Mac Barnett is a New York Times bestselling author of over 18 books for children, including two Caldecott-Honor-winning collaborations with Jon Klassen: Sam & Dave Dig a Hole and Extra Yarn, which are both published in the UK by Walker Books. Books for Keeps editor Ferelith Hordon met Mac on a recent visit to London and interviewed him.
Could we just set the scene? What is your background?
I am a Californian; the only time I have lived outside California was six months in London.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes – even as a kid I wanted to be a writer but it never seemed like a real job to me. We were a family of doctors. Nobody in my family wrote. Then my English teacher said she thought I was going to be a writer; I was turning every assignment – even maths – into a writing assignment. This was the first time anyone had vocalised this secret wish.
Most of your writing has been in collaboration with another. How does that work?
Battle Bunny was written with John Scieszka, and the series, The Terrible Two, with my friend Jory John. Other than that I have written the text for things myself. But a text for a picture book is always going to be a collaboration. This is what is exciting about the picture book form; it is collaborative. I cannot draw so there is always going to be an illustrator involved. It is easy to make the mistake of thinking illustrators write pictures for the author’s story. The stories are not my stories; the story happens when my text is combined with the illustrations. Picture book illustration is storytelling. The decisions an illustrator will make are narrative decisions. If I’d been writing a novel, I would have been making those decisions myself. What is exciting about the picture book is ceding a little bit – or even quite a lot – of control to another person. Then there is the reader’s interpretation and as a writer I am always excited to see how my work is interpreted. A picture book is going to be interpreted by all collaborators who make it a reality; I write the text, the illustrator will interpret that text, the reader who reads it, usually aloud, will interpret it, adding elements, and finally the child listening – so there is an opportunity at every stage to add tremendous energy to the project. I feel I am in collaboration not just between an author or illustrator but with the adult reading and the child audience.
When you write the text have you then been surprised at the direction the illustrator has taken it?
I am always trying to write texts that provide the illustrator with an opportunity to take over the storytelling. I have two tasks – one aesthetic by writing well-crafted sentences, the other is architectural, creating a story structure for the images. With Sam & Dave Dig a Hole the story was designed to have a text that was ignorant of the illustrations – to create a vehicle for dramatic irony. The story certainly did change as a result of the way Jon wanted to show things. Extra Yarn is another example. I was imagining the character Louis as a baby; Jon’s interpretation bends the text without breaking it; it is a great picture book moment.
Once the book is in the hands of the illustrator I like and trust, I don’t need to be there all the time. I like to see what they will do, what surprises they will create. I love writing novels but it requires something completely different from me as a writer. Writing The Terrible Two with Jory was great fun but I think the picture book is my favourite form. It is a shame that we rush children out of picture books which are a rich art form whose sophistication is undervalued
Many of your books seem to show an interest in imaginative play. Where does that come from?
I was alone by myself living far from school. I spent lot of my time in my room, reading or making up stories of my own. I would talk to my toys who would talk back. The border between the real and fictional is very permeable when you are a child. All our work whether for an adult or a child is trying to break down this barrier. Kids can cross over easier than adults.
Do you think today other media create a barrier to children being allowed to be truly imaginative?
That is certainly something I think about a lot when making a book – leaving gaps, ambiguities, mysteries, pieces of strangeness – where kids can come in and enter the story. And children do respond with amazing imagination to strangeness and narrative ambiguity one finds in original folk and fairytales. I strongly disagree with the suggestion that children need a clean structured story. But even with television there are still gaps. I watched a lot of TV, played a lot of games and read a lot of books. I think it is possible to have a healthy mix. Books have to give pleasure that is different from those other media. We just have to make sure they are exciting enough to convince our audience.
Battle Bunny, Jon Scieszka, Mac Barnett and Matthew Myers, Walker Books, 978-1406360189, £6.99
Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, Walker Books, 978-1406360981, £6.99
Extra Yarn, Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, Walker Books, 9781406352481, £6.99
The Terrible Two, Mac Barnett, Jory John illus Kevin Cornell, Abrams Books, 978-1419716676, £6.99