Review of the Day: The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton
The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors
By Chris Barton
Illustrated by Tony Persiani
On shelves July 1st
I think a lot of kids grow up thinking that great discoveries are intentional. People intended to walk on the moon. Edison intended to create a light bulb. Some bloke intended to find a way to can Spam. That’s why there’s a whole genre of non-fiction picture books out there dedicated to accidental discoveries. People like to tell kids that sometimes greatness is a mistake, not planned or earned. But I think there’s a third way of looking at this. What about the people who worked hard their whole lives, experimented and tested and mucked about, and then discovered something new and unexpected? These aren’t necessarily people who tripped over a genius idea and somehow ended up with a pocket full of cash. People like Bob and Joe Switzer discovered Day-Glo colors because they were curious, thoughtful, and willing to experiment. Now author Chris Barton brings us what is pretty much the world’s first biography of the inventors of Day-Glo colors. And what better format to use than the picture book? Works for me.
Bob and Joe had dreams, you know. Big brother Bob wanted to someday become a doctor, while younger sib Joe had a fascination with magic. But Bob’s dream came to an abrupt halt when an accident in a railroad car gave him seizures and double vision. Stuck in a darkened basement, Bob was soon joined by Joe who thought this new thing called fluorescence could help his magic act. They set to experimenting, and over the years these experiments included testing chemicals. They excelled in creating glow-in-the-dark colors, but it wasn’t until a combination of dye and hot alcohol that they discovered the secret of Day-Glo. The result? Their colors helped America win WWII, then went on to bedeck everything from hula-hoops to Andy Warhol paintings. They dreamed big, they found something new, and they helped people out as a result. Not too shabby for two guys from Montana.
When the book you hold in your hands is all about the discovery of a certain kind of color, it’s very important to get the right design feel right from the start. Open this book. First off, the endpapers and the bookflaps play off of one another. At the front you have the orange on top of yellow, across from green. At the back you have yellow on top of green, across from orange. When the story really begins, though, you begin to understand why illustrator Tony Persiani was called in. An artist that exploits a kind of pseudo-retro style under normal circumstances anyway, Persiani’s look at the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s works because he can make a character both historically accurate in terms of the style, and appeasing to our contemporary eyes. Paging through his art, the colored sequences sometimes resemble nothing so much as stills from the Yogi Bear show. All curves and swoops.
Now the book is a series of grays at the beginning. This works nicely, particularly since the grays are shaded in different ways. It would have been awfully easy to just turn these pictures into black lines on white paper. But different shades and tones of gray mean that the story has a depth to it. It also means that Persiani can play around with the images. When we see Bob in his basement healing up, he is surrounded by ghosts of various ketchup bottles. They are the bottles present in the railroad car when the barricade Bob was on collapsed. Color, when it is introduced, is always a light fluorescent in some way. As a result, the book very gradually works in more and more color. In spite of your slow visual acceptance of this, when you actually see your first appearance of Day-Glo it’s shocking. And the second time when Bob and Joe rediscover it? Persiani has the wherewithal to turn that moment into its own undulating, high-octane, visually blinding two-page spread. The world’s first use of Day-Glo in a children’s picture book? Maybe not the first first, but certainly the most memorable.
Because Barton is relying on so many primary sources (old colleagues, family members, spouses, etc.) to get his story, he doesn’t have a long Bibliography to tie up the book at the end. That’s okay though, since in his Author’s Note he credits the people he spoke with as well as four other written sources. Of course, what this really means is that Barton has told a story in a picture book format that has never really ever been told before. I’m always fascinated by non-fiction authors of children’s books that do the research on a story that has been passed over by writers of adult informational texts. It seems strange to think that the story of Day-Glo colors has never been written, aside from the occasional obituary and self-published title. Credit to Barton where credit is due, then.
Between handling materials “detailing their earliest experiments” and reading the patents for daylight fluorescent signaling and display devices, we know that Mr. Barton did his homework. Did illustrator Tony Persiani? Hard to say. There is nothing to indicate whether or not Mr. Persiani modeled the characters of Bob and Joe on existing photographs and the like. I doubt that I would have wondered, except that there were moments of history, illustrated by his hand, that would have been interesting to know more about. For example, we are told that “A printer in Cleveland, Ohio, began using the Switzer boys’ fluorescent ink to make posters for movie theaters.” Accompanying this fact is a poster for something called The Lamps of China. As a fan of old time theater poster art, I would have liked to have known more about this poster, but as it stands it’s hard to say whether or not such a movie ever actually existed. What’s the solution, though? Would I really want an artist go footnoting his pictures in a picture book? Or take up valuable text space with his additional information? I have to be content in the belief that something as broad as a theater title would not have been conjured up for the sake of a book.
I harbor no such questions with Mr. Barton’s text. With its eye-popping colors, it’s sure to be a visual draw for young ‘uns. But will the writing be a draw as well? For some. I mean, when you get right down to it, this is a book about discovering all new COLORS. Who even does that? How do you even begin to try to convey the insanity of such an accomplishment? Creating shades never before seen by the human eye? Mind-blowing. But will a kid find such a story interesting? Some will. But I mean, let’s face it. Not every kid is a fan of non-fiction. For them, the passages outlining Bob and Joe’s New Year’s Day drive in 1936 or experiments with ultraviolet light will not enthrall. But there are some science-minded kids out there, and for them Day-Glo Brothers will make them think, and wonder, and dream.
Maybe part of what I like so much about this book is Barton’s conclusion. Because writing about a discovery is one thing. Writing about people is another. But when Barton notes that originally Bob wanted to be a doctor and originally Joe wanted to be a magician, he ends with a capper to end all cappers. “One brother wanted to save lives. The other brother wanted to dazzle crowds. With Day-Glo, they did both.” This is Chris Barton’s first work of non-fiction. With his extensive research skills and way with words, I hope that it is safe to say that it won’t be his last.
On shelves July 1st.
Fingerprint Note: Yeah, my greasy prints definitely make their mark on the final pitch-black two-page spread of this book. Just a word of warning to the wise.
- Here’s the obituary that started it all.
- It’s Non-Fiction Monday, you happy campers. Trip over your toes to the Books Together Blog for the round-up.
- Watch this animation on how Day-Glo works, as made just for this book.
- Who doesn’t love activity sheets and discussion guides? Download yours here.
- Here too is an interview with Mr. Barton about the book.
- This blog Blue Yonder Ranch does a great look at both this title and Day-Glo in general.
- Even his wife likes it (and she should probably win some kind of an award for her blog banner).
- And fellow non-fiction piction book author Marc Tyler Nobleman ties this book, as well as some others, into a discussion of original research done in a picture book format.
Filed under: Reviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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