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 also won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and the E.B. White Read-Aloud Award. He writes the Brixton Brothers series of mystery novels and, with Jory John, THE TERRIBLE TWO.
For what age audience do you write?
I write mostly picture books and some novels for kids too. People on airplanes often ask me what ages I write for, and I don’t think I can answer it the way they want me to. I think a good picture book can have a floor—an age below which it can’t be understood—but not a ceiling. I wish picture books were labeled the way board games are—4 and up, 8 and up. A good picture book should never make a reader feel infantilized, no matter how old she is.
Tell us about your latest book.
It’s called SAM & DAVE DIG A HOLE, and it’s illustrated by Jon Klassen. We did a book together a couple of years ago called EXTRA YARN, and this is our new one. It’s about two kids who dig a hole and don’t find anything. How’s that for a terrible elevator pitch? I’m very proud of it—I like this book very much.
Henry: That’s the second worst elevator pitch ever. The worst is, “My mom liked it.”
What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?
I don’t subscribe to the utilitarian view of children’s books, the belief that kids’ books must be a delivery mechanism for lessons. Some kids’ stories have tidy morals. So do some adult stories. I didn’t like reading those stories then and I don’t like reading them now. Really I just hope that kids enjoy the book, that it makes them laugh and feel, and, if we’re lucky, that they think about it for a while after the book is closed. Any good piece of art tells us something about what it means to be a person, but usually the truths worth passing on can’t be easily distilled.
Henry: Certainly not in the case of this book. I don’t recall a picture book causing as much discussion.
What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?
It’s hard to sit down and start a painful wrestling match with myself.
Henry: You win some, you lose some.
What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?
Writing for kids brings me into a lot of schools, where I get to have conversations with kids. I like talking to kids, which is why I write stories for them.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Read a lot.
Do you have any favorite quotes?
I liked this thing Stravinsky said enough to write it down: “I simply cannot write what they want from me—that is, repeat myself—repeat anyone else you like, only not yourself!—for that is how people write themselves out.”
Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you write?
Most of my rituals—tea making, laundry, pacing—are designed to postpone the eventuality of writing. None of them is necessary. If I’m actually working I don’t have the brain space to do anything else.
If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?
Adam Rex, Carson Ellis, and Jon Klassen. They’re good friends and excellent company. I’m not really into reanimating dinner guests. Even if I do love Gogol, I don’t speak Russian, and having a stranger at the table sounds exhausting.
Henry: Forgetting to invite a translator is a rookie mistake. Well played, sir.
What would you like it to say on your tombstone?
I don’t think I want to be buried, but I’ll let you know if I change my mind
Henry: It’s a DIG A HOLE thing, isn’t it?
Where can readers find your work?
Libraries, bookstores. I don’t know—where else are people looking for books? Cracker Barrel was selling EXTRA YARN, but that might have only been last Christmas. So yeah: libraries and bookstores and maybe Cracker Barrel.
Me with Mac and Jon Klassen at the 2015 LA Times Festival of Books.
This interview is also posted on the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.