A self-doubting square. A sly, pranksterish triangle. A super-enthusiastic and naïve circle. These are the latest characters that Mac Barnett and frequent collaborator and illustrator Jon Klassen have offered up to their loyal readers in their recently released picture books Triangle and Square. (Circle will get her own book, titled, not surprisingly, Circle, in 2019.)
“These books began with characters Jon drew,” explains Barnett. “Before there were any stories, there were shapes—a triangle, a circle, and a square—with eyes on them. Jon and I were both so taken with the personalities suggested by these almost elemental characters that we talked about the shapes for months. And then we decided to make some books about them.”
Barnett is the author of 30 books—mostly picture books, such as the Caldecott award–winning Sam and Dave Dig a Hole and Extra Yarn, along with a smattering of middle grade and nonfiction reads. And he loves nothing more than sharing them with kids: At readings and on school visits, his enjoyment at interacting with his young fans is evident in his animated demeanor and the smile that constantly plays at the corners of his mouth.
But Barnett has done more for children than just write books they can’t get enough of. For over a decade, he has been deeply involved with 826LA, a writing and tutoring center for kids in Los Angeles. He still attends events there and serves on the board—doing his best to inspire the next Mac Barnett.
Q | In both Triangle and Square, you end with a question that challenges readers to ask themselves what really just happened. Why?
A | My approach to writing is born out of my direct experience working with and talking to children. Kids are brave and intelligent readers. They’re great at dealing with challenging texts—way better than adults. When we discussed the question at the end of Square—what is genius?—with elementary students, their answers were so thoughtful, so nuanced. Children and art are both engaged in the same great purpose: asking big questions about what it means to be a person.
Q | Plot-wise, Square seems to go deeper than Triangle, looking at self-doubt, blind optimism, and so on. Is it more philosophical?
A | I think Square and Triangle are both philosophical books, though you’re probably right that Square is more obviously so. Maybe that’s because Square’s plot centers on a work of art, whereas Triangle is about sneaky tricks. But I’m interested in tricks and art (and sometimes they’re even the same thing).
Q | We eagerly await Circle. But I’m worried: Will the ever-upbeat Circle have her naiveté dashed?
A | No! Circle is an adventure.
Q | At a recent event, when you were reading The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse, your and Jon Klassen’s hilarious twist on the big, bad wolf story, you talked about the importance of page turns. Is this sort of like great timing in comedy?
A | Sure—it’s vocal rhythm in comedy, the beat of a song. The page turn is the basic structural element of the picture book. A typical picture book is usually 13 page turns, and every one of those is an opportunity to advance the story, to make a joke, to bend space and time—and to surprise.
Q | Most authors and their illustrators never meet, but you and Jon have an unusually close working relationship. You remarked that your words often change once Jon’s illustrations come in. Do you think this collaboration might be a better model for book publishing?
A | A picture book is a collaboration of text and image, and so I think it makes sense that authors and illustrators collaborate, too. But I think working closely with an illustrator requires mutual respect and an openness to new ideas. As an author, I know that illustrators don’t draw pictures for “my story,” but that the story is created only when my words and their pictures come together.
Q | Do you think that most kids intuitively clock in to the absurdity in your books, and that they revel in it?
A | In general, kids seem pretty keenly aware the world is an absurd place.
Q | Whose picture books most delight you for their style?
A | People working right now? Carson Ellis, Christian Robinson, Erin and Philip Stead, Jessixa and Aaron Bagley, Sydney Smith, Isabelle Arsenault, Isol. There’s a lot of good stuff going on.
Q | In your 2014 TED Talk, you discuss the idea of stories needing to include both the truth and “lies.” Can you explain?
A | Fiction is by definition a lie. It’s not true. We make it up. “Once upon a time, two wizards lived in a cave.” No, they didn’t. That’s not real. But also…yes, it is! Because we make up stories to point to real truths, the difficult and complicated truths that we can’t express any other way. Art is artifice, but good art is honest, too.
Q | You’re on the advisory board of 826LA, a writing and tutoring program for kids in Los Angeles. Can you talk about your involvement there, and the organization’s importance in promoting literacy and creativity?
A | 826LA is the Los Angeles chapter of a nationwide network of writing centers that provides kids with one-on-one help with their homework and guidance on whatever creative endeavors they want to undertake: poetry chapbooks, music magazines, skating videos. Before I started writing full time, I was the executive director of 826LA. Our curriculum is completely project-based, and we are always throwing publication parties with milk, cookies, and, of course, readings. Sharing their work reminds kids that they write for an audience, and working with the kids at 826 reminds me that I write for an audience, too.
Q | Do you have any tips for young writers, or for teachers who want to encourage their young writers?
A | Read. Reading is the most important thing writers do, the best way to get better at writing. Read lots of books. Read lots of different kinds of books. Read books you like. Read books you don’t like. I learn more from the books I want to throw across the room than I do from the ones that get a place of honor on my bookshelf.
Photo: Bruce Guthrie