Over the past decade, Mac Barnett has produced dozens of books on a myriad of topics: a girl with an endless supply of yarn, boys digging for treasure, animals who set up house in the belly of the beast that swallowed them. The thing that all his work has in common is humor: some of it droll, some of it absurd, some of it sly. Barnett likes to laugh, and more importantly, he likes to make kids laugh. He is on a mission to get kids—even the ones who say they don’t like to read—to choose books when they have free time. He is willing to go to great lengths to convey the message that books are fun.
Two years ago, Barnett and collaborator Jory John launched the first book in their series about rival pranksters, The Terrible Two (Amulet), by doing 22 school visits in Houston over three days. Each visit was staged as an elaborate prank—the teachers and the administrators were in on it, but not the kids.
“I don’t want to ruin the prank for any future school visits, but it was awesome,” says Cathy Berner, events coordinator at Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop. “I’ve seen a lot of tremendous authors who connect with children on a variety of levels, but he creates a whole world when he enters a school.”
This year, Barnett will have plenty more opportunities to showcase what one of his editors calls his “excellent comic timing,” with five new books, in three different categories: the third installment in his chapter book series with John, The Terrible Two Go Wild (Amulet, Jan.); Square (Candlewick, May), the second picture book in his trilogy with Jon Klassen; two books in his first easy reader series, beginning with Hi, Jack! (Viking, Aug.); and finally, in September—perhaps the book he is most excited about—Mac Undercover (Orchard), first in a new chapter book series about a kid, not-so-coincidentally named Mac B., who spies for the Queen of England.
The publisher is billing the fully illustrated spy series as a James Bond adventure for the Diary of a Wimpy Kid set. “Mac is masterful at grounding absurd plot points with provable evidence and facts,” says Orchard editor Liza Baker. “His work invites [readers] to suspend disbelief in a wholly original way.”
Barnett’s pitch is a bit different. “Actually, this is my memoir—it’s about my childhood,” he says. “Unfortunately, it’s going to be shelved in fiction, which is obviously a massive disappointment, but that was beyond my control.”
The book even includes an illustration of his mother, “which she is thrilled about,” says Barnett, who credits her with starting him on the path to his career. “She always made sure I had books,” he says. “We didn’t have a lot of money so she would go to yard sales and buy picture books and white out the name of the previous owners so I didn’t have to think I was reading somebody else’s books.”
Those hand-me-down books would later inform his writing. “They were a previous generation’s books, from the 1950s through the 1970s, which luckily coincided with a golden age of children’s literature,” he says. Though he is now only 35, Barnett’s favorite books were already a decade or two old when he was absorbing them—titles by Margaret Wise Brown, Wanda Gág, Arnold Lobel, James Marshall, and Tomi Ungerer.
“It was the literature of a different time, but those books were a real guiding star for me,” he says. “Of course, I was also wearing the clothing of a different time because my mom also bought my clothes at yard sales, which, let’s face it, was less positive on my psyche. There was some merciless taunting of my saddle shoes.”
Barnett, who grew up in northern California, knew early on that he wanted to write, but says he “had no idea that was a real job.” He adds: “My mom is a nurse, and she dated mostly firemen and a couple of police snipers. Everybody was really confused when I said ‘writer.’ ”
His high school guidance counselor adjudged him a “Pomona person,” and sent him and his mother off to tour the Pomona College campus in Claremont, east of Los Angeles, where “we threw ourselves on the mercy of the financial aid office.” The counselor was spot-on, Barnett says. “It was absolutely my place.”
The summer before he enrolled, he used a Barnes & Noble gift card he had gotten as a graduation gift to make a fateful purchase: David Foster Wallace’s short story collection, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men—because the title amused him. “It was my introduction to experimental literature, and I had to work so hard to get my bearings, but it was a formative book for me.”
By the time Wallace joined the faculty at Pomona two years later, Barnett knew what direction he wanted his writing to take. In the small library at the sports camp where he had a summer job, he had found a copy of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith, a book too new for his mother to have discovered at a yard sale, and read it to his four-year-old campers.
“I felt a deep connection to it and to my own four-year-old self,” Barnett says. “The jokes were all postmodern, metafictional, experimental moves.” He also found his readership. “The kids were right there with me. I realized kids were the best audience for the kind of stories I wanted to tell.”
