in Chris Barton’s new picture book, Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion, but it’s really about so much more. It’s also a book about information overload, changing technology, war strategy, art and creativity, morale during times of war, and improbable, “seemingly bonkers” ideas. The idea of camouflaging British (and, eventually, American) ships in such a way that confused German submarine officers trying to track them came from the mind of Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve lieutenant-commander Norman Wilkinson. The British government dubbed this “dazzling,” and Barton writes about it with style and precision, accompanied by the expressive, full-bleed illustrations of Victo Ngai.
Though historians are unclear as to how successful these dazzling ships were, the idea itself remains a testament to ingenuity and creative thinking during trying times – or, as Barton writes, “sometimes desperate times call for DAZZLING measures.”
I asked Chris via email about this book and what it was like to see the dramatic and, well, dazzling illustrations of Ngai. (This is, in fact, her debut picture book.)
Jules: Hi, Chris! Thanks for talking with me about this book.
Chris:Sure thing, Jules. Thanks a bunch for the invitation! This will be my first extended conversation about Dazzle Ships with someone not a) directly involved in its creation, or b) married to me, so I'm glad to have the opportunity.
Jules: Can you start off by talking about how you came to write about this subject?
Chris:In December 2014, I was talking with Carol Hinz, editor of my book The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition, about what our next project together should be, and she suggested that I listen to the "Razzle Dazzle" episode of the podcast 99% Invisible. "It brings together art, design, and military history in a really interesting way," Carol said.
I listened to that episode, and she was absolutely right. So while Carol was finishing production on our Nutcracker book, I did a little preliminary research into dazzle ships by reading Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage by Peter Forbes and A Genius for Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars by Nicholas Rankin.
I believed there was indeed a picture book in there, and I shared with Carol what I thought the arc of the story might be. I even had some opening text in mind: "There is a large ship depicted on this page, but you probably can’t even see it, because it is camouflaged. Oh. You can see it?" This was pretty close to what ended up in the finished book. In July 2015, we got the go-ahead from the Lerner acquisitions committee, and my research began in earnest.
Jules: I love your closing Author’s Note for many reasons, but especially because it highlights for child readers what a challenge it can be to manage information overload when writing, or even just reading, about a topic. I think it’s so good for them to hear that from an author.
Chris: Thank you for that. I love research, and in the case of this book, my main research challenge wasn't the volume of information or number of sources. (Compare my Dazzle Ships bibliography to my much longer one for The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch.)
Instead, the big challenge was navigating the potential for tangents and sprawl in my search for a through-line. As I mention in the author's note, I considered including, but ultimately left out of the main text, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and the Titanic.
I would have been happy to do the research necessary for incorporating any of those notables into the story, but for the longest time I didn't know exactly what the story was going to be. It sure didn't help that the British and Americans never agreed on whether dazzle was even effective in World War I, which meant that the plot couldn't simply build toward a conclusion of "And dazzle ships saved the day!"
Jules: Speaking of What This Book Is About, I love the use of the phrase "the seemingly bonkers" at the book's close. That made me laugh out loud (in a good way).
Chris:Well, even if Dazzle Ships wasn't going to be about how dazzle won the war (which it didn't), the book still had reach some conclusion, something that the reader and I could be certain about.
And that turned out to be "But a willingness to tackle problems by trying the unlikely, the improbable, the seemingly bonkers will always be needed." Which is true but also catchy, I thought. I liked the words, and I liked the rhythm of them.
To make them work even better, I then went back to the paragraph where I first introduce Norman Wilkinson and his camouflage idea, and I added "It was unlikely. It was improbable. It may have even seemed bonkers," planting the seeds for the book's ending. That phrase you enjoyed so much comes off sounding like an echo, but in the writing of Dazzle Ships, it actually came first.
Jules: So, what was it like for you to see Victo's illustrations for the first time?
Chris: My reaction to the first cover sketch my editor shared was (and I have the email to prove it): "Oooooh!!!" And I was at least somewhat prepared for what Victo's art in this book might look like, because I had seen samples of her work before she was selected as the illustrator. I knew it was going to be a visually fantastic book.
But even then, when I saw the first color art for Dazzle Ships---it was the two-page spread for "Britain, the United States, and their allies turned things around..."---my response was, "[H]oly moly, is that artwork astounding! I'm looking forward more than ever to seeing the rest."
I feel incredibly fortunate to have gotten my text paired with Victo's art -- that I got to write the words for her debut picture book. And I'm so glad that I did my part before she did hers, because can you imagine trying to write a story knowing it was going to have to live up to that art?
Jules: You see "eye-popping" in review-speak a lot, but this art really is. I can't wait to see what she does next.
Speaking of ... what's next for you?
Chris:What's next for me, workwise, is the back matter for What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?, my picture book biography of Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. That one is being illustrated by Ekua Holmes and will be published by Beach Lane in 2018.
I'm also doing revisions for the I Can Read books in my Mighty Truck series with illustrator Troy Cummings. HarperCollins has those coming out starting out next year.
And amidst all that, I'm researching and interviewing for a nonfiction picture book that will be published in 2019, but it's too soon to say anything more about that.
The very next thing readers will see from me, though, is just a couple of months away. Book or Bell?, which comes out in October from Bloomsbury, is a slapstick picture book satire of uninformed officials meddling in the educational process. Reading that one aloud when I visit schools will give me the chance to say "BRONKITYBRONKITYBRONKITYBRONKITYBRONKITY!" in a very loud voice while showing off the correspondingly ridiculous art by Ashley Spires. I seem to keep hitting the illustrator jackpot.
Jules: You took the words right out of my mouth. As I read that, I was thinking what great illustrators you get paired with. I have a feeling, though, that they feel just as grateful to get your well-crafted texts.
Thanks for chatting with me, Chris. So much to look forward to -- and so much to enjoy now in Dazzle Ships.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
Dazzle Ships. Copyright © 2017 by Chris Barton and Victo Ngai. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Millbrook Press, Minneapolis.