A podcast interview with Mac Barnett and Christian Robinson
The Children’s Book Review
In this episode, we have a seat at the cool kids’ table as award-winning picture book creators Mac Barnett and Christian Robinson talk about Twenty Questions.
This fun and enjoyably profound picture book collaboration is an instant favorite. It’s clever and witty, and kids and grown-ups who choose to read with them will have so much fun with it.
Listen to the Interview
Mac Barnett is the author of many beloved picture books for children, including Just Because, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault; A Polar Bear in the Snow, illustrated by Shawn Harris; John’s Turn, illustrated by Kate Berube; and President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen. He is also the author of several books illustrated by Jon Klassen, including Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, a Caldecott Honor Book and E. B. White Read-Aloud Awardwinner; the shape trilogy; and The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse, an E. B. White Read-Aloud Awardwinner. Mac Barnett lives in California.
Christian Robinson is the best-selling illustrator of several books for children, including Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, which was named a Caldecott Honor Book and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book; Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett; Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell, a Robert F. Sibert Honor Book; The Bench by Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex; and Nina: A Story of Nina Simone by Traci N. Todd, a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book. Christian Robinson lives in California.
Read this Interview
Bianca Schulze: Hi, Mac and Christian. Thanks for coming on the show today.
Mac Barnett: Thank you so much for having us.
Christian Robinson: Hello. Hello.
Bianca Schulze: The pair of you have collaborated on a very entertaining picture book, Twenty Questions. But since it’s your first time on this show, we need to find out what makes you tick in the sense of creating books for kids. So, who wants to go first in sharing what guides you and drives you in writing books or making art for kids?
Christian Robinson: Why don’t you go first?
Mac Barnett: Yes. All right.
Bianca Schulze: All right, Mac, take it away.
Mac Barnett: I’m going for it. I’m going in.
I’ve always worked with kids. I wanted to be a writer from the time I was a kid myself. But starting in high school, my first jobs and volunteer work was helping kids learn to read. And I was a camp counselor and a substitute teacher, and I ran a nonprofit that taught writing to kids. And I just always love talking to kids. I think that they are the smartest, most adventurous, most open-minded readers a writer can have.
And for the kind of stories that I like to tell, stories that require a little bit of work from the reader to figure out what they mean, I think kids are more willing to do that work than adults are. I think that adults underestimate the intelligence of kids, especially the intelligence of kids as readers. But for me, this is the best audience a writer could hope for. I get my energy and inspiration from the kids who read my books.
Bianca Schulze: Christian, how about you?
Christian Robinson: Firstly? Really great answer, Mac.
Mac Barnett: Thank you, Christian.
Christian Robinson: That’s a really good question. I think much like Mac, I am guided by well, honesty is my policy, right? Like, I want to tell stories that tell the truth, especially to young people, because I think we do them a disservice when we’re not giving them tools and resources to kind of navigate this crazy world of ours. So, there’s that.
And also, for me, it’s also about making sure that every child who picks up my book, our person has some sense of connection, that they know that they matter, that their story matters, that I can somehow reflect their experience somehow in the pictures and just make them feel seen and valued.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, you both had incredible answers. All right, well, so who are the children’s book creators that you remember most from your childhood, and how have they impacted the way you create books for kids now? Mack, why don’t you start us off there?
Mac Barnett: Okay, sure. So, Margaret Wise Brown was a really big writer for me as a kid, and she remains a big writer for me as an adult. The only piece of nonfiction I’ve done is a book, a picture book about her life and work. I think she was just such a great poet, one of the great American poets of the 20th century. And she just happened to make books for kids. And she was a writer who couldn’t illustrate, which is true for me, too. I can’t draw. And I think she really cracked how you construct a text that’s meant to work alongside pictures.
And that’s sort of the formal peculiarity of picture books, that the words do not, should not, cannot stand alone. If you read a picture book manuscript that makes sense without pictures, then it shouldn’t be a picture book manuscript. It should be something else.
