September 25


22 More Barbara Jordan Books, Please by Chris Barton

I feel I should start by apologizing to the thousands of students and their teachers to whom I gave — in person — incorrect information this past spring.

During my school visits, whenever someone would ask what book I was working on at that time, I would generally tell them that my next priority would be making some painful cuts to the timeline in my upcoming picture book biography of Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan.



I hadn’t yet received notes from my editor to that effect. But there’s no way, I said, that there would be room in the book for even the whittled-down version of the timeline that I had submitted.

I was wrong.

In every physical dimension, What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? — which is officially published today, with glorious illustrations by Ekua Holmes — is my biggest picture book ever. It’s taller, wider, and thicker. And while Beach Lane Books’ decision to go with those generous dimensions was not a response to the detailed timeline I’d written — nonfiction authors can dream, though, can’t they? — those dimensions did indeed accommodate that timeline and everything else I’d come up with for the back matter.

What matter? Back matter. You know — the section at the back of nonfiction books that sheds additional light on the story you just read. In various of my previous books, the back matter has included such things as diagrams, photographs, historical notes, and maps.

Here’s what’s in the back of What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?:

  • An author’s note
  • An artist’s note
  • My timeline! (Yes, the whole thing, aided in part by the book designer’s clever use of irregular column widths, which allowed everything to fit into the available space.)
  • Viewing/listening recommendations of a couple of Barbara Jordan’s speeches
  • Recommended reading on topics relating to this book
  • The URL for the page on my website where visitors can find the complete bibliography

Why is all this stuff important? Mainly because it provides additional context that can help readers better understand the story and our telling of it — and because creators of nonfiction books wouldn’t make these books if we didn’t want those readers to understand, understand, and understand some more.

For each nonfiction book of mine, I keep in the back of my mind the hope that at least some readers will be inspired to seek out — beyond those relatively few pages containing the story — more information about the subject I wrote about. I know that ample, well-done back matter will allow them to do just that.

But for What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?, I’ve got an additional hope: that readers of all ages will be inspired to make more books about Barbara Jordan.

That’s a pretty lofty dream, but hear me out: Barbara Jordan’s life and career are fascinating to me. And I frankly find it incredible that — more than 22 years after her death — this picture book created by Ekua Holmes and me is the only literary nonfiction title about her to be published for young readers.

So, for What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? I’ve come up with an exercise that I think could be done with other nonfiction titles packed with back matter. And this exercise is as much a celebration of back matter itself — of the benefits of students and educators alike diving into the material beyond the story’s end — as it is a celebration of this particular title or any other.

The exercise boils down to a simple question: After reading the back matter in this book, what other books are you inspired to wish for, to envision, or to actually start writing yourself?

And here’s what I came up with, based entirely on clues and references that students will find in the back matter after reading the main text of What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan:

22 Other Barbara Jordan Books I’d Like to See — One for Each Year She’s Been Gone

    1. How two words — “Patriot” and “Teacher” — came to be chosen to sum up Barbara Jordan’s life on the front and back of her gravestone
    2. Barbara’s childhood closeness with Grandpa Patten, who is named in the main text, compared to her relationships with her parents and sisters, who are named only in the back matter.
    3. The story of Edith Sampson, and how she inspired Barbara.
    4. A novel in verse about Barbara’s years at Phillis Wheatley High in Houston’s Fifth Ward.
    5. Barbara’s first trip out of Texas (which, by the way, she described at the time as “Wonderful, Enjoyable, Exciting, Adventurous, Adorable, Unforgettable, Rapturous”).
    6. Barbara’s experiences on her college debate team, coached by Thomas Freeman, during the time that Freeman’s previous student Martin Luther King Jr. was leading the Montgomery bus boycott.
    7. Barbara in Boston — her first time living outside Texas and surrounded mostly by white people.
    8. Barbara’s disappointingly boring reality of being a lawyer, and how Barbara’s political life began during that time.
    9. What Barbara received from the Voting Rights Act, and how she gave back.
    10. Barbara’s campaign for the Texas State Senate, after losing her first two races.
    11. A graphic novel about her experiences as the only woman and only African American in the Texas Senate, including the ways that two seemingly small bills sponsored by Barbara made a difference in the lives of Texas workers and their families.
    12. Barbara’s friendship with LBJ.
    13. Barbara’s till-death-us-do-part relationship with Nancy Earl, and how it might have played out differently a generation or two later.
    14. The significance of Barbara’s and Andrew Young’s election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972, seven decades after the last election of an African American to Congress from a former Reconstruction state.
    15. The path to Barbara’s monumentally clarifying Watergate speech on national TV two weeks before Nixon’s resignation.
    16. Barbara’s struggle with multiple sclerosis while in Congress, and her decision to keep her condition secret from her constituents and the public.
    17. The context for and key passages from Barbara’s greatest speeches.
    18. A novel told from the perspective of one of her students during Barbara’s final semester as a teacher.
    19. Barbara’s challenge, as the chair appointed by President Clinton, of finding common ground among the deeply divided members of the Commission on Immigration Reform — and how her work in that role has been misrepresented in 2018.
    20. Now that Ruthe Winegarten and Sharon Kahn’s book Brave Black Women is 21 years old, whose profiles would you add to a new edition? Write a story about one of those women.
    21. A Barbara Jordan alphabet book. (“‘A’ is for Austin,” etc.)

And finally:

22. A story about another key moment or event in Barbara Jordan’s life that you think should have been included in the timeline for What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? — because I know I didn’t get it all.

That’s where you — other writers, and other readers — come in. I want to hear your voices.

Chris Barton is the author of picture books including bestseller Shark Vs. Train, Sibert Honor-winning The Day-Glo Brothers, and Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions, included on 19 state reading lists. His newest books include Dazzle Ships, the Mighty Truck early-reader series, and What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. Chris and his wife, YA/middle-grade novelist Jennifer Ziegler, live in Austin, Texas, where Chris has advocated for greater diversity in children’s literature by cofounding the Modern First Library program with BookPeople. For more information about him, please visit