Mac Barnett’s picture books are as varied in style as they are playful and imaginative.
Barnett lists opera, theatre, ballet, and cinema as influences, and brings a knowing theatricality to his own readings. But even apart from the highly recommended experience of witnessing Barnett read, the pages of his books spill over with an enthusiasm for the intersection of written and visual media that bridges the chasms of age, genre, and attention span.
LN: You mentioned previously that you knew you wanted to write— can you tell me a bit about how you found your audience?
MB: I’d always known I wanted to be a writer since I was in grade school, but I didn’t know the kind of books I wanted to write. The two fields I was thinking about were big fat novels or academic writing. I was thinking of maybe being a medievalist. That was the direction I was heading in college.
I worked at a summer camp in the summers off from high school and college in Berkeley. That’s where I figured out that telling stories to those campers was my audience. Kids in a lot of ways are an ideal literary audience, generally.
LN: Is there a big fat post-modern Mac Barnett novel somewhere?
MB: I don’t know. If I have a story that would work best that way, I would tell it. However, every story I think of tends to express itself as a kid’s book, especially as a picture book; that’s really my favorite form.
There are so many frontiers in picture books that it feels really exciting right now to run over to this other place and write that kind of a book, and then run over and write a different kind of picture book. It’s such a new form that it feels really exciting to be working within it right now.
LN: I suppose every time you work with a different illustrator, you have a new collaborator.
MB: That’s right.
LN: How does that work?
MB: Working with different illustrators is great. With my text, I like to try on different styles and it’s a good encouragement and impetus to do that. I wrote a book called Extra Yarn and I knew who the illustrator would be for that, so I was very much aware that I was writing in the world of his art. That affected everything from where I was telling the story, to the characters I was bringing in. It filtered through to the language, too. You know the story takes place in the kinds of illustrations he makes. With picture books, there always has to be a strong visual idea first for it to even work. You know the kind of visual world you’re working in.
LN: That’s interesting because you’re a writer and yet the first step in your process is to imagine this other medium. I can think of precedents for that, but they’re more in fine art where people are highly collaborative and conceptual. I suppose picture book authors have been working that way for a long time, those who aren’t also illustrators.
MB: I think that’s right. It’s been built into the form. Really exciting picture books were done in 1880’s and 1890’s and Randolph Caldecott was a big guy. The Caldecott Medal is named after him. He was taking a lot of nursery rhymes and illustrating them. We play around and change the meanings of those stories. We inject new pieces of darkness or narrative complexity in them. It’s really in there right from the source.
I really admire author/illustrators. They can synthesize these tensions within themselves. There is something about the space between a text that’s been written and another illustrator. They’re storytelling, authoring and writing the story, too. They’re making narrative decisions. Weird things happen. It’s not the seamlessness that makes the story work. It’s those gaps that make it really exciting.
LN: Does the collaborative process itself change in terms of how you interact with the illustrators?
MB: That’s different depending on the book. Now you can email people. The editors want there to be no communication between author and illustrator. Everything gets filtered through an editor. That tends to be not the way that I work because I know a lot of my illustrators. I make an effort to meet them if I know we’ll be working together. We’ll talk back and forth. Sometimes it’s general; we have a lot of discussions about books, and I think that informs the story.
There’s a book I’m working on now where I sat down with the illustrator and we planned out all the illustrations. We ended up making some changes to the text, too, in the process without an editor there, which I’m sure that editor would hate. I’m really excited about how it’s going to turn out.
LN: Does it matter what the editor hates?
MB: That’s a good question. It depends on the editor. There have been editors I’ve worked with where the experience has been great, and there have been times where I feel like the editor has been trying to turn the book into a different book. A lot of my picture books are about other books. They’re a reflection on things I think haven’t been done well or have been done too many times. My first book, Billy Twitters and his Blue Whale Problem, is about a kid who gets a blue whale as a pet, but it’s a punishment. It ruins his life.
LN: It’s a really big albatross.
