Words and pictures together
My name is Mac Barnett. I'm a writer of books for children, mostly picture books, couple of novels for kids, too.
I think a picture book, to me, is words and pictures working together to tell a story. You can have a wordless picture book, too. In fact, I've always wanted to write a wordless picture book. That sounds like a good job. But I think a picture book is such an exciting form. It's a really peculiar art form where my job is really to finish an unfinished thing.
And I can't draw at all, so my story gets handed off to an illustrator, who then continues to tell the story, to build on it and to make it into something else. It's not really a story when I'm done with it. It's only a story when an illustrator comes in and puts pictures, too.
I think the illustrator and the author in a picture book – it's a 50/50 relationship. It's really – in a good picture book, I think it can be 60, 70 percent illustrations. Sometimes my job is just to create opportunities for an illustrator to look good. I like to set up a joke that's only paid off in the pictures. That tension, that relationship between text and image is what makes the picture book magic, really.
So they have to be interdependent, really heavily so.
The Skunk: an existential story
So yeah, I wrote a book called The Skunk, and every book comes from a different place, but The Skunk came – I've never had a book come from this. Because I do a lot of school visits, and so I was visiting some schools near Philadelphia, and they had kind of like a 1980s laminated poster with writing prompts on the wall.
And I was just reading it in between kids coming in, and one of them said, you know, imagine that you're on space – on another planet in space. And I was like, oh, okay, yeah. And another one was like, imagine that you're three inches tall. And I was like, yeah, okay.
And then the third one, it said, imagine a skunk won't stop following you. I was like, oh, man. Oh, that's pretty good. That's pretty good. And I couldn't stop thinking about that, and it sort of inspired for me this sort of – it felt very existential. I wanted to write, I think, kind of a dark, paranoid thing that also had a lot of Looney Tunes in it.
And it was like Orson Welles and Looney Tunes combined in my mind, and that's where that prompt came from. But then once I was done with the manuscript, I sent it off to the publisher. We talked about who would be a good illustrator. We both agreed Patrick McDonnell would be fantastic.
And I didn't talk to Patrick at all during the process, which is the way it's supposed to go. The author and the illustrator are not supposed to talk to each other, and I had never met Patrick before. We didn't speak. So it was a surprise to me, a pleasant one, when I got his illustrations.
But a lot of the time I'm working with illustrators I know pretty well, so John Klassen or Adam Rex, Christian Robinson – they're all good friends of mine, and we'll talk while we're making the books, sometimes behind the editor's back. Sometimes the editor knows. This is – my editor – my editor, I hope, is not watching this program.
Never behind my editor's back. That has never happened. Never happened.
The Extra Yarn origin story
So some books – there have been a couple times that I've had a book that started with an illustration. I wrote a book called Extra Yarn that's illustrated by Jon Klassen, and I saw a picture that John drew when he was in college. It was a picture of a girl and a dog walking in the snow, and they were wearing matching sweaters.
And I loved it. And I couldn't stop thinking about this picture. I then started thinking about the story behind this picture, and that became the manuscript for Extra Yarn. So I sent it to Jon. Well, first I sent him an email, and I was like, is there any story behind this picture?
And he was like, no, that's just a thing I did in college. And I was like, good. Here's a Word doc. And luckily he liked it, and that was the book. But that was a book that started with an image, an image I couldn't get out of my mind. Sometimes books will start with images that I kind of have in my head, but I can't draw.
But they're images I created. But that book started with an image that Jon created, you know, probably eight or nine years before I actually wrote the story.
Connecting craft to passion
Yeah. I mean, like the scary truth of being a writer is, at least for me, I have no idea where my stories come from. They'll come at strange times, and I'll just be walking my dog or washing the dishes, and I'll have this idea that I can't stop thinking about, and you have – know when it feels alive to you.
I think it's incredibly hard to sit down and come up with an idea for a story. And I used to teach writing. It's really tough, because that's what we ask students to do, just sit down and come up with a piece of writing. And I think I have – what the writers have that really helps is, writers are just good at paying attention.
Both at moments where they're not supposed to be writing and those moments where you're put on the spot. So I'm just constantly paying attention to things that are interesting in the world around me, things that I like about the world and things I don't like in the world. Things I think are beautiful, things I think are hideous.
The things that feel so unfair. You know, oftentimes the problems in the world, things that feel unfair, or books that I don't like, will inspire me to write something in response. And then in the moment, you have to just pay attention to what's alive to you, what kind of idea is there. What do you care about most?
