Austinite Chris Barton entered children’s books in a big way when his 2009 debut, The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors, illustrated by Tony Persiani, garnered a prestigious Sibert Honor recognition from the American Library Association. His second book, Shark vs. Train, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld, imagines an increasingly goofy competition between two toys wielded by a couple of boys who stay mostly offstage. The train may win a belching contest hands down, but the shark would wipe up at the pie-eating contest. In a starred review, Kirkus summed up the battle: “It’s hard to choose; both are winners.”
Shark vs.Train depicts the epic—and hilarious—battle between a couple of toys. What inspired you?
The raw material came from my older son’s fascination with, separately, sharks and trains. Lots of shark books, lots of time spent with his wooden train set. But the story itself came out of the blue. I went running one evening with nothing in particular in mind, and by the time I got home, I had this burning question of what would happen if a shark and a train faced off. From the beginning, I knew that the victor would be entirely situational—and that the fun would come from putting them in situations where neither one was comfortable.
Is that how those wacky scenarios developed—quite naturally and inspired by adrenaline?
Some of the scenarios did come in that first rush of adrenaline, and others came from deliberate effort. Tom Lichtenheld and I came up with lots of scenarios that didn’t make it into the book. We had a sense of the sort of scene we needed, and we tried a lot of stuff. I have two favorites. The Extreme Zombie Squirrel Motocross video game scenario—“Sure would help if we had thumbs”—was there from the beginning, and I’m so glad it made it through the whole process. Among the scenes that required more work, my favorite is the trick-or-treating scenario.
It’s really just about the perfect picture-book text—it leaves lots of room for your illustrator to go to town with the visual foolishness. How closely did you work together?
We worked together really closely. Tom was one of just a handful of illustrators that I thought would really get Shark vs. Train. Once my editor had a turn at my revised manuscript, Tom and I pretty much sequestered ourselves—online and over the phone and together in person one Sunday here in Austin—for a few months as we gave the story its shape. The main thing we had to figure out is just how Shark and Train came to be in this battle. We tried a really elaborate setup involving a piece of coal flying off a bridge and hitting Shark on the head, but finally we hit on the much simpler kids-in-a-toy-box device.
I love the fact that you bring both classic imaginative play and video games into the story. It grounds the whole thing in current kid experience.
That’s one of the benefits of having my own sons around, I can see firsthand how video games and Legos and stuff they find in the yard coexist in their world. There’s not the shedding of older influences you might expect—the new influences just get folded into the mix.
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Shark vs. Train
Chris Barton; illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld
Little, Brown / April / 9780316007627 / $16.99 / Ages 3-7