Can you talk a little about your upcoming book The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse?
Jon: Yes, that’s the one that Mac keeps trying to interrupt while I’m trying to finish! It’s really good and it’s totally different. It’s maybe my favorite example of Mac having found this amazing little pond of a voice to dive into. It was the most fun extrapolating how that book sounds, the universe he went into and came back out of. It’s really fun and it’s sort of a folktale, like Kipling’s Just So Stories. It’s not even like that. It’s like that crashed into something else and became its own thing. It’s been a blast to make that one. Triangle is really clean, minimal looking, like we were trying for economy. This one is like maximalist. It’s got acting and people running around screaming.
Mac: It might be my favorite manuscript of mine. It’s just so exciting. Last night Jon was showing me art from it. Before we even get started here, it’s a story about a duck and mouse who get swallowed up by a wolf and they decide to live in his belly. And they really live it up. There’s a very Falstaffian duck who embraces a real epicurean lifestyle inside the wolf! There are these feasts and speeches, a way to fully embrace life. Oh man, it’s just so fun when you see the art come in because in this case it’s a more maximalist story than I would typically write in a picture book. When I’m finished with a picture book manuscript, that is finishing an unfinished thing. So I see the other half of this coming in from Jon with all the same sort of gusto. Jon is likely just laughing at these guys and it’s hard not to love everybody in this book. Except for the hunter.
Jon: There’s a hunter that comes later down the wolf and everyone has to get together about that. But it’s a really big present for an illustrator, because of the premise of that, these two guys living inside of a wolf. When the mouse first meets the duck, he’s woken him up from his sleep. The duck is in bed and the duck turns on the light and says, “Who’s in here with me?” And ordinarily a duck in bed is a pretty picture bookish idea. So him in his pajamas in a nice wooden bed is a fun thing to draw, a cute idea which would be fun on its own. But as soon as Mac has given me the premise that everything we see is inside the wolf and has somehow come to the duck. Then every single object becomes so much funnier. What you want as an illustrator most is for something to give the work context that is outside of how well you’re going to draw or how good an illustrator you are. All of a sudden it’s not about how prettily I can draw a duck in bed. The idea of a bed is so rich already because of the context that Mac’s given it that I don’t have to worry about that and it’s just hilarious. If he has a picture hanging on the wall next to him then that’s hilarious because it’s hanging on the inside of a wolf. Why did the wolf eat a picture of duck’s grandfather? It’s really funny that it’s in there and so everything is given this really energetic context and I can relax. It’s not up to me.
Mac: And then for me, Jon is making all of these choices, those jokes. He’s got the duck and the mouse making dinner inside the wolf and they’re chopping vegetables and there’s a magnetic knife strip on the wall with knives. To see a knife in a picture book, you’re already, “Ah, oh, wow!” but this is inside the soft flesh of this wolf. Everything is filled with this great sense of danger, hilarious danger. And it’s an odd juxtaposition, it’s a really funny world inside this belly.
Jon: Normally we work on things together. It was one where I was worried because it was outside of my wheelhouse of content that I usually try to give myself. I usually try for restraint. It’s very tense, in terms of what you’re showing and what you’re letting out. But this was one was so over the top, I was like, I really love this but am I going to do it right? Am I going to pull it off? What you want are texts that really click with you and challenge you. This one has been certainly that. After I did the roughs and I looked at it afterward I realized everyone’s acting. I never have acting in my books! I usually have them standing around subverting the idea of acting and blinking at having been chosen to be in a book. But these guys are right in it. They’re shouting at each other and everyone’s getting shaken around and that’s what fit the book. This is so weird. They’re doing things! What have I gotten myself into? But I’ve been really grateful for it. It’s a great gift of a text.
Mac: And Jon had seen the text. There are basically five people that I’ll show a book to before . . .
Mac: There are five artists that I would prefer to illustrate my books and when they say no, I send it over to Jon! (laughing) There are five people I will show a book to before I decide, “Yup, it’s ready.” There are five readers that I’m interested in hearing from and Jon is one of them. He sees everything that I make but this one went off to Candlewick, the way it’s supposed to go. We followed the rules on this one!
Jon: Yeah, normally we break them and come at it together.
Steven Malk has been instrumental in connecting the two of you when it seems appropriate as well.
Jon: Yes, he’s definitely the godfather behind all this stuff for sure. It can’t be overstated how important he’s been to all of it.
