Community & Service 23 Dec 2020

Bryn Barnard's path to becoming a writer

By CIS Communications
Photograph by CIS Communications

Did you know that Mr Bryn Barnard, our secondary Visual Arts teacher at Lakeside, is an accomplished author and illustrator? We chat with him to find out more.

Tell us about your writing. How long have you been a published author? 
I'd been an illustrator for other authors for 15 years when I started writing my first book, “Dangerous Planet: Natural Disasters That Changed History” in 2000. It was published in 2002. I didn't seek to become a writer. I followed my passion in art, which led to writing. 

When I graduated from UC Berkeley, where I majored in studio art and anthropology, I had no idea if I could make a living with either. So I applied to a PhD programme in anthropology at the University of Washington, a Masters programme in graphic design at Pratt Institute, and a second bachelor’s at an art school known for illustration, Art Center College of Design—thinking that whichever school accepted me would decide my future. 

I got into all three. After some pondering and soul searching I decided that illustration would make me happiest and was the most practical course, so I studied at the Art Center for two years. I left once I had a professional portfolio that would get me work. Instead of going immediately into illustration, I accepted a two-year fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs (ICWA) where I did field research and wrote monthly reports on visual communication in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. 

ICWA was where I really learned to write. I then embarked on a freelance illustration career, doing mostly oil paintings for science fiction book covers, NASA, National Geographic, Scientific American, and children's non-fiction books. One of my best clients was Random House. It was my art director there, Isabel Warren Lynch, who asked me if I would like to write and illustrate a children's book of my own on natural disasters. I agreed and the result was my first 48-page non-fiction illustrated book. I’m now on my fifth book.

Tell us a little about "Outbreak". 
Outbreak: Plagues That Changed History” was my second book, which was published in 2006. It’s a social history of public health through the lens of infectious disease. I look at 6 historical pandemics: bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, yellow fever, influenza, and tuberculosis, and their impact on particular aspects of human social organisation. 

The European Black Death of 1347-51, for example, smashed the feudal system and was instrumental in the development of wage labor and capitalism. The 6 global cholera pandemics of the 19th century were an important spur to the development of modern public health and the welfare state.

What inspired you to write "Outbreak" as a book for young readers? 
I grew up in the US when confidence in international public health was at its height. Smallpox had just been vanquished. The US surgeon general proclaimed that the era of infectious disease was over (clearly he was a bit premature). When I was a middle school student, I read Barbara Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror: The Tumultuous 14th Century" with its astonishing chapter on the Black Death that killed a third of Europe's population. 

I couldn't imagine such large numbers of people dying every day in a city the size of Paris or London so I began reading other books on the subject. When I was given the opportunity to begin writing and illustrating my own books, Outbreak was my first choice. But since I had a portfolio full of disaster paintings from my work for National Geographic, my editor, Michelle Frey, thought we should start with natural disasters. If that sold well, I could do a book on plagues. Outbreak is, to date, my most popular book.

How did you evolve as a writer as the world becomes more and more digitised? 
For “Dangerous Planet”, I did mostly in-library research. For Outbreak and subsequent books, my research was a combination of actual books and online research. All my books are now available as ebooks. I also worked with my publisher Random House to create an audiobook of “Outbreak” after I got the idea from one of my CIS colleagues.

How do you approach the writing process? Do you have a set routine or does it vary? 
I start with a book proposal (I usually propose 10 different topics) and when that is accepted, I write a chapter outline, then do lots of reading and note-taking. I typically read 30-50 books for each book that I write. I used to rise at 3am and write until 6, take my morning run, have breakfast, then write for a few more hours before switching to painting illustrations. 

Now that I teach at CIS and most of my time is taken up with teaching, meetings, and marking, I write on the bus and MRT to and from school. I wrote the entire manuscript for my upcoming book: “This Changes Everything: The Promise and Problem of Inventions” on the 180 bus. It's amazing how much you can accomplish in half-hour segments, day after day.

Bryn certainly has had an amazing journey so far! If you want to know more about him, you can visit his website at You can now order Bryn’s book for young readers "Outbreak: Plagues That Changed History" on the Penguin Random House website or preorder the audiobook on Audible, Google Play Store or iTunes.