What happens when a mouse is swallowed by a wolf? In the imagination of Mac Barnett, that mouse befriends a previously consumed duck who has set up a cozy home in the wolf’s belly, which is filled with delectable food, courtesy of their host’s unchecked gluttony. This comedy plays out in The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse, a picture book written by Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen. In a new deal first revealed here, Candlewick executive editorial director and associate publisher Liz Bicknell has acquired worldwide rights to the stand-alone title from Steven Malk of Writers House. Due on October 10, the book will be edited by Bicknell and designed by executive art director Ann Stott. This is the fourth joint effort from Barnett and Klassen, whose previous collaborations include Caldecott Honor books Extra Yarn and Sam and Dave Dig a Hole.

“There was no real ‘a-ha’ moment,” recalled Barnett of the genesis of Wolf. “I was on vacation in New York City, and I just had this idea about animals sharing a meal inside another animal. They’ve been eaten, but now they’re eating inside the animal’s belly. I loved the idea and—sometimes this happens—I knew I had to write it down right away. So I sat down at a table in the café attached to McNally Jackson Bookstore, and wrote the first draft of the story. You never know, when you write the first sentence, what you’re in for. Sometimes a story comes quickly, and sometimes it takes four years to write. This one came pretty easily, since the characters did a lot of the work for me.”

Intrigued by “the many different stylistic and genre possibilities of picture books,” and averse to repeating himself as an author, Barnett experimented with a new, rather theatrical, approach in Wolf. “Mouse is swallowed on the very first page, and the rest of the story takes place in Wolf’s stomach, yet the voice of the story is very elevated,” he explained. “Duck is very grandiose and Falstaffian—he is really a lot of fun.”

And the Illustrator Is…

Barnett and Klassen’s fourth book together involved less backing-and-forthing than their earlier collaborations, since the illustrator became involved with the project after the manuscript was completed. Barnett (via Malk) submitted the book to Candlewick without an illustrator attached, but he had showed Klassen the story beforehand, and it wasn’t long before Klassen came on board. “Jon is my best friend, and we always share what we’re working on with each other,” Barnett explained. “In fact, he is one of five people I show things to before I put them out there. So when Candlewick suggested that Jon illustrate the book, I immediately said, ‘Yes!’ It seemed just right, and I was very excited.”

As was Klassen. “I loved this text so much, I just ran with it,” he said. “Mac is such a chameleon as a writer that if this had come to me anonymously, I probably wouldn’t have known that he was the author. This story is kind of a fable, one that doesn’t really teach anything. Mac loves voices, and he really lets loose in this story. It’s written quite formally, almost like a stage play, with flowery language and showy dialogues with everyone enunciating—that’s where the weight of the humor is.”

The premise and theatrical quality of Wolf presented Klassen with some novel challenges. “Since the animals are acting—almost in a Shakespearean manner—as I did the roughs, I posed the characters in a way I don’t normally do,” he observed. “And they speak so naively and directly that I felt the background of the art should look somewhat like an elementary-school stage. I used paint and colored pencil to create strokes around the characters to bring energy to the illustrations. I was very loose with the texture, in a way that was new to me. I thought there’d be a recipe for the art when I began, but there wasn’t. Every single page was its own little challenge. I had a lot of fun with this book—it makes me smile.”

That sentiment was echoed by Malk, who has represented both Barnett and Klassen for many years. “Receiving a new story from Mac is always a treat,” he said. “You never know exactly what you’ll get. He’s a unique writer, and is so fearless that he’ll try his hand at anything. Reading this manuscript, I found something entirely different from anything he’s done before. It’s a story that is distinct yet traditional in the greatest way, and hilarious. It put a huge smile on my face.”

After reading Wolf, Malk knew immediately that “it would be a dream” if Klassen were to illustrate the book, and was very pleased when that dream came true. “Jon and Mac are such good friends, and they’re both so ambitious creatively,” he said. “They always raise the bar on themselves and push each other, which is great to watch. I really believe that theirs is a once-in-a-generation type of talent.”

Barnett, whose next-out collaboration with Klassen is Triangle, a trilogy launch due from Candlewick on March 14, agrees that they have a particularly rewarding creative synergy. “I think when Jon and I work together, we’re able to get things out of each other that don’t come out any other way,” he mused. “Even when we aren’t working on a book together, we’re constantly on the phone, talking about books and making jokes. But when we are collaborating on a book, we get to do the same thing—and call it work! Collaborating with Jon is very special to me. It is one of the great pleasures of my life.”

The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse by Mac Barnett, illus. by Jon Klassen. Candlewick, $17.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-7636-7754-1