I think that that's all writing is. Writing is a skill that you connect to something else you're interested in, so you can get good at writing sentences, but that doesn't mean anything until you connect it to something you care about. And you can write about absolutely anything that you care about. But writing is really the connection of those two things.
It's the connection of a craft to a passion, I think.
A conversation between writer and reader
When I taught writing, I taught writing at a nonprofit I used to run called 826LA, and it's a writing center. It was in Los Angeles. There are branches across the country. And everything that we did was project-based, and I love project-based learning, project-based teaching. The key was that it would culminate not only in a book or a music magazine full of reviews or a newspaper with a food section, and kids could review candy.
Not only would we have that finished product, but we also always asked kids to read their work out loud. That always changed everything. I think writing, art, books – it's just a conversation. It's a conversation between me, the writer, and an audience.
And that can get strange, because this job is a lonely one. It's sitting alone in a house, or you don't feel like you're talking to anybody when you're there and you have 30 minutes and you're at your desk in a classroom. But everything that we teach, clarity, sensory detail, the rules of grammar, the rules of usage – these are all things to make communication easier.
And they can seem like abstractions, but once you realize that you're going to be up in front of people, that you're actually writing for an audience, that your audience isn't just somebody with a pen who'll be marking the things that are wrong with it but actually that you are trying to create an experience, convey a feeling or convince a person.
And you are on the spot having to do it. That changes everything. It can be easy to get sort of distance from the fact that there's somebody else on the other end of your writing. But I never trust writers who say, like, oh, I just write things for myself. Because there's always somebody on the other end of a good piece of art.
And I think, you know, making projects and encouraging kids to read their work out loud – that hits home. Oh, this is why I should write this way.
Picture books are for all ages
This is like my favorite topic. I think, you know, one thing that's really interesting about picture books is there are so many people involved in the way that they get read and made, the way they were created, really. So, you know, it's written by me, and then an illustrator takes my text and interprets it, and then a teacher, a librarian, a parent, a babysitter will take that text and that illustration and interpret it again.
Choose whether or not to use voices, maybe cut lines, put page turns in different places than we did. And then finally, it's interpreted by the reader. A novel's like very much one-to-one, right? Like it'll just be – that conversation is just between me and the audience. But a picture book is more like play writing. I'm there writing the play at the start, but it'll be interpreted again and again and again.
And I think each time you sort of reach across that interpretive gap, it can create energy, you know. If everybody is contributing in this – to this enterprise, like by the end, something really exciting has happened. Something really collaborative – it's a collaboration between people whom I have never met and I never will meet. And I think that that's really exciting and unique to this form, actually, in the way that it happens.
I think that a good picture book – and picture book flaps always really bug me, though. They'll be be the age range, and they'll be very specific – delineate a lower limit and an upper limit. And I think a good picture book, oftentime – it can have a floor, but it won't have a ceiling, an age above which, you know, this picture book no longer has meaning.
I think a good picture book should not embarrass older kids or adults who are hearing this book or reading it. They can have something for everyone. I wish we treated picture books more like board games that, you know – it'll say four and up. Five and up. Eight and up. You know, we wouldn't look askance at college kids playing a game of Monopoly or Life.
But, you know, I think a – if they say that their favorite work is something by Maurice Sendak or Margaret Wise Brown, it would raise eyebrows, or you'd think they were being cute. Cute, adorable, all the things that we use to sort of, I think, relegate picture books to this realm when a lot of them are none of those things.
Yeah, I think that, to me, the picture book is the most exciting art form because of that, like I've said, that relationship between text and image working together. You don't get that in quite the same way anywhere else. Graphic novels a little bit, comics a little bit, but picture books have their own way of working that are related but different.
And I think parents are so eager, a lot of times, to rush their kids out of picture books and brag that, like, oh, you know, my kindergartener has read all seven Harry Potters. And to be honest, I don't really care about that. I think that, for me, I read novels and picture books together. When I started reading my first novels, I continued to read picture books.
My mom never put my picture books away. They were always on my bookshelf, and they were always part of my reading life. And by the time I was in high school, I was working with younger kids and was bringing out my picture books to share. But throughout middle school, as I was loving big, fat novels, I also loved picture books.
The kind of storytelling they make possible, you can't get elsewhere, you know. It's a form of – real dramatic irony is possible. Visual thinking is possible. It's very complicated. Oftentimes the vocabulary – the reading level, because they're so often read by adults or intended to be read by an adult to a small child, will be much higher than that of a novel.