MB: Exactly. There are all these books. Clifford and Danny and the Dinosaur are great ones. There is a whole genre of kids getting big animals. The joke originally with Clifford and Danny and the Dinosaur was that it was really convenient to have a big animal; the bus breaks down and everyone rides home on Clifford. That joke is dead now; it’s been done a ton. I see that book and think, kids are listening to the same story every time: “I have an elephant and I shower under its trunk.” We’re not saying anything new.
I wanted to write a book about how terrible it would be to have a big pet. There are editors who saw that and said, “This is great, but what if he was so happy to have this blue whale?”
LN: I noticed that you were a student of David Foster Wallace. Obviously his passing was a huge occasion in the literary world. I thought that maybe this could potentially be an interesting intersection— your having studied with an author whose current output is so different from your own.
MB: I knew that I wanted to write for kids when I was studying with him, although I didn’t do children’s writing in that class. He was a real grammar buff, and it was pretty aggressive in his class. He really broke down your sentences, which I think was a secret plan of terrifying everyone.
Every class would start and he would pass out his sheet that was called Your Liberal Arts Scholars at Work. It would be sentences from the class’s stories that had problems. You would find the errors and humiliate whoever had offered that story.
The first thing you do when you get that sheet is look through and if you saw in capital letters the name of a character that was in one of your stories, you’d say, “Damn it, I’m in it this week. Number eight, I have a character named Mark.”
You would get so terrified that I started to really strip down my style to only things that I knew were completely grammatically defensible. I was that terrified of what would happen.
After I graduated, I would go back to Claremont, and it was a nice chance to reflect on the class. Was the point to get us thinking about our sentences again? He cares about that as a means of expression, but it also gets you stripping down your style. I completely changed my style and I think that that’s expressed, too. The impact of that made my style definitely more fluid and it’s an ideal way to think about writing picture books.
LN: Do you feel like you get to do more books as someone who’s writing for this form than you might if you were doing long form fiction?
MB: I think that’s definitely true. Essentially, each one is a short story, but they are published individually rather than as compilations. You do get to have more output that way, and I think that’s exciting. I know I mentioned this before, but each time you get a new illustrator it’s a chance to totally reset.
When I was a kid, I knew certain illustrators’ visual styles. I wasn’t incredibly aware of who was writing these books, and oftentimes there were a lot of illustrators who would illustrate other people’s books. I would just associate that with that illustrator. I do give James Marshall credit for the books that he wrote with Harry Allard. There is this book called The Clown-Arounds that I really loved. It was illustrated by the same guy who wrote the book, But No Elephants that I also loved.
I would think, “Oh, it’s another one by this guy.” I would give the illustrators all the credit as a kid. As an author, I find that actually pretty liberating. You can try on different styles; you don’t get your style policed as hard.
That’s another thing from Wallace that I liked, too, especially across his short story writing. It was definitely instilled in workshops with him. He was such a master of style and he does have that David Foster Wallace style that is imitated. He had short stories where that style wasn’t present at all. He could do anything and liked to do that. I really like the freedom that the form offers that way.
LN: Do you court illustrators, or is it the other way around? How does that work?
MB: My agent represents a ton of illustrators, so I’ll work with his clients a lot, but not exclusively. It’s very important to me; not all authors want to be involved in the selection process for an illustrator, but it is important to me that the right person gets put on this book. Once the illustrator is on it, I have so much trust in the artist to do whatever. It has to be right; it has to look right. In the end, the object has to suit the text. When I’m done, it really is half finished – if that. It’s really cool, but it’s also a little bit terrifying to think that, “I’m going to put my name on this thing that is 40% there right now.”
LN: I suppose there is a responsibility to some extent because you know that what you’re working on is ultimately going to be a collaborative project, so you have to leave the door open somewhat. Is that challenging? It sounds like it’s liberating from what you said.
MB: I like to do it. I really like to set up a joke in the text and pay it off in illustration. I think that’s really fun. If that’s the case, I will say in the manuscript in brackets, “Here’s how the illustration’s working.” Other times, the weird things that happen can be the best. In Extra Yarn, this girl is making sweaters for a lot of people. She makes them for her family, a couple of people in town, Dr. Palmer, and Little Louis. When I wrote that, “Little Louis”, it conjures up different sizes on the page. Little Louis culminated in a baby.
