Berkeley author Mac Barnett knows how to tickle the funny bone of a 4-year-old. He also knows how to write picture books that are fun for a parent, teacher or grandparent to read aloud. In fact, he takes great care to consider both the “performer” who reads, and the audience who listens to his stories. Once I learned that he wrote Battle Bunny—and that he’s a local guy—I had to set up a meeting.
My granddaughter loves that book, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to increase my cred by getting to know the author. Over coffee in North Berkeley recently, I had the opportunity to talk with him about his projects, his process, and what he’s doing next.
Back when he was working summers as a counselor at Strawberry Canyon, Mac was in charge of story time, in addition to his other duties while taking care of the 4-year-olds. He loved the old picture books he read to the kids, and discovered a few new ones, such as Jon Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. He loved this book as much as the kids did, and couldn’t believe they all laughed at the same things. He’d always wanted to be a writer, Barnett says. But “writing doesn’t mean much until you figure out who your audience is.” Those 4-year-olds? They turned out to be the people Barnett wanted to make books for.
His path to publishing success reads almost like a fairy tale, but without Barnett’s characteristic “wrinkles” in the plot: an introduction to Jon Scieszka (the father of a friend) led to getting representation, to the publication of his first book in 2009 (Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem), and to the eventual collaboration with Scieszka himself on Battle Bunny—the book that served as my introduction to his unique storytelling voice. Barnett is quick to say that he is doubly indebted to Jon Scieszka: “He’s both the reason I started writing and the reason I was able to do it.”
Barnett knows that when a picture book is a hit with a child, that child will ask for repeated readings. He is well aware that if he writes books that are boring, the people reading those books come off as the boring ones.
From what I’ve seen of his work thus far, he is in no danger of boring anyone. He believes that something is added each time you read a story.
“You get to make choices as a reader—you have the right to interpret it and make the story your own,” he said. “You can steal control of the story. It’s not my job to tell you what kind of squeaky voice a character should have!”
By handing that opportunity over to the reader, “you can just nail it for that kid.” He said: “I always think of picture books like plays. They’re interpreted by the actors and the directors.” The story is also interpreted by the illustrators, and Barnett’s books are all characterized by illustrations that further establish the tone of the story, and encourage the reader (and the audience) to look for the clever details, or the running gags that pop up on each page. (For example, in Mustache, notice what the juggler is juggling each time he appears on a different page.)
Talking to Barnett about what he writes is just as much fun as reading his stories. His pleasure is evident when he talks about those “little wrinkles” in books, and how much fun it is to see “things going wrong in a book. It’s so funny when that happens—a book has such authority.” The joke in his books is often on the author, as in Chloe and the Lion, in which both author and illustrators (or their avatars) become part of the story.
Most authors resist choosing favorites among their books, but Barnett doesn’t shy away from naming two: Guess Again and the award-winning Extra Yarn. With its beautiful illustrations by Jon Klassen, Extra Yarn (a Caldecott Honor Book) “felt like a book that existed before us,” he said. “It seems more like a book that we read, not one that we wrote,” and it does have the feel of a timeless folktale. Guess Again invites the reader to guess the last rhyming line before turning the page—with surprising results.
When I comment on the impressive number of books he’s written by age 32, Barnett said “I don’t know what I do all day most of the time, and then I look and there’s all these books out!”
It’s true: he’s currently on tour with illustrator Jon Klassen, doing readings from Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. He and co-author Jory John have a three-book series called The Terrible Two (stories about ace pranksters Miles and Niles) coming out in 2015; and Telephone, a funny take on the easy-to-garble-whispered-message children’s game, as played by a variety of fanciful birds who just happen to be perched on a telephone wire.
Mac Barnett has many more ideas for picture books, which is good news for anyone who loves to read or be read to—at any age.
Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out All the News.