So I think we kind of infantilize children's literature in ways that are unhealthy and unhealthy in similar ways to the way we infantilize children in this society.
Three levels of picture books
For six months when I was in college, I did a study abroad at an acting conservatory in London. This was a complete break. I was studying mostly poetry and mostly medieval poetry in college, and I decided, I need to – I need to get out of theory and come in contact with the literature in a different way.
And the most important class I took there was a voice class. There was something my voice teacher told that I've always remembered, and I don't know whether this is true. It feels a little like pop psychology. But there are kind of three levels of voice, three levels of human connection, and there is one, just alone.
And sort of just that sphere closed around you. And I think we can all sense when people are in that. There is a level of connection that's one-to-one, and there's a level of connection that's one-to-many. And corollary to that is – she said that most people are only good at two of those three levels of connection.
I think books also work on that way. Picture books also work on that way. There are picture books that are one alone, that are just meant to be open on a kid's lap and that kid is paging through. There are picture books that work best one on one. You know, maybe the kid is on your lap, and you're reading the book, or it's a bedtime book, and it's sort of a quieter moment. The pictures may be more detailed and encourage spending time really poring over them. The trim size is smaller.
And then there are those books that are one-to-many books, and you're holding them up, and they work well in front of a classroom. I think unlike people, there are some books that are great at all three. A good picture book doesn't have to be great at all three, but some books do work on all three levels of connection.
A new golden age
Well, I think a lot about how we could kind of raise the status of the picture book in society. I think, you know, in the last kind of golden age of picture books where – like the late thirties through maybe the early seventies, where the real – like the forties, fifties and sixties – so great. And the picture book had a different status in society, too. It was talked about in kind of just general interest cultural publications.
The New Yorker, The New York Times, not just in a section six – every six weeks, but just in general – would talk about kids' books. It was just part of the discussion. And they've kind of fallen out of that place. And it's interesting to me, because comics have kind of gone in the exact opposite direction. The rise of art comics, the graphic novel, and I think just thinking about visual literacy – an argument was made – and that argument carries weight with picture books, too – that comics work in a way that's complicated and artful and really exciting.
But the picture book hasn't really benefited from the increased status that comics have kind of earned for themselves. But I look at the way that that happened with comics, and I think that it took basically just a small band of people who appreciated comics and people who made comics really showing that this was an art form and talking about it and talking about how it works.
It's so hard. I think we get very nervous talking about art in this country. It's hard to teach art. It's hard to talk to about art. But it's not impossible. And in fact, I think it's one of the – the more you do it, the easier it gets. And I think – I think talking about especially visual art, how visual art is made, how visual art works – and this is coming as somebody – like I cannot draw anything, paint anything, create anything that would delight you visually in any way.
But I'm a very visual person, and I create things that are artfully done. And I think if we had a better appreciation not just for the arts but for visual art, how it works, talked that – talked about it, it would be a great first step to understanding how sophisticated, or at least meritorious, the picture book is.
Using picture books in the classroom
I think picture books are terrific in the classroom. One big reason is, they're short, and teachers are pressed for time. Their lesson plans are constrained. And here are complete stories that use, you know, interesting storytelling techniques to make a point or to convey an experience. So anything – you want to teach dramatic irony, you want to teach about science –
There are picture books about anything. You want to teach genre, you can go through picture books. I think a big mistake people make is that – is to think that children's books or picture books are a genre. They're not. They're a form. They're a way to tell a story. And every different genre is represented within it. So I think checking in with a librarian or looking through picture books – whatever your lesson plan, very likely it can be connected to a picture book.
In terms of teaching visual art and how it works for picture books, I think it can always be useful to separate the text from image and really to break a picture book down, to read it without showing the pictures either before or afterward and show how it's either completely diminished or oftentimes just totally nonsensical without those pictures.
And that's a great first step to a conversation about how picture books amplify or complete storytelling in a picture book.
Living in a visual culture
I think we're living in such a visual time right now. It's a visual culture. And technology – I think there was a thought that, oh, maybe writing would disappear. It hasn't at all. In fact, people are writing more than ever, you know. The amount of text that we're generating is probably at an all-time high.
But so is the number of images. And I think that these things are often combined. Kids, from a very young age through adulthood, we're being bombarded with images often in concert with text to make us feel certain things. And oftentimes, with more nefarious ends than most picture book authors have.
