Interview with a Legend in his own Time Mac Barnett
Mac Barnett strikes us as kind of a mad genius. He’s published many bestselling books, founded the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, and is on the board of directors for 826 LA. While wearing these many top hats, he’s infused his delightfully offbeat sense of humor back into the land of children’s literature. It’s a pleasure to share his thoughts on some of his favorite books, time travel, his picture book manifesto, his undisputed rivalry with Adam Rex, and that remarkable sleuth Harriet the Spy with our readers.
Nicki Richesin: You got your start in children’s book publishing with the help of Jon Scieszka as your mentor. Did he offer you any words of wisdom or professional advice when you began writing?
Mac Barnett: I would never have written for kids if it weren’t for Jon’s books. They’re crowd-pleasing and smart, with intellectually rigorous underpinning that never gets in the way of belly-laughs. His and Lane Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales is the most important children’s book of the last 30 years. I still send Jon all my work right after I finish it, and he’s given me a ton of guidance. As for words of wisdom, he’s always telling me to upgrade to United Economy Plus on tour, but I’m not sure my publishers will let me get away with that.
NR: Last year in The Horn Book, you issued (along with other authors and illustrators who co-signed) a proclamation in the form of “A Picture Book Manifesto” about the current state of children’s book publishing. What pushed you over the edge to write this manifesto and do you believe it has had the impact you intended? Had you hoped to inspire a sort of revolution?
MB: For a few years there’s been a lot of hand-wringing over the future of the picture book. The New York Times famously published a front-page article forecasting the form’s doom, and I’d heard similarly pessimistic prognoses from people inside the business. But the response to these Cassandras was too often Pollyannaish: variations on “The picture book will surely survive because the picture book is magic.” But picture books aren’t magic. Good picture books are magic. The proclamation represents a point of view I was hearing in my conversations with friends and colleagues but wasn’t seeing represented in either side of this Manichean conversation. I hope that it will continue to spark thoughtful discussion about the state of the art and its place in our culture, and also inspire people who want to make good picture books.
NR: You are on the board of directors of 826LA. Working with children in this way must be a great testing ground to try out new book ideas on your audience. Have you ever gotten any ideas from your students/fans you’d like to pursue writing one day?
MB: I’ve been working with kids ever since I wasn’t one anymore, and that’s had a giant impact on my writing. Picture books are a popular art and so it’s always been important for me to know my audience. But I don’t usually get ideas for books from kids’ suggestions. Mostly they just want me to write SpongeBob fan fiction. I give a presentation that shows students how a book is made—it’s filled with mainly useless information. After doing it for a year, a kid told me I should turn it into a book. He was right—Adam Rex is probably busy not illustrating it right now.
NR: You founded the Echo Park Time Travel Mart as a shopping destination for 826 products and accoutrements with the slogan, “whenever you are, we’re already then.” Could you tell us a bit about the genesis of the store? If you met at EPTTM and time-travelled to the Pirate store at 826 Valencia in San Francisco, would you be able to return or would you be forever marooned there?
MB: The Echo Park Time Travel Mart is the leading retailer of time travel supplies: dinosaur eggs, dodo chow, robot toupees—anything you’d need for a trip through the fifth dimension. The store fronts 826LA’s writing lab on the east side of L.A., and all the proceeds go toward the free tutoring we offer students in the neighborhood. The Mart has an online store, and we ship to destinations in the future, from a few days to many months after you’ve ordered, depending on the efficiency of the U.S. Postal Service. As for your question about getting marooned in San Francisco, you should be able to get back to LA as long as your time machine is functioning. We don’t really work on time machines at the Mart—we’re more like a 7-11: a bad place to get your car fixed, a good place to buy woolly mammoth chili.
NR: Your first book with Adam Rex Guess Again was very unpredictable and amusing. I believe you’ve collaborated on six books together now (including your forthcoming Brixton Brothers installment). How do you find collaborating with Mr. Rex? Chloe and the Lion, the first story idea you had in college, is about a girl caught in the middle of a good-natured battle over artistic direction by the author (you) and illustrator (Adam Rex). After seeing your video for Chloe and the Lion, I was left wondering if Mr. Rex’s prima donna ways will prevent you from working together in the future.
MB: We’ve actually done seven—our first collaboration was my very first picture book, Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem. And I’ll tell you, working with him is a lot of work. I’m glad that you were able to see what a prima donna he is from that video—I was worried that a lot of his most outlandish behavior happened off-camera. Did you know that he made Disney provide a craft services table for what turned out to be a 15-minute shoot? And he requested four X-Boxes for his trailer. Adam doesn’t even play video games—they were just so he could sit on them and look taller.
NR: You edited “The Goods,” a McSweeney’s compendium of kids’ games, puzzles, comics and stories created by artists and writers for newspapers across the country. What do you see as your ultimate mission when delivering “The Goods”?
MB: The Goods, sadly, is now dead, or at least sleeping very deeply. But while it lasted, The Goods invited writers and artists to reimagine the kinds of activities you find (and used to find more) in the “Kids Pages” of newspapers. We featured pieces that were smart and beautifully illustrated, taking inspiration from the lavish stuff you find in the old Hearst and Pulitzer papers. Our timing was probably pretty bad: it turns out the newspaper business is going through a tough spot. But that’s all right. I’m working on my next business venture: going door-to-door selling dial-up modems.
NR: Which authors made the greatest impact on you when you were a young boy growing up in rural California?
MB: Well I was born in very rural California, but moved when I was still an infant to Castro Valley, which is in the Bay Area but weirdly maintains a rural vibe. I went to school in Oakland and so had zero friends in my hometown. I read a lot. James Marshall probably made my favorite books—I loved the Stupids. Let’s see, what else? The Monster at the End of this Book was very important to me, and also But No Elephants by Jerry Smath. My mom bought most of my books at garage sales, so I read a lot of literature from one or two generations before mine, and I feel very lucky for that.
NR: I especially loved your book Extra Yarn as it told the story of a girl who didn’t really care what others thought and even went so far as to defy the dastardly, self-important duke. Were you inspired to write this book by a knitting feminist?
MB: Thank you! I was actually inspired by a drawing the book’s illustrator, Jon Klassen, had done of a girl and a dog wearing matching sweaters, walking through the snow. The story grew from that piece, (and in fact that moment actually shows up pretty early in the book, before all the bullies and archdukes arrive.)
NR: If you could be reincarnated as your favorite character from children’s literature, who would it be and why?
MB: My favorite character is probably Harriet M. Welsch—she’s perfectly, honestly drawn: funny and strong and flawed. Harriet has a pretty tough time, which is probably not preferable in the next life but is maybe karmically appropriate.
NR: Which projects are you currently working on and are there any stories you’re dying to tell?
MB: I just finished a strange new picture book I’m excited about and now I have to get into a novel that takes place in the desert.
Nicki Richesin is the editor of four anthologies The May Queen, Because I Love Her, What I Would Tell Her, and Crush. She is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Daily Candy, 7×7, Red Tricycle, and San Francisco Book Review. Nicki has been reading to her daughter every day since she was born. For more information, visit: www.nickirichesin.com.