Author Chris Barton introduces his new nonfiction picture book Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the introduction of dazzle ships in an Allied effort to throw off the aim of the crews on torpedo-carrying German U-boats.
But if you’re like me, you never even heard of dazzle ships until relatively recently.
Your first exposure to them may have come through my new book Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion, illustrated by Victo Ngai. Or your introduction may be occurring right now as you read this.
How I found out about dazzle ships
Either way, you aren’t far behind me. I never knew a thing about dazzle ships until late 2014, when my Lerner editor, Carol Hinz, suggested I listen to this old episode of the podcast 99% Invisible.
As with other unconventional subjects that I developed a deep interest in (e.g. how daylight fluorescent colors were created, John Roy Lynch’s ten-year rise from slavery to the U.S. Congress, how The Nutcracker became a holiday tradition, the invention of the Super Soaker water gun), after getting my first taste of dazzle ships, I had a couple of reactions:
1. I’d better hurry up and make a nonfiction picture book about this before somebody else does.
2. How did I not know about this already?
Regarding reaction #1, it sure helped this time around to have an editor who was interested in that offbeat subject before I was. (To say that that’s something of an exception in my career would be something of an understatement.) Carol’s enthusiasm for the topic helped this project come together quickly, as nonfiction picture books go.
As for that second reaction of mine, I can think of a few reasons that might explain why dazzle ships eluded my awareness (and maybe yours, too) until recent years.
5 reasons why I had never heard of dazzle ships
1. Nonfiction for young readers is way better than it was when I was growing up.
The range of subjects is much broader, and the approaches to text and art alike are more imaginative and adventurous.
2. Podcasts (or lack thereof)
The rise of podcasts—my main recreational source of information—has allowed for countless niche topics to get thoughtfully, creatively explored and made accessible to anyone with a computer or smartphone. Those inclined to listen have learned a little about a lot in the past decade or so.
3. World War I in general gets less attention in the U.S. than World War II does.
I think this has a lot to do with the complexities of how the war began (all those European alliances in 1914, compared to Hitler invading Poland and the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor).
4. A lot of other things happened in World War I.
In the big bucket of all there is to know about World War I, dazzle camouflage is just one tiny drop. For example, author Robert K. Massie’s masterful Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea dedicates 865 pages to just the naval aspect of World War I and never once mentions dazzle ships.
5. Dazzle camouflage might not have been effective.
Dazzle camouflage may not have even worked. Seriously. Britain and the United States both used dazzle ships but came to different conclusions about their effectiveness.
So why write a picture book about it?
Those last two explanations might seem like strikes against the subject that Victo and I explore in Dazzle Ships, but (no surprise here) that’s not how I see it.
The story we tell and depict—how Britain’s wartime desperation led to Norman Wilkinson’s idea for what one contemporary observer called a “flock of sea-going Easter eggs”—may be just the entree that some young readers need into the broader topic of World War I.
Along the way, those readers will get exposed to information about submarine warfare, torpedo technology, oddball countermeasures (sea lions, anyone?), early use of the word “camouflage,” King George V’s entry into the Royal Navy at age 12, and wartime roles of women a generation before Rosie the Riveter.
And that list doesn’t even include the tangential details relegated to my Author’s Note, any one of which might grab a reader’s attention and interest and drive their own inquiries into what else they don’t know about World War I. There are lots more drops in the bucket where Dazzle Ships came from.
As for the inconclusiveness about whether dazzle actually got the job done, I play it straight with our readers:
So just how well did dazzle work? Nobody really knows. . . . While the United States said right after the war that dazzle kept lots of ships from getting sunk, Britain wasn’t so sure. The Royal Navy couldn’t prove that dazzle had actually spared any ships.
I’ll be just as direct when I discuss Dazzle Ships in front of classrooms and libraries and auditoriums full of students. As far as I’m concerned, the effectiveness—or lack thereof—of dazzle camouflage is not the point.
To me, the single most important thing about dazzle is the example it provides of thinking creatively in an effort to find a solution to a vexing situation.
Many of the problems we face in 2017 are vastly different from those of 100 years ago. Others may seem all too similar. But ingenuity is certainly no less in fashion now than it was during Norman Wilkinson’s day. And we’ve never been in greater need of the efforts of problem-solvers.
I hope Dazzle Ships will demonstrate to young readers that there’s no reason they can’t solve those problems in style.
Learn more about the art in Dazzle Ships in this Q&A with illustrator Victo Ngai, and read Julie Danielson’s Q&A with Chris published in Kirkus Reviews here. Plus, listen to Chris introduce the book and read an excerpt on TeachingBooks.net.