How off-track can a science project veer? Plenty far, as envisioned by Mac Barnett, whose new picture book from Disney-Hyperion is Oh No! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World). Illustrated by Dan Santat, this June title tells of a girl who builds a humongous robot, fully expecting to win first place in the fair. Instead, her invention wreaks havoc throughout the city as the girl scrambles to find a solution.
But that is not easy to come by. "She soon realizes her robot has certain serious design flaws," Barnett says. "Like maybe giving him a laser eye wasn't the greatest idea and maybe giving him ears would have been a good idea. She comes up with a solution, but even that is full of problems."
The author's experience with 826LA, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center in Los Angeles,helped inspire the story. "I worked with a lot of kids at the center and came to appreciate their undersized sense of regret," he says. "They'd create huge disasters and be a little bit sorry— but still couldn't see the scope of the problem they'd created." Barnett shares the memory of taking kids to visit a police station with century-old plumbing. He recalls watching a girl who had stuffed paper towels in the toilet and caused a flood casually leave the bathroom. "She shrugged, said a simple, ‘Sorry,' and walked away, leaving behind a huge nightmare," he says.
Barnett's earlier books, all illustrated by Adam Rex, include a middle-grade novel, The Brixton Brothers: The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity, and picture books Guess Again! and Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem. "I try to write a very different book each time," he says. "I think there are so many unexplored possibilities in children's books, and I get frustrated that the same books seem to get published over and over again."
Barnett, who gives high praise to Santat's illustrations for Oh No! ("he did a fantastic job—he totally blew the story out of the water"), is attending his first BEA and is pleased at the prospect of spending time with booksellers. "My first job was working at an independent bookstore in San Francisco," he notes. "Even before that, when I was a kid, independent bookstores were very important to me. And these booksellers have been very supportive of my books." Next off press for the author is the second Brixton Brothers novel, The Ghostwriter Secret, due from S&S in October.