And so, I think that despite her formidable talents, she also entered into each book with the picture book writer’s humility, which is that the thing that you create—the manuscript—is going to be a collaboration and in fact, sometimes is going to be in service to the images. But all that stuff is stuff that I am in awe of. Now, as somebody who makes these things as a kid, I think she just was so able to speak to the child’s direct experience of the world. Everything feels new in poetry, and that’s a great way to write for kids.
Bianca Schulze: Christian, what were the books that stood out to you that you still remember from your childhood? And how did they or how do they in any way impact the way you create your art and put together a picture book?
Christian Robinson: So, I often share that growing up, I actually struggled to learn how to read, and I didn’t feel a very strong connection to books. In fact, I was kind of terrified by them or felt like they revealed something about me that I wasn’t good enough in some way because I wasn’t able to grasp certain things. But it was the pictures that kind of kept me coming back and kept my attention. I grew up in the 90s. So, for me, it was books like, of course, The Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. So, the classics, I navigated towards them.
Today, I think what influences my art and picture books is the work of Ezra Jack Keats—it’s The Snowy Day and more so graphic artists. I love simplicity. I love just telling a story with the simplest image possible.
Bianca Schulze: What do you think is one thing that you do in each day that you’re working that you would consider a day-to-day practice that you think would be the most surprising, or in contrast to that, the most relatable for our listeners? So, what’s one thing that you do each day that you think would either surprise us or we would relate to most? Mac let’s go with you.
Mac Barnett: Oh, man, I can’t believe I have to go first because I know what I’m going to say. And then Christian is going to absolutely come in and devastate me with this beautiful daily practice.
My daily practice is a mess. I have no daily practice. I feel like I come to this garage behind my house where I write and just flail, and most of the time I don’t write anything at all. And I spend a lot of time reading just terrible things on the Internet, and I fritter away hours, and it’s a mess. It’s all a mess. I have no discipline, no rigor, nothing that could be called a practice. I hope that’s relatable because there’s nothing resembling a routine or even anything that I think would resemble, on most days, productive work at all.
Bianca Schulze: I love it. Definitely relatable.
Mac Barnett: I can’t believe I have to say that before. Christian, tell us about your daily practice.
Christian Robinson: Well, I mean, okay, so my mind is going in many directions.
There’s the daily practice of maybe when I’m actually working on a project, like a picture book, and then maybe when I’m not working on a picture book, what I do daily, and they’re kind of different. For one thing, like Mac, when I’m working on a book, I’m flailing. I’m still trying to just figure things out. And honestly, when I’m working on a book, I don’t sleep very well because my brain is in this process of trying to figure things out, and it’s like a puzzle. And I will oftentimes wake up in the middle of the night and be like, oh, that’s how I solved that picture. Or What I just did was really not good. I need to do it all over again.
So, in some ways, it’s kind of torturous, that period of creating something. I don’t know if that’s relatable, but I would say, yeah, it’s a strange experience of, like, I do it because I’m driven to do it, and I have this urge to create, but at the same time, it’s also a struggle. The struggles are real.
Bianca Schulze: Well, I think that is relatable. I think it’s great for everybody to hear because you’re both such esteemed picture book creatives that we probably all like to just assume that you guys have it down and every book just rolls out perfectly. So, it’s refreshing to hear that you experience the same struggles that we all experience in our day-to-day lives.
Mac Barnett: Christian, can I ask about you? When you’re not working on a book, do you feel more centered then? Is there sort of more of a thing—
Christian Robinson: Oh, I’m in heaven. Which is probably a good answer, but the truth is, yeah, I’m much more like I’m going to wake up and I make my little lemon water tonic with just, like, a little apple cider vinegar and freshly squeezed lemon and warm water. And I’ll do some stretches and I’m really chill. But, yeah, when I’m creating, I do feel like time is on my shoulder back, and I need to get this thing done.
Bianca Schulze: Yes. Wouldn’t it be great if somebody could figure out the mental science behind when we don’t have the pressures and we do take care of ourselves? And the way we take care of ourselves on those days is exactly how we need to take care of ourselves when we’re in the work. So why can’t we do that? I don’t know why, but if somebody could figure out that science, it would be magic.