Destined to Write for Kids
Barnett returned to college with an idea for a story (which would eventually be published by Disney-Hyperion in 2012 as Chloe and the Lion, illustrated by his now-frequent collaborator, Adam Rex) and nervously applied to Wallace’s fiction workshop. “I decided to try to milk him in person during office hours. I went in there and told him I was applying. Was there anything I should know? He winced. ‘I think the guidelines are pretty clear. What kind of writing do you want to do?’ ” When Barnett told him, “He winced again.”
But Wallace accepted him, and Barnett says he learned how to write in those two semesters under Wallace’s tutelage. He started telling friends about his new manuscript—a story about a boy who receives a pet as punishment. “I told everyone I was inspired by The Stinky Cheese Man, including a good friend from [nearby] Pitzer [College] whose first name was Casey but who we called by her last name, which I had no idea how to spell, but which was pronounced SHESS-kuh.”
Until that point, Barnett had no idea that Casey’s father was Jon Scieszka, author of The Stinky Cheese Man. She told her father about Barnett’s work-in-progress. “He thinks it sounds really funny and wants to see it when you’re done,” she told Barnett, who concluded that such an improbable coincidence could only mean he was destined to write for kids.
After college, Barnett moved back home with several story ideas and one excellent contact. “I was living at home with my mom in my childhood bedroom, so I asked myself, ‘What is something I could do that is cool?’ so when people ask, ‘What’s up?’ I can tell them about that.” He took an internship at McSweeney’s, the publishing house founded by Dave Eggers, working as a tutor at 826 Valencia, a nonprofit center for kids that provides free help with writing and homework. He polished the manuscript he would send to Scieszka while commuting on BART. Before sending it out, he read it to his mother, who reacted with puzzlement to the opening line: “Billy Twitters, clean up this room or we’re buying you a blue whale.”
“What does that even mean?” she asked. “That’s not even possible.”
“I ran back to my bedroom, which was right next to hers, which was totally the most uncool moment of my life,” Barnett remembers.
Scieszka’s reaction was more heartening: he sent it to his agent, Steven Malk at Writers House, who took on Barnett as a client and sold Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem to Disney-Hyperion, where Alessandra Balzer (now at Balzer + Bray) published it, with illustrations by Rex, in 2009. She has been working with Barnett since.
“Mac never condescends to kids,” Balzer says. “He respects their ability to get stories and nuances without spoon-feeding them.” She has also been the victim of his wicked sense of humor: “He and Jon Scieszka once pulled a prank on me that involved sending me a very disturbing fake email from another author,” she recalls.
She has also been the victim of his wicked sense of humor. “He and Jon Scieszka once pulled a prank on me that involved sending me a very disturbing fake email from another author,” Balzer recalls.
In the nine years since Billy Twitters came out, Barnett’s output has been nothing short of prodigious. The five books he’s publishing this year will bring his total to 34 works in print. Two have won Caldecott Honors for illustrator Jon Klassen: Sam & Dave Dig a Hole (Candlewick) and Extra Yarn (Balzer + Bray), which also won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award.
“I do have a lot of ideas, but I’m definitely inspired by the form itself,” Barnett says. “I read books all the time that show me something I didn’t even know a picture book could do,” he says, citing Carson Ellis’s Du Iz Tak (Candlewick) as an example. “It’s a form that’s so full of possibilities.”
Klassen, who considers Barnett a close friend, says the really impressive thing about him is that he is just as good a performer as he is a writer. “I think he loves the challenge of going into a room and getting whoever’s in there on his side,” Klassen says. “He’s like the old-timey guy who rides into the center of town on his wagon and opens all the doors to display his soaps and oils and trinkets. Mac just busts into the gymnasium and immediately everyone crowds around to see what he’s selling.”
Berner at Blue Willow says she thinks Barnett is so successful with young audiences because he is sincerely interested in them. “He is fascinated by what kids have to say and by what kids think,” Berner says. “As a result, he reads a room beautifully. He’s a master improviser. It’s like watching a jazz musician.”
Barnett says that working with different forms of children’s literature keeps his writing fresh. He’s enthusiastic about his forthcoming debut in the easy reader market: Hi, Jack! and Jack at Bat, illustrated by Greg Pizzoli, featuring a troublemaking monkey. He sees it as an important challenge.
“Up until the point where a kid starts reading on his own, it’s been social, something you do with your parents or with your whole class, but now the reader gets to choose,” Barnett says. “There’s no excuse for easy readers to be dull. This is when kids are falling in love with reading on their own. We can’t let them down.”