So, you know, I think anybody in society but particularly kids can benefit from getting hip to the way these things work. I am not trying to coerce anybody into buying anything, just to create maybe an experience, and like any piece of art, sort of get to the truth of the matter. But the way that I do it is the same way that somebody's going to try to make you buy a can of something.
And I think teaching the way this works makes for a better democracy, a better civilization.
In love with words, books, storytelling
I grew up with just my mom most of the time, and my mom bought me all of my books at yard sales. It was very important that we have books, but we didn't have a lot of money, and of course I didn't care. I was just happy to have these books. And it ended up being fantastic for me, because I ended sort of with the previous generation or two's picture books, which was like the best time for picture books.
So my childhood for all my clothes were from yard sales, too. You look back at like pictures of me. I look like a child of the mid-century. Like I've got pictures of me in sailor suits and saddle shoes. It's absolutely ridiculous. I grew up in the eighties and early nineties, and due to budgetary constraints, was stuck in the past.
But it was really great. I had the best of kids' books at my fingertips. And I grew up reading those books. She never took them off the bookshelf. I always returned to them. I always cared about that form. And I love storytelling. In school, any assignment, I would sort of warp into a writing assignment, so if we had to write a sentence for each spelling word, I would, you know, somehow choose to complicate it.
I would try to make all the sentences converge into a story, or I tried to write one complete sentence with all 20 words that was grammatically perfect with dependent clause upon dependent clause. I loved writing, creating stories and creating sentences.
But it wasn't until seventh grade. I had a teacher, Ms. Knox, who told my parents at a parent-teacher conference that she thought I was going to be a writer and a liberal arts guy, and I had no idea what that even meant, the liberal arts guy part. But the writer part, I did. I had always wanted to be a writer, but my mom was a nurse. My dad was a doctor.
No writers in my family. Not even, really, I would say, a real passion for books in my family. But for me, it was there from the start. And I think confusing to everybody around me. So that was sort of the first time I heard somebody else say this thing, that I had kind of in my brain but buried pretty deep – I think the things you want most are oftentimes the things you are afraid to say.
So hearing somebody else who knew me really well say, I think he's going to become a writer – you know, I was afraid that wasn't even a real job, and if it was a real job, I definitely didn't think I could get there. And I will never forget that. It was the first time that I said, okay, maybe I can work toward making this real.
A read-aloud childhood
I got read aloud to a ton. My mom read me book upon book every night, and then as soon as I was old enough she'd still read aloud to me, and then she would leave, turn off the light, and I would turn it back on and continue reading. But yeah, I think my mom – as a single mom especially – she really wanted to do it right. She had books on how to read aloud to kids.
Books that were like, here are the books you should read aloud to kids. She was always taking me to the library. She definitely knew, one, I think, how important reading aloud was, and, two, how much I loved it, and it was – it was a centerpiece of our time together.
Favorite picture books
When I was kid, there were a lot of books I loved. I loved the The Stupids Step Out and basically anything James Marshall was involved in. I think maybe he's the greatest comic voice in picture books. Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel I think rival basically anything written in English. They're so simple and manage to be completely profound. Simple in language and profound emotionally and with their themes.
Margaret Wise Brown is a huge inspiration for me and was a favorite of mine as a kid, too. I think that she speaks to something really deep and sort of essential about the experience of childhood that I responded to almost intuitively as a kid and now, as somebody who makes picture books and looks at her work, I just continue to be in awe of it.
I think awe is sort of the experience of contact with Margaret Wise Brown both as a kid and as an adult, but for completely different reasons. Who else do I love? You know, one of my favorite books is a book – and it's not really well known, but people who were a member of the same book club I was (Troll's or Trumpet book clubs) who got this book – it looms large for them, too. It's called But No Elephants by Jerry Smath.
And it's a perfect little thing. It's about an exotic pet salesman who's trying to basically pawn off these animals on Grandma Tildy, and Grandma Tildy buys all of these pets except for the elephant. She says, “But no elephants. But no elephants. But no elephants.” And finally, the guy's like, all right, well, I'm heading to Florida. I've sold every pet but this elephant.
So I'm just going to leave the elephant outside. And he drives off. And the snowstorm starts. And the elephant gets covered up. And eventually she feels so bad that she brings him inside, and he's in the cellar where she's storing all of her pickles and canned stuff for the winter and breaks through the ground because he's so heavy.
And that's the crisis. I'm not going to tell you how it ends. But I think it's a perfect book. The most interesting kinds of stories that are so hard to make are ones where the characters are completely at odds with each other and both completely justified in their positions. And it very beautifully sets that up. But like your heart goes out to this elephant.