Mac Barnett: My fear and I’ve become probably more convinced this is true despite what I would wish, is that the misery and angst is actually important to the work getting done. I wonder if I were completely settled and wasn’t feeling all those other feelings, then maybe I wouldn’t be doing the work at all.
Bianca Schulze: Yes, to that, actually. I love that. Well, before we dig into your book Twenty Questions, it feels like it’s only fair that I ask you at least a few more random questions. So, my next question is, is there a question you wish you’d get asked in an interview but nobody ever asks anyone?
Christian Robinson: These are good questions.
Mac Barnett: I don’t think so. I think that—just in general, but already we’re in the area where I like to be in an interview. I think that a lot of times when you’re talking about kids’ books, the interviews will ask kind of what the book is about, which is, of course, where you have to start but never gets into the why of certain decisions or how the book was made and just stays on that level of summary. But we’re already so deep in here. I’m happy. I’m feeling good.
Bianca Schulze: You just made me happy, Mac, I think. Christian, do you want to add anything, or should we move on?
Christian Robinson: I want to add something, but I don’t know why. I guess I’m an open book, and so I always love a question that I don’t mind a question that gets personal or dives deeper. I think that’s what Mac was getting at, too. There’s so much of our life outside of books that inform why we do what we do and how we approach it. And even though I love making picture books, the reality is that I need to sometimes get out in my backyard and pick weeds, and I need to make a meal for my partner, and I need to do all these other non-business things that definitely help inspire and push the work.
Bianca Schulze: Well, this question could be a tricky one, but I hope one of you will guess the answer. What am I hiding behind my back right now?
Mac Barnett: A copy of Twenty Questions.
Bianca Schulze: Christian, what’s your guess?
Christian Robinson: I think that behind your back, you have a banana.
Bianca Schulze: I wish. I’m actually hungry. It is, in fact, a copy of Twenty Questions.
Mac Barnett: Yes.
Bianca Schulze: So, yes, Mac, well done.
Twenty Questions, for me, is one of those books. I picked it up, and I read it, and I just simply thought, brilliant. This is clever and witty. And kids, along with the grownups who choose to read with their kids, will have so much fun with it. Who had the idea for this book, and where did the idea begin?
Mac Barnett: Well, I guess this book started with a manuscript. It started with words. But in this case, particularly, the completed manuscript is only the faintest whisker of an idea of what this book actually became once it was in Christian’s hands. The book is a series of 20 questions, the first of which maybe feels like a traditional picture book that asks questions. There’s a piece of art and a question actually, you know what? I’m going to grab it so I can read it.
So, the first page is a picture that has a bunch of animals hanging around a big tree, and it says, how many animals can you see in this picture? And a kid can just count those animals and give a number. But the second page asks a question that doesn’t have an answer or at least doesn’t have just one answer. A tiger has entered a field of green, and it says, how many animals can you not see in this one because they’re hiding from the tiger? The answer to that question can only be answered by that individual reader experiencing the book at that time.
The 19 questions that follow that first one are all questions that kids have to answer for themselves by looking at Christian’s artwork, wondering about the question, and bringing their own experience and intelligence to this book and making meaning of it. And I think that’s what all good books do. All books are a collaboration between the author and the illustrator, the words and the pictures, but also a collaboration between the book itself and the reader. Because a good book has plenty of gaps and questions and things that the reader can kind of insert themselves into to complete the story, to make it mean what that book means for them.
I think that in this book, the balance of power is skewed way toward the reader because they get to decide what the answer to all these questions are. And they get to do that by interpreting artworks, by staring at Christian’s illustrations, which is, I think, one of the great joys of this book is that you just get to look at Christian’s pictures for a really long time. But what Christian got handed to him was the manuscript. Only these 20 questions and how to execute each piece of art was up to him.
Bianca Schulze: Anyone that’s listened to this podcast for a while, or if you’re an experienced author or illustrator, knows that quite often, authors and illustrators get paired by the editors, and they don’t really work a whole lot together during the process. So, I’m curious, Mac, did you get to request Christian, or how did this pairing come? Christian, how did you end up being the one with the book in your lap?
