Mac Barnett is the New York Times best-selling author of children's books, including Extra Yarn, a 2013 Caldecott Honor Book. Illustrated by Jon Klassen, Extra Yarn was also awarded the 2012 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Excellence in Picture Books. In addition to picture books, Barnett writes middle-grade novels, most notably The Brixton Brothers mysteries, illustrated by Adam Rex.
Do you feel that The Picture Book Proclamation [Barnett's manifesto urging children's authors to innovate, shown above] has held up as a catalyst for spirited conversation about the role of picture books? Since you wrote it, have you observed any changes that make you hopeful about the creation of children's picture books going forward?
I hope so. We've come a long way in the few years since the front page of the New York Times declared the picture book "dead." And I do sense a renewed interest in the form, a growing appreciation of the picture book's cultural merit. I'd be delighted if the proclamation has played even a small part in setting terms for a serious critical conversation about picture books.
Without relying on rude noises and bathroom humor, you deftly manage to tap into what children relate to: how they feel, their fears, their delights. Where does that gift come from? A clear memory of your childhood?
Well, thank you. A book, like any piece of art, is a conversation between its creator and its audience. In general I find children to be more interesting interlocutors than adults. I do remember my childhood pretty clearly, and I definitely can access the enthusiasms and terrors I had when I was little. But I am an adult. I just happen to like talking to kids. And, like any conversation, the things I write about have to not just interest my listeners, but interest me, too.
You've collaborated with an impressive list of fine illustrators. Is there an illustrator that comes to mind that you would like an opportunity to work with on a future project?
There are plenty of illustrators I'd love to work with. Let's see―I'm a very big fan of Isabelle Arsenault. I'd like to work with her.
We admire how you make each of your picture books such a seamless collaboration with the illustrator. Why is this relationship so crucial to you as an author and how do you make that connection work?
Writing a picture book is a visual act, even for someone (like me) who can't draw. If I finish a manuscript and it makes sense without illustrations, it's a failed text. Part of writing a good picture book manuscript―maybe the most important part―is creating opportunities for the illustrator.
What is your favorite picture book from childhood? And is there a book that you wish you could make sure every child had in their library, the one that no child should be without?
My favorite book as a kid was The Stupids Step Out. But I'm reluctant to prescribe any one book for all children―kids' literary tastes are as varied and specific as adults. That said, some of the Frog and Toad stories are as good as anything written in English, and Arnold Lobel covers a pretty wide swath of human experience.
What has an interviewer never asked you before, that you always wished you could answer?
I'm on a pretty serious trivia team and I'm always hoping to be asked which band did the song "Pick Up the Pieces," because I know that one and I don't think anyone else on my team does.