Books

Children's Book Details the Journey of Willie and Bobbie Nelson

While the adult Willie and Bobbie Nelson appear in the book, the narrative is based on their childhood and teen years.
Art by Kyung Eun Han/Courtesy of Penguin
While the adult Willie and Bobbie Nelson appear in the book, the narrative is based on their childhood and teen years.
In an era where facts can be “alternative” and the political divide in the Lone Star State is yawning to an epic gap, there’s at least one thing that almost all Texans can agree upon: Willie Nelson is a state treasure. Hell, the most famous son of Abbott a national and international ambassador of culture and music.

And at the age of 88, he shows no signs of slowing down, staying true to his ethos of being “on the road again” with tour dates while also just releasing The Willie Nelson Family. According to Wikipedia, it’s his 72nd studio album since 1962 and features his sister Bobbie and children Paula, Amy, Lukas and Micah.

In addition to writing thousands of songs, there’s another side to Literary Willie: He’s been both the topic and author of many books, including biographies, autobiographies and pontifications.

But he’s never been the subject of a children’s book until now with the recent publication of Chris Barton’s Sister, Brother, Family: Willie Nelson & Bobbie Nelson—An American Childhood in Music (32 pp., $18.99, Doubleday Books). He co-wrote the book with the Nelsons, and it's illustrated by Kyung Eun Han.


As the title indicates, it’s also the story of the familial and musical collaborations between Willie and his “Sister Bobbie,” who at age 90 still sits on her piano bench at stage right to her younger brother, as she has nearly full-time both live and in the studio since 1973.

This book is not Barton’s first go-round writing about Willie Nelson. That was back in 1989 when he was a 17-year-old senior at Sulphur Springs High School and managing editor of the school newspaper Cat’s Tale. One of the benefits of the position was getting to assign himself to interview musicians playing at the next-door Hopkins County Regional Civic Center. And so, the teen found himself on the Willie Nelson & Family bus eyeball-to-eyeball with a then 55-year-old Nelson just before a show. Not a bad get.

“It was a small town, so it was not hard to access [artists]. There was not a lot of competing media, so it was just me and a reporter from the local paper,” Barton recalls.

He was first exposed to the music of Willie Nelson via his father, who passed when Barton was only eight years old. “He didn’t have a large record collection, but he had Phases & Stages, Red Headed Stranger and the Waylon & Willie albums,” Barton says. “He played those a lot, and my attraction to the music was a way of staying connected to my dad.”


click to enlarge Chris Barton - PHOTO BY HEATHER GALLAGHER
Chris Barton
Photo by Heather Gallagher
Sister, Brother, Family begins with the Nelsons’ hardscrabble Depression-era upbringing in Abbott, Texas, where they were raised by loving grandparents “Mama” and “Daddy” Nelson.

They both encouraged Willie and Bobbie’s interest in music, which the children were exposed to via neighbors, church and their own home singing on tunes like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “The Great Speckled Bird.”

Eventually, they got Bobbie an old upright piano from the general store and Willie a guitar from a Sears catalog. And when Daddy Nelson died when Willie was six and Bobbie eight, it was music that helped them get through the loss.

The siblings started playing in in church and at school, then as teens joined a band and began gigging in dance halls—which didn’t sit well initially with the very religious Mama.

But when Willie brought home $8 earned from one night—the equivalent of what he made in a week working in the fields—even she changed her mind. The book begins and ends with the current Willie and Bobbie looking back on this period in their lives. Barton says he first got the idea to write a children’s book about Willie Nelson all the way back in 2009, and even started a first draft.

“He’s such a distinctive and widely-beloved person in this country, but also a tremendous creator of music. And there was not then or since been a whole lot written for kids about country musicians,” he says. “There’s been books about jazz musicians and more now about rock musicians, but not really country, despite its commercial success.”

He made pitches for the project over the years, to no success. But then came last year’s adult memoir Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band written by the Nelsons with David Ritz. The idea was floated in the overall project plan that there should also be a children’s version. Barton was handpicked to adapt it for a picture book audience, focusing on their childhood.

The Austin-based author has certainly had a varied career in terms of subject matter. His books—done with different illustrators—have ranged from the action-packed fantastical (Shark vs. Train with Tom Lichtenheld, Fire Truck vs. Dragon with Shanda McCloskey) to introducing young readers to offbeat real-life inventors. His 2009 debut The Day-Glo Brothers with Tony Persiani and later Whoosh! with Don Tate were about the creators of Day-Glo paint and the Super Soaker water guns respectively.
More recently, though, he’s been getting attention and garnering praise and awards for non-fiction books addressing difficult or deep topics for younger readers like the Oklahoma City Bombing (All of a Sudden and Forever, with Nicole Xu) and Civil Rights (the upcoming Moving Forward about activist Alton Yates, with Steffi Walthall).

And, of Houston interest, there’s his biography of groundbreaking Fifth Ward native, Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, whose stentorian tones inspired the book’s title What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? It was illustrated by Ekua Holmes and selected as the 2019 Texas Great Read by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

Barton is married to young adult (YA) book author Jennifer Ziegler, who has penned novels including a popular series featuring The Brewster Triplets. The pair also host the ongoing YouTube video author interview series “This One’s Dedicated To…”

Over the past decade, there’s been a considerable increase in children’s and YA books written about real people of note and their life stories. But with a new twist, as Barton explains. “The difference now is that the subject matter has gotten a lot broader,” he says.

“When I was a kid, I would devour these Childhood of Famous Americans books that had a whole lot of fiction and invented dialogue and whitewashing in them. Mainly about the Founding Fathers, a few Founding Mothers, and a handful of well-known Native Americans and African-Americans. They were who an older generation felt people that you needed to know about.”
click to enlarge Author Chris Barton meets Willie and Bobbie Nelson (and assorted Family bandmembers) backstage at the Smart Financial Centre in 2019. - PHOTOS BY JENNIFER ZIEGLER
Author Chris Barton meets Willie and Bobbie Nelson (and assorted Family bandmembers) backstage at the Smart Financial Centre in 2019.
Photos by Jennifer Ziegler
Now he says, there are far more diverse subjects, including those who aren’t necessarily “famous.” He points to his own The Day-Glo Brothers as an example. “They weren’t your Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin, or Thomas Edison subjects.”

Barton says he’s not heard directly from the Nelsons or anyone from their camp since the book was published earlier this month, though he and Ziegler did get to see them both briefly backstage at a 2019 show at the Smart Financial Centre in Sugar Land. Willie Nelson did discuss the book on a recent Today Show appearance.

Currently, Barton is also focusing on promotion for another new release with illustrator Sarah Horne, How to Make A Book (About My Dog).

“It’s a non-fiction picture book about how non-fiction picture books are made,” Barton laughs. “It’s very meta. Now, I can say that I’ve done one book about a very famous Texas redhead, and another one about a slightly less-famous red headed dog!”

For more information on Chris Barton and his books, visit ChrisBarton.info.