Mac: Steve’s also one of those five people. He’s got such a smart editorial sense in addition to all of the business acumen that I think it takes to be a great agent. When you look at his list and the stories he has made or been instrumental in bringing out into the world, it’s such a wide representation of a number of different kinds of great children’s books. I think anybody who is interested in children’s books from the early part of the twenty first century, which I think is a very interesting time in children’s books, should take a good look at Steve Malk. He’s just been so instrumental, not just in our careers, as Jon said, but in what’s happened in picture books generally.
Jon: Yeah, and I think there’s something worth mentioning about Steve too. You meet a lot of different agents and people who work in this industry and some people who are agents will say things like, ”I’m especially good at bringing people together,” or "I like matching things up,” or they enjoy the idea of bringing two talents into a product. Steve has all those skills, but there’s also something that Steve has that I don’t think he ever talks about with anybody. You can tell he has it by how he makes his decisions. I think Steve maintains a little cave he can go back into that reminds him exactly why he liked these books when he was a kid. He has a gut reaction to things that he can’t explain to us. He’ll make decisions where we’ll go, “What? Really?” and he’ll say, “Yeah.” He just feels that way. It’s the same way we make decisions creatively. I can’t exactly explain this but I go back and talk to eight-year-old me and I have to follow that up. Steve guards that. He’s completely in touch with it and he loves the stuff deeply. Which you can’t say about everybody working in this stuff. For some, it’s problem solving or a weird tributary of a different career. But for Steve, he doesn’t explain it to many people because he doesn’t need to. That’s how he works. That’s what led him into this great area where he makes decisions out of affection just as much as reason or anything else and he loves what he does because of it.
Mac: You can tell he loves this stuff. In a very uncomplicated way too. He’ll analyse and talk about it a lot but he still has this very uncomplicated, deep love of what these books can do and did for him.
When will Square and Circle be released?
Mac: The last two books of the series will come out a year apart, Square in Spring of 2018 and Circle in Spring of 2019. Square’s all ready, just waiting to be finished being illustrated. Yeah, waiting for Jon!
Jon: And I think it is important to say that some people reading these have said, “I can’t wait to see what happens!” and we’re like, “No, no, wait a minute.”
Mac: Yeah, Square’s going to be stuck in that door!
Jon: No, it’s much more about wandering around. They aren’t going to be plot connected strictly.
Mac: It’s much more about the facets of these characters’ personalities and their relationships. Going back to those initial puns and jokes that made us laugh in the first place, Square was a essentially a square and Circle was floating and doesn’t have legs and became sort of perfection and a spiritual form and Triangle was pointy and sharp. All of these things informed their personalities. When you go back into Greek ideas about shapes, these all connect. A triangle was the representation for fire and square was earth and solidity and circles, of course, were spiritual and perfection and the idea that a perfect circle is something that exists only in God’s mind, like underpinning Plato. Shapes are shadows on the wall. There’s all this deep stuff that I think is maybe essential to the way these shapes look and certainly rediscovered as Jon started putting eyes on blocks. With Triangle, another reason it’s all about these tricks is, it’s the essence of triangle-ness. We’re exploring his triangle-ness. Even though Square is in there, this is about trickiness and sharpness and mischief. It’s got a triangular plot, right? It goes from his house over and up and has this midpoint and then it comes right back, so the themes are connected. It’s a triangular story. Square and Circle will be an exploration of his squareness, then the same thing for circle.
Jon: I think you can read into those kind of symbolisms, but there is something about why we like hanging out in this world that doesn’t have to do with the characters. There is a certain amount of quietness to this world. It feels either like it happened two million years ago or two million years after we destroyed everything. Because it’s just these basic elements that are wandering around with each other. There’s a certain quiet hum to the whole place that is just fun to hang out with because it just feels like these really elemental qualities.
Mac: Yeah, elemental is a word I like. We wanted very elemental storytelling.
And, as you said, then they are able to exist on their own.
Jon: Yeah, it’s a little island. That’s basically the thing that we think of with these guys. All these rules can apply back to them. Triangle himself, as much as he can make the thing run on its own little can of fuel, the better. Hopefully it does that.
Thank you both so much for your time. We know you’re off to present Triangle this afternoon.
Mac: They have a giant papier-mâché triangle waiting for us. With Extra Yarn, sometimes people would knit us a scarf or a nice little wool hat. But this time’s it’s papier-mâché triangles. We really should have thought about the stuff we’d get! (laughing)
For more on Mac Barnett:
Interview with Mac Barnett
Interview with Mac Barnett and Adam Rex
For more on Jon Klassen
Interview with Jon Klassen
Triangle, Text copyright © 2017 by Mac Barnett. Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Jon Klassen. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse, Text copyright © 2017 by Mac Barnett. Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Jon Klassen. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.