You absolutely understand why he wants to come inside. It's freezing, and you want him to have a home. But Grandma Tildy's not a tyrant. She is afraid of having an elephant in her home, and those fears are borne out. Within like a day, the elephant has ruined her foundation. So it's a funny book, but it's incredibly intense, too.
I lived inside the books that I read as a kid, and I lived inside the stories I would then make up, which were often linked to the books I read as a kid. I made up stories all the time. I went to school pretty far away from the house I grew up in, and all my friends were far away, too, so I spent a lot of time by myself talking to my toys, making up stories, just kind of living in my head.
It feels like my memories of being a kid have a lot to do with stories, the stories I read and the stories I made up. Yeah.
I think sometimes the tricky thing about being a writer, at least for me, is not coming up with ideas, but, first of all, knowing when something is an idea, you know, knowing that that twinge or that bit of excitement that can be momentary is actually, oh, that's the feeling of an idea. I think a lot of us get ideas all the time and we just don't realize that they're ideas.
And then the other thing is to know which ideas are good enough to spend time on. And that can be a tricky thing and an important thing for a writer to figure out. I spend a lot of time thinking about the idea for a story before I begin writing it, so I'll be mulling it over for weeks, sometimes months, sometimes years before I start setting things down.
I'll be writing actual sentences in my head and working them over and over, and I have a pretty good memory. Sometimes I'll write them down or I'll record myself speaking it. But a lot of times I'll just be working it in my head. I keep a notebook with observations, things I hear, little things, but a sentence that could be part of a story, I can hold on to that, and it sort of tumbles around in my brain until it becomes the thing I want it to be.
And when I get enough of those sentences, it's time to sit down and start writing, and that can be a very long time after the origin of that idea.
So I would say a couple things to that. One, writer's block is something that happens to me all the time, and my advice is basically to take a break, and for me, I'll take a break for a few minutes or a few days or a few months. But that's not an option you have if you're taking a test and you have 15 minutes to finish this essay or there's an assignment and it has to be done by the end of the day.
That said, sitting there saying like, think, think, think, what's that next thing? Putting yourself in that stress is not going to help you write. So if it's a piece of homework, take a break. You know, I will try to do something that has nothing to do with writing, so I'll take a shower or wash the dishes or I'll wash my car.
So that's a good thing to do if you're at home, you have a little bit more of that time. Just take a break, come over and wash my car. I think that's a great thing that you should do. If it's in class, just think of something like – maybe can you get up? Can you go sharpen your pencil and – you don't want to be the kid who sharpens his pencil 18 times while everybody else is trying to write.
But if you're sitting there stuck, go sharpen your pencil. Or just sit there and close your eyes at your desk for a little while. Just give yourself 30 seconds, a minute to reset. Being a writer as a job can be different from being a writer in class, and I think the big difference is just sort of the amount of time I have to do my job versus the amount of time you have to do your job as a kid in class.
And it's really tough. I have a lot of sympathy. But it's good training, too, and it's possible to do. Not everything you do has to be perfect. Even when I have all of this time for myself, the things I do aren't perfect, and that can be the hardest part about writing, is, the perfect idea in your head – the hardest part about writing for me, a lot of times, is that distance between the perfect idea in your head and this flawed thing on the page.
And it can be really hard to overcome that. And it's sort of like a tragedy that happens again and again. And I can remember the feeling when I was a kid, being so excited about the idea and then the thing I was writing wasn't as good as I wanted it to be. Or, you know, sometimes not even having to do with writing, you know, you get a huge cardboard box. It'll be the most exciting thing.
I would start planning my fort. Cut out the windows. I wanted like the windows that open like this, but I cut it out wrong, and one of the – it would just fall to the ground, and then my drawing wasn't good. Everything was sloppy. It looked nothing like this thing in my head. And it was almost unbearable, the difference between those things. You want it to be like it is in your head.
But it's important to just get over that. If you have 30 minutes, then you try to write the best thing you can write in 30 minutes, and that's not going to be the thing that will be the best thing that you could write in three days or in two years. And even that thing probably won't be as perfect as the thing in your head. Nothing I've ever written has been as perfect as the idea I had for it when I set out.
But you just kind of have to set your teeth and say, I'm going to work through the disappointment, because it can be less than you want it to be but still very good.