Little Louis is like a little bearded Vaudevillian. He’s got this cane; he’s a tiny man. When I got that back from the illustrator, I said, “It’s perfect.” I would never have written that into the story. He probably wouldn’t have put a tiny guy in there, too. He saw Little Louis and thought, “I know how I’m going to mess around with this.” It was just right. Our editor tried to take it out; she was freaked out. She said, “Why don’t we make it a baby?” I said, “No.”
Another illustrator I work with, Adam Rex, he said he loved Little Louis and heard they were trying to take Little Louis out. He said, “That is what your soul looks like, Mac.” I said, “That’s good to know.” It was eerie, Twin Peaks-ish.
LN: I don’t think we know what our own souls look like. That’s why we need other people.
MB: That’s right.
LN: That reminds me of something I read once that was written by record producer. He talked about delivering a mix to a label and putting what he called, “an intentional wart.”
MB: I can understand. It makes you feel terrible when you open up a document and it’s full of changes that you’re going to reject. I’m sure when I send that back, I look like this raging egomaniac, but you don’t want to be that guy. I feel bad. The thing I would love most is to see a bunch of changes and I say, “Wow. Yes.” I end up making a big deal out of whatever little change I make. I make it an ex post facto wart when I should put it in ahead of time. I end up saying, “Yes. You were so right about making that a pronoun. That saved the story. Genius.” in my letter back. I think that’s pretty transparent. I like that.
LN: What is the ratio of bracketed text that is instructive versus the actual text text?
MB: It depends on the books. I have this book, Oh, No, which is about this girl who builds a giant robot that destroys the world, and it’s... the text is very much like… I used to run a non-profit, and we had really old plumbing and kids would flood our bathroom all the time. I would walk into a room and it would be covered with water, and the kid would say, “Oops,” and then walk out. You would say, “Now I have to fix this.” The kid would kind of feel bad, but not bad enough.
His regret was not commensurate with the disaster. I really wanted the text to be this understated, “Oh, man.”, but there were these images of complete destruction of the city. I think that book was 250 words of printed text, and the bracketed text in there was maybe 400, 500 words. It was more than twice as much. The art notes were over twice as long as the manuscript. Other times, it will just be here and there.
I just wrote a manuscript where the whole middle section is wordless. There is just a paragraph of text. You basically just watch five years of this clown’s life. I said, “Here are some things that might happen to him in these five years.” Yet, I still want to leave the freedom for that illustrator to make episodes within that story, and to pace it out. You only put what without which the manuscript would be incomprehensible.
LN: My last question draws on that, because it occurs to me that picture books are almost cinematic. Are there other mediums that inform your work?
MB: Yes. I think that definitely theatre and cinema both let you do something that picture books do very well too. Those are the only forms where true dramatic irony is actually possible. There can be something going on that the audience sees, but your characters don’t. In picture books your narrator doesn’t, even apparently a third person who appears to have considerable omniscience not knowing what’s going on in the story, as opposed to Oedipus not knowing what we all know in the myth.
You do have this camera there in picture books that can show things that the narration is unaware of, and that’s really fun. I also really like opera and ballet; I find the way that they deal with character really interesting. The bluntest editorial tool a lot of times is to give the character an arc.
There are other ways to tell stories. In Extra Yarn, Annabelle starts off wanting to knit things for people, and she ends wanting to knit things for people. She doesn’t learn that it’s a nice thing to do. That’s who she is, but she comes into contact with other great forces of evil. I think that’s an exciting way to tell stories, and I think it works well in that short form to have giant forces in collision with each other, which is not, I think, stylish right now in any kind of storytelling.
There’s a whole narrative arc that’s dropped out, the screwball comedy. An unhappy couple gets divorced and then make each other miserable in some war game. Finally they decide to get back together, and the last scene is always the identical misery to what you saw in the first scene, and then they fade out on that. I just love that kind of circularity, but that arc has kind of dropped out of popular entertainment, including movies. Picture books are a popular form, but there are other tricks you can do within it.
is the Executive Editor of Know Journal.