Christian Robinson: To illustrate, I’ve been very lucky because Mac is my friend. And I just remember being sent the manuscript by our shared agent, Steven Malk. And, yeah, I read it, and I immediately knew. I said, yes, this is it.
To go a little deeper on that and actually kind of go back to what Mac said. What drew me to the book was the fact that there are all these questions that don’t have a specific answer, per se. And I think going back to my own childhood as I said, I was struggling to learn how to read. I remember in school, there was always an answer to something that we were constantly being asked questions about as kids, and we were expected to figure out or know the answer. And I just loved putting that possibility of what the answer could be back on them. There are infinite possibilities, and I think that’s also an important lesson that we don’t always get in school sometimes.
And so, yeah, that excited me about this book. And I just wanted to give kids that space to explore and to play and to think.
Bianca Schulze: It’s true. Like, the questions that are posed between the words and the art is—there really isn’t a wrong answer. And how lovely to take a break during your school day in the classroom with this book or to come home and know that you’re answering questions and you can never be wrong. I mean, we all are wrong sometimes, right? But just in general, to be able to have that safe place, to just be creative and imagine and think, and none of that is wrong. It’s all right. I love that.
What did your creative process, in terms of Mac? You said that from the sort of original idea and the original manuscript, this book has taken on maybe a new life. How did the back and forth between the writer and illustrator work with this particular book?
Mac Barnett: Well, so Christian and I did go to the publisher together, which is unusual, but we went hand in hand with this book.
Christian Robinson: Sorry—clearly, I don’t remember.
Mac Barnett: But once it was underway, every book I do is a little bit different. But for this one particularly, I just handed these questions to Christian. He immediately knew what the game was of this book. I think that this book is, in a lot of ways, a game. We hope that it feels playful and joyful, and we set up the set of rules with those first two questions, and then after that, you’re just unleashed to play around in this book. Christian knew exactly what the sole of this book was, too.
And I think that if he had any questions for me, I’m sure we talked about it sometime just because we saw each other while we were working on this book. But I don’t remember anything that he asked or any conversation we had about that.
I think that when you’re working with an illustrator like Christian, I just say—and we are friends, but also, Christian is one of the best illustrators working today. He’s one of the best illustrators to ever make books for children. And part of that is because of the emotion and attention to the world, especially the world as a child experience it, that he communicates in his art, but also his formal knowledge of how picture books work, how page terms should work, how compositions should be varied, and how to layer tension and excitement and meaning into the relationship between words and images. It’s just at the very top.
So once Christian and I were together on this book, at that point, the book belonged to Christian, and I’m so happy to have it in his hands.
Bianca Schulze: Well, let’s hang out in this space of illustration for a minute since we’re here.
Christian, you are a mixed-media artist. What goes into creating each piece? For example, there’s the— hang on, I’ve got to find it. The question is, which of these ladies just robbed the bank? And there’s a collection of different ladies along the bottom of the page, and each of them is created with these different layers of mixed media and details. So, what is your thought process, for example, creating each woman so they all look different? And what do you decide to give them so that we get their different personalities and who they are through that app?
Christian Robinson: Okay, so that’s a big question. I think, honestly, sometimes when I’m creating, I don’t even know what am I trying to say. It’s like this balance between trying but also just kind of slowing and just letting kind of what comes up come up and also kind of just trusting those instincts.
But I remember for this spread, it took me a minute to think about because, well, the question suggests that one of these ladies might be a criminal. And so that as a black person in America, I thought about, okay, well, what image would I create and how my kids interpret it, what they think a criminal is. Right. Kids are also receiving all other types of messages all day about who’s guilty, who’s innocent, who’s dangerous, and who’s scary. And so, all those thoughts are kind of rolling in my head.
And so, of course, it was important for me to have a large variety of different types of people shape, sizes, abilities, and ages. But I guess just playfulness was kind of at the center of that spread. I just wanted it to be bright and colorful and just kind of be fun for the eye, with different designs and shapes and whatnot. I don’t want to give too much away.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah.