From a pretty young age, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I didn't know what kind of writer I wanted to be, though. I thought maybe I wanted to be a poet or maybe a novelist or maybe even an academic who would write both sort of academic studies of books but also maybe literary criticism that was for a general audience. I had no idea. I kept switching.
It wasn't until I started working with kids that I figured out I wanted to write for kids. I worked at a summer camp for four to six-year-olds, and it was a sports—themed summer camp, and I was in charge of the four-year-olds, because the four-year-olds were the worst at sports, and I was also the worst at sports, and so we were combined, matched up with each other, because the four-year-olds would get very disappointed when they couldn't dribble a ball around a cone, which I also couldn't do.
And so they would come to a tree with a lot of shade where I would already be sitting, and I would make up stories and tell the stories to kids. And I loved it. The stories I was telling to these kids were really fun for me. I was getting to exercise sort of all of the technique and fun but also real rigor, real good storytelling, and they were going over very well.
And sort of the strange stories that were in my head, the stories I loved to read, I was so amazed with how much these kids loved them. And it was my first moment where I saw that kids actually are great readers and understanders of stories, especially challenging stories, experimental stories, literary stories, that sort of literary bargain that we ask somebody to make when there's a piece of literary fiction.
Right? We say we're going to withhold some of the easy pleasures of reading, but in return we're going to give you this other thing. But it's going to be uncomfortable. I think adults are much worse at taking that bargain than kids are. So much of being a kid is uncomfortable, and you don't know the rules, so experimental fiction is great with kids, because childhood is experimental. You're constantly having to learn new sets of rules.
So a book that's all in unattributed dialogue – that's going to be really hard. I love those books, but the first few chapters for me – they're really tough. But I think as adults, we really don't like that feeling. We think, this is hard for us, and we automatically think, what's hard for us – that's going to be even harder for a kid.
Actually, it's going to be easier. They're much more practiced at that, because, you know, you're constantly learning new rules, not just with books, but in social settings. You know, dinner with your mom at the house is very different from dinner at a restaurant with your mom, which is a completely different set of rules from dinner at your house with your mom and your mom's new boyfriend, when all of a sudden you're in trouble and she's like, we don't tell that story in front of Kevin.
You know, like why don't we tell that story in front of Kevin? And then you're like, there's something interesting about that story, and you think about that, and you learn something from that. And that's all literary fiction is. It's dinner with Kevin. You know, it's some weird thing that you have to figure out, but you're trained to do that.
So I was so excited about the kinds of stories that I was telling to kids and how deeply they seemed to understand them, and that's honestly my primary training, more than editors, courses I took in college – more than anything, I've been trained by telling stories to kids, and I always bring my books in front of kids.
I figure if I'm asking a teacher to stand up in front of a group of kids and read one of my stories, I'd better be willing to do it myself and know how it reads. And so being in front of kids has informed my work so deeply.
Learning to write
Once I knew I wanted to tell stories for kids, I went back to college, and there was a great writer teaching at my school. His name was David Foster Wallace, and he was a fantastic novelist.
And I took a fiction course and a nonfiction course with him, and when I was applying for the fiction course, I said I wanted to write for kids, and he said, “I have no idea how to write for kids. I don't know if this class is going to help you.” I said, “No, you know what, like I know how to talk to kids. That part is fine. I just want to know how to write.”
Because I do think that art for kids is the same as art for adults in terms of the standards it should be held to. There's a difference in terms of the experience our audience has. But the underlying rules – they're the same. You just want to know how to write. You want to know how to get to the truth of the matter. And a child's truth is going to be different from an adult's truth, but it's not a lesser truth.
And the techniques that you can use to convey that truth are the same as the ones you can use in adult literature. You just have to – you just have to speak to a kid's experience. And to me, being with kids and talking to them has been the most important kind of piece of my writing philosophy.
The Brixton Brothers
The Brixton Brothers is a series of detective novels, and for me, I loved detective series when I was a kid. The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown – I loved these books. And The Brixton Brothers is sort of a love letter to those books, but also a spoof in the sense that so much of what I learned from those books – because those books made me want to be a detective when I was a kid.
Especially The Hardy Boys. I wanted to be a detective like the Hardy Boys. And, you know, the difference between the Hardy Boys' life and my life was giant. They were 17 and 18 years and good at everything, and I was like eight years old and good at one thing, reading. And, you know, at the moment of greatest peril, their dad would come in and rescue them, and then they would like fist-fight their way out of some sea cave together.
