Mac Barnett on Skunks, Good Art, and the Occupational Hazards of Writing for Children

Mac Barnett on Skunks, Good Art, and the Occupational Hazards of Writing for Children

Most people avoid skunks at all costs, not wanting to risk that stinky spray, but what would happen if a skunk stalked you? From the cafe to the opera, a little red nosed skunk does exactly that in Mac Barnett’s hilarious new picture book. Known not only for his books, but also for his advocacy of the children’s genre, here we talk with Barnett about skunks, his TED talk, and what to do about those who look down their noses at kid lit.

Bookish: The book is accurately described as a mix between Looney Tunes and Alfred Hitchcock. What were some of your influences when creating this?

Mac Barnett: Nikolai Gogol, Franz Kafka, Orson Welles, and Chuck Jones.

Bookish: Of all of the animals… why a skunk?

MB: Skunks are beautiful creatures that inspire dread.

Bookish: The book’s illustrator, Patrick McDonnell, has done a number of other children’s books and is known-best for his Mutts comic. What brought about your collaboration?

MB: I love Patrick’s work, in comics and picture books. His drawings are elegant and funny, and he has a keen sympathy for animals.

Bookish: Children’s books beg to be reread more than books from any other genre. Is this something that ever concerns you when you have a book like this with a twist at the end?

MB: No, not really. In large part because the page-turn is so fundamental to the picture book’s form, the good ones tend to have surprises. But I think readers—young and old—can be delighted by surprises the second or tenth time around, as long as those surprises are well-wrought and original.

Bookish: What book have you reread more than any other?

MB: There was a long stretch of my childhood where I read The Phantom Tollbooth at least once per year.

Bookish: Most children’s books, this one included, are just a handful of pages. Neil Gaiman once said that while he can’t justify every word in American Gods, he can justify every single one in Coraline. Do you feel similarly about word choice in your kids books?

MB: I don’t know. I suppose you could argue that the more compressed a form is, the more important language becomes. Mistakes are more glaring when there are fewer words on the page. And I do think there’s more room for digression in novels than there is in picture books. Still, I don’t think children’s books are any harder to write than novels for adults, or any easier. Making good art is tough. Anyway, there’s not a single thing I’ve written that I wouldn’t go back and tinker with—it sounds like Mr. Gaiman sleeps better than I do.

Bookish: In your TED talk, you share the story of a young boy who was enamored with your book Billy Twitters and his Blue Whale Problem and completely gave in to the fantasy of it all. Have you had any other interactions with readers that have stuck with you?

MB: Absolutely—I visit more than 50 schools per year, telling stories to kids. Any book is a conversation, between the writer and the audience, and I write for kids because I love talking to them.

Bookish: You’ve said that “kids are the best audiences for serious literary fiction” because they connect to the sense of wonder more easily than adults. How do you think adults can regain that sense of wonder?

MB: I think good art brings adults there, especially good fiction. Nature does it for lots of people. But some adults are probably hopeless.

Bookish: I know, personally, I’ve gotten my share of odd looks for recommending children’s and middle grade books to fellow adults. Do you ever face that as an author? How do you deal with it?

MB: Oh, sure. Children’s writers are constantly belittled—it’s one of the big occupational hazards. How do I deal with the belittlers? Usually I just smile and silently judge them.

Bookish: There’s been a lot written recently on the lack of recognition that children’s books receive when it comes to literary awards. It’s almost as if adults forget how impactful these books can be after they themselves have grown up. Do you ever see that changing?

MB: Maybe. Sixty years ago, picture books had a more important place in mainstream literary culture. They deserve more attention, and more serious attention, from reviewing organs and literary critics. But I think the onus is on the people who make these books and love these books to teach readers how to read them.

Bookish: An article in the Guardian said that children’s books become part of our “emotional autobiography.” What books stand out in your own autobiography?

MB: The books of James Marshall, Margaret Wise Brown, Ruth Krauss, Arnold Lobel, and Maurice Sendak made me the kind of reader I am today, and so also the kind of person I am today.

Mac Barnett is a New York Times bestselling author of books for children, including Extra Yarn, which won a 2013 Caldecott Honor and the 2012 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Excellence in Picture Books. He also writes the Brixton Brothers series of mystery novels. He was born in 1982 to non-farmers in a California farming community. Now he lives in Berkeley.


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