Mac Barnett: Can I just—not to give also too much away, but this was something that I think it’s one of the earlier ones you did, Christian, or one of the earlier ones that I saw and something that I loved about it, too. Just that playfulness and the layers and levels and care that Christian puts into each one of these is also evident in the fact that, as you described, there are a bunch of ladies lined up at the bottom of the page on their way, and you’re looking at all of them.
And the longer you spend on this picture, at the top of it, there is a cop car speeding off in the other direction, presumably toward the bank. But as you sit there, the open-ended-ness, you realize that, of course, the cop behind the wheel could be the lady who just robbed the bank as well. And that playfulness freedom and sort of these double flips and triple flips that Christian has built into these sort of trap doors and ever-extending possibilities. The capaciousness of every single one of these spreads that he builds. It’s really a marvel to see.
Bianca Schulze: Something I’ve noticed about kids’ books is that the seemingly most straightforward concepts can actually be the most difficult to pull off effectively. And I think that’s what makes the pair of you children’s book wizards, in my opinion, is that you can take such a simple idea as a book of 20 questions and turn it into something so, for once, of a better word, magical. So, if there was a secret sauce that you have, what is it, and can you share it?
Christian Robinson: These questions are good. Okay. Wow.
Mac Barnett: I think that to go back to Christian, something you said that I was not in love. Curiously, too, it is honesty and honesty. There’s objective truth and subjective truth. And subjective honesty is just a point of view. Right. And I think that’s the thing that we as authors and illustrators have that is most valuable to us and most individual to us. It’s the thing that is the book that only you can make. And trying to accurately, honestly, and authentically capture your point of view.
If there’s a secret, I think maybe that’s it not aiming for convention or the market or what somebody’s idea of what a picture book is or what picture book you should write, but trying to make something that just like when you ring the bell, it sounds true. It sounds true to you—at least the you that day, you that year.
Bianca Schulze: That’s a great answer. I just put it in a bottle and kept it, and I’m going to save that for my next book. Christian, do you want to add anything, or do you feel like Mac said it?
Christian Robinson: Mac nailed it. And yes, it is true that it’s really about—like anyone can tell the story, but maybe only you can tell your story. And it’s kind of like you do have to check in with yourself and find your way of telling this thing in a way that means something to you that’s less eloquent than Mac put it. But he writes for a living so, you know, I don’t know.
Bianca Schulze: All right, so I feel like these are the dreaded questions for picture book creatives, but do you have a favorite double-page spread? Like, what’s your favorite moment? And hopefully, it’s not kind of like a spoiler moment if you’re willing to share it in this book.
Mac Barnett: One of the oh, no, this is the best stuff. I love this stuff. Prison. What’s your favorite spread in this? Honestly, this is like—to go back to what questions you wish you got asked, this has literally been something that I thought is just, like, the greatest interview question. It’s just like, what’s your favorite spread of the picture book?
Christian Robinson: Can I cheat? Okay. Because, yeah, I’m a rebel.
I guess my favorite is actually the cover—the jacket, which isn’t the spread, I know. But jackets are, like, one of my favorite things to illustrate for every book I create because, yeah, it is the calling card. It’s the poster, it’s what people are going to see first. And so even though it stresses me out and keeps me up like I was saying, it also is, like, just such a fun payoff when it feels like it comes together. And with this book, it was just a very simple thing. Like, I knew I saw a question mark. I knew it wanted to be playful and silly, and it’s just a snake and a sneaker that looks like a question mark. Why not?
Bianca Schulze: Exactly. Why not?
Mac, what’s yours?
Mac Barnett: I have so many when I got Christians are for this, there are so many that took my breath away. I’m going to play by the rules and just pick one, although that answer could change. But one that I love is the spread that asks the question is, what kind of beast lives in this bathtub and what does it eat? And there is a bathtub full of murky black water with two red eyes in it and a very confident little girl who is offering food to the beast.
And again, not to give too much away, but this is another one of those pages that I think is layered with all kinds of trapdoors and fun moments and realizations. And it’s one that I think each one of these spreads asks kids to basically write a story to tell a whole story. And the possibilities for the kinds of stories kids can tell about this particular page I think are really fun.