My dad was a dermatologist who I didn't see very much. My life was so different from those books. And that's sort of what The Brixton Brothers is about. It's about a kid who loves an old mystery series called The Bailey Brothers, and he tries to solve crimes using old Bailey Brothers detective techniques, but they never work, so he ends up embarrassing himself and injuring himself.
Because a lot of the techniques – they're terrible. They're things that – like I was saying, like, oh, if you're like jumping off a tall building or a moving train, just, you know, roll as soon as you hit the ground. I was like, that is not a technique that actually works in moving trains, right? They're always like – they lock themselves into car trunks and then just pop out, and you're like, there's a latch.
And this is not like a Volvo with a safety catch. Like this – these are 1950s Bel Airs that – it's going to get hot in there. There is some very bad information, and Steve uses all this bad information and suffers because of it. But I think it's really, at its heart – it's about a kid who's trying to figure out what it means to be a person.
And the best place he can go to for this information is books, and the books that he chose are maybe the worst books to try to figure out how to be a person with.
The Brixton Brothers is illustrated with kind of, yeah, full-page illustrations and the frontispiece at the beginning and lines of text, and all of that is sort of based on the way those Hardy Boys books worked. The illustrations in those books were always funny – like the frontispiece would sometimes be something that never even happens in the book.
The cover often is something that never even happened in the book. Sometimes like the illustration would come like four pages too early and really give something away, and then there would always be a sentence underneath the illustration, a very exciting sentence that also appeared nowhere in the text. One of the most fun things in writing The Brixton Brothers for me was like, the last thing I would do after Adam Rex, who illustrated the book, would send in all of his illustrations.
We were always informed also by that sort of Hardy Boys line drawing style, and everything was set. I got to then go through and write whatever the most exciting sentence I could think of was with absolutely no relationship to the story or the text we were telling.
So the book Telephone is about some birds sitting on the telephone wire playing the game of telephone, and yeah, for me a book has to both be entertaining, but there has to be some sort of like architecture behind it that I find interesting, and that's a book that's, to me, also about communication.
I love communication, language, sort of the arbitrariness of words, and so these birds are passing around – so these birds are passing along a simple message, which is, a mother bird wants to say to her son, come home for dinner. Fly home for dinner. And that message gets just more and more unrecognizable.
Each bird, the way – the way that each bird interprets the message gets inflected with their kind of interests, their biases. Every bird hears the message the way that bird wants to hear it. And they're predisposed to thinking about things in certain ways so that by the time it gets to Peter, I think we're worried whether this bird is ever going to eat another dinner again.
Like that is what hangs in the balance. Will Peter make it home in time for this or any other dinner? It's very serious, that situation.
President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath
I think that most picture book authors get around to their presidential biography. It's an important part. It's an important obligation we have to teach the younger generation about our American history. So I wrote a book – my very serious presidential biography, President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath.
And that comes from a story –I was really big into facts about the presidents as a kid, and that was the one that you always learned about President Taft, I think because his four years in office were pretty uneventful years. That was the big fact about him.
And when I was looking into it as an adult, like the story – although there are a lot of embarrassing things that happened to President Taft around bathtubs, a surprising number of them, actually, that are verified, there was no proof that this actually happened, and that's when it became very interesting to me, because I love stories that are at the border of fiction and reality.
Because, you know, it's in books that are called, 101 Facts About the President. It is something that has been told for 100 years. And at that point, it's not just a fiction anymore. It's become woven into our culture. It's somewhere in between. It's definitely not historically true, but it's also not a complete fiction. It's affected the way that we live and think about our history.
And I love things like that. And actually, a lot of history is like that. The border between reality and fiction is a lot more porous in both directions than we think it is, a lot of the time. The reason that I think that that story about Taft has lived on about him is, it's a story that humanizes a president.
I think we're so often thinking about presidents as almost superheroes, and a lot of presidential biographies and picture book biographies of presidents, I think, feed right into that mythology. And hearing those stories as a kid, you think, I'm not anything like those presidents. You know, we tell kids, you can do anything in this country.
You could grow up to become a president. And at the same time, there are a lot of things telling kids that they can't become president. You know, that kind of bromide that we send out gets complicated very quickly by things kids experience. But one of the first things they experience is actual stories we tell them about presidents that make them seem larger than life.
And better than life. And here's a story that acknowledges that a president has a body, can get stuck in a bathtub. That's the kind of stuff that happens to me all the time, and that's a story, for me, that I'm like, there we go. Okay. Presidents are people. And I think that's why that story has really lived on. I think it's an important story.
Especially in a democracy, that we remember, oh, yeah, right, presidents are humans. And Taft had a quote which is on the back, at least half of it is: “We are none of us perfect, so we should not expect perfect government.” And I think that's important to remember.
Chloe and the Lion
So Chloe and the Lion is a book that starts off as a kind of traditional story about a girl getting lost in the woods, but then devolves into an argument over who's more important in a picture book, the author or the illustrator. And the answer, of course, is the author. But that's not really what the book's about. That's just a fact.
It's a book that goes crazy. In the middle of the it, the illustrator – well, I make a lion eat Adam Rex, the illustrator, hire a new illustrator, fire that guy – so I end up having to illustrate part of the book myself. That's my illustration debut and finale, I have a feeling, as well. And that book actually has illustrations by me. All the terrible artwork at that point was drawn by me.
That one, I think, is an important book, if you're reading out loud, to use good voices. When you're reading as the Mac Barnett character, something sonorous, a lot of dignity. I don't know what a genius voice is, but that's the one that I would use, and then for Adam, something kind of annoying, cloying, irrelevant. I don't know how – I don't know how you make an irrelevant voice, but that's the one I would use for Adam.
But really, for that book – that book is about the thing that's most fascinating to me about picture books, which is that relationship between text and image. And I think that picture books work best not necessarily when text and image are hand in hand, but when there's an interesting relationship between them, a tension, almost, that image is amplifying text or complicating text or even contradicting text.
So that's sort of taking image and text contradicting each other to its greatest extreme, where the words and the pictures end up in an argument with each other. Adam and I have actually really never fought about anything making a book. The collaboration's good. Editors and I have fought, but not Adam and I, so that bit is a fiction.
Sam and Dave Dig a Hole: The trailer
There is a book trailer for Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. Yeah, first I think I should stress that my relationships with the editors are wonderful, and then I would also acknowledge that there is a book trailer for a book called Sam and Dave Dig a Hole in which Jon Klassen does throw dirt all over me.
That was not a stunt double for that. No special effects. That's something that actually happened, and I'm still not over it.
The trailer for Sam and Dave Dig a Hole has a Burl Ives song behind it, and I found that song, but Jon and I both love Burl Ives. It's one of the kind of early things that cemented our friendship. Jon's one of my best friends, and we found out very early on we both love Frog and Toad, and we both love Burl Ives, and we'll trade sort of like rare Burl Ives songs.
That's “The Doughnut Song.” It's not a tremendously rare one, but it was on a Burl Ives album I grew up with and seemed like a good one for that, and we knew – we knew from the start we wanted to have Burl Ives on that trailer. It was just a matter of finding the right Burl Ives song.
I love sharing my books with kids. So that's been kind of an unexpected joy. I've gotten to see a lot of the country and to visit a lot of schools, and I expected to sort of lead a really cloistered life as a writer. I thought it was just going to be me alone in a room.
And there is a lot of that, but it's nice. It's kind of leavened with these trips where I get to go and meet people and see places and read books to kids. That's been a really kind of unexpected pleasure from this job. Yeah. The word cute is an indignity that is inflicted upon me and all kids' books.
It's obviously always meant as a compliment, but I think it shows sort of also the sort of poverty of our language in describing art and our reaction to art, because I know when we say that's adorable or that's cute for a picture book, we just – we're trying to express our appreciation and express how it made us feel, but so often I think it's not what we actually mean.
And I – and I just wish we had a sort of richer vocabulary to talk about how books and especially – I wish we had a richer vocabulary to talk about how books and especially picture books make us feel.
Mac Barnett reads an excerpt from Leo: A Ghost Story
Hi, I'm Mac Barnett. I write books for children. A lot of picture books, some novels for kids. This is my newest picture book. It is called Leo: A Ghost Story. It's written by me and illustrated by my friend Christian Robinson.
This is one of my favorite illustrators. It's a story about a ghost who scares a family who moves into his house, unintentionally scares them and is forced to leave his house. He makes a new friend, but she doesn't know he's a ghost. She just thinks he's one of her imaginary friends.
And so he's terrified to tell her the truth about himself. I'll read a little bit from it.
“This is Leo. Most people cannot see him. But you can. Leo is a ghost.”
“For many years, Leo lived by himself in a house on the edge of the city reading books and drawing pictures in the dust. One day in spring, a family moved in.”
So if you want to find out what happens when that family moves into Leo's house, you'll have to read the rest of the book.