Bianca Schulze: Well, talking about how these pages are ultimately asking us to form these stories in our head on each question, I would love to see a story based on the question, and how did that cow get all the way up there? I loved that page. I want to know how the cow got up there. So, if someone can tell me, I have my own theories, but I would love to hear other people’s theories on that one.
Mac Barnett: Yeah, we also can’t wait. I think. That’s going to be the fun of taking this one out and reading it. I just can’t wait to hear kids give us the answers.
Bianca Schulze: Were there any questions that didn’t make the cut?
Mac Barnett: There was like last-minute swapping things around and questions certainly in drafting it, there were questions that made it and didn’t, and I don’t really even remember those.
But also, I think that there was probably a little swapping once the pictures were in place, which isn’t always a piece of the process for making a picture book, but I always like once the pictures come in, to take another look at how things are working and to tighten up sentences, to take words or pieces out that have become irrelevant, to just make sure that the rhythm created by the text is still matching the rhythm created by the images. And so, I think there were like a couple of swaps or substitutions at the last minute there, too.
Bianca Schulze: Do you think there’ll be a sequel of Twenty More Questions?
Mac Barnett: I hope so. Let’s see. Let’s hope this has 1 billion copies and then yes.
Bianca Schulze: All right, well, I’m rooting for it. So, here’s my question that I love to ask, and there isn’t always an answer to it besides that you just want people to enjoy your book. But Christian, I’m going to start with you. What impact do you hope this book has on readers?
Christian Robinson: That’s tough, right? I almost feel like with this book I was doing what I usually don’t do, which is have this strong intention, because the whole premise of this book is for that space to exist and to allow this thing to kind of have a life of its own and see how people can act with it in their own way. Okay, I guess the takeaway for me, then is just to play, just to imagine, just to dream. Yes. Your turn Mac.
Bianca Schulze: That was beautiful. I loved it.
Mac Barnett: Yeah, I’m with Christian. I really just hope they have fun. I hope they play this book. I think the making of it, it did feel like Christian and I were engaged in this playful game, and that’s what kids are so good at. I hope that they really enjoy themselves reading this one.
Bianca Schulze: Well, Christian and Mac, this is one of my new favorite interactive books because I know that it will create boundless amounts of fun and definitely inspire some very creative thinking. So, thank you so much for coming on the show today. I appreciate your work and I appreciate your time, and I’m very grateful. So, thank you.
About the Book
Publisher’s Book Summary: Award-winning creators Mac Barnett and Christian Robinson tap deep into childhood curiosity with a mind-tickling ode to the open-ended.
Not all questions have answers. Some have more than one answer. And others have endless answers, unfolding out to the edges of the world. In this spare yet expansive narrative, acclaimed author Mac Barnett poses twenty questions, both playful and profound. Some make us giggle. Others challenge our assumptions. The result is a quirky, wandering exploration of where the best questions lead—to stories. Intriguing, richly interactive, and brought to vivid life by Caldecott Honor recipient Christian Robinson’s bright and whimsical illustrations, Twenty Questions is a charming invitation to speculate without limits and know no bounds.
Buy the Book
Learn more about Mac Barnett here: https://www.macbarnett.com/.
Learn more about Christian Robinson here: https://www.theartoffun.com/.
- Things that guide and drive Mac Barnett and Christian Robinson to write books for kids.
- Childhood books that inspire[d] them and influence their work.
- Their day-to-day practices may surprise you.
- The seed of inspiration for Twenty Questions.
- The illustrations of Christian Robinson and creating the artwork.
- Taking straightforward concepts and turning them into something profound—the secret sauce of creating picture books.
- Collaborating between author and illustrator.
- Mac and Christian share their favorite parts of the book.
- The impact they hope Twenty Questions will have on readers.
Thank you for listening to the Growing Readers Podcast episode: Mac Barnett and Christian Robinson Discuss Twenty Questions. For the latest episodes from The Growing Readers Podcast, Follow Now on Spotify. For similar books and articles, you can check out all of our content tagged with Christian Robinson, Interactive Books, Mac Barnett, and Picture Book.