We interviewed Jon Klassen and Mac Barnett about their trilogy that begins with Triangle, and includes the upcoming Square and Circle. Mac Barnett is an award-winning author of children's books, both picture books like Extra Yarn and Sam & Dave Dig a Hole (both Caldecott Honor winners, 2012 and 2014, and illustrated by Jon), as well as chapter books such as the Brixton Brothers series. Jon Klassen is an award-winning illustrator and author of picture books such as I Want My Hat Back (2011 New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year), This Is Not My Hat (2013 Caldecott Medal winner) and We Found a Hat, the last of the trilogy.
Have you encountered any surprising reactions to Triangle from children or adults?
Mac: I think what is fun is the degree to which kids talk back to this book, definitely at the end. They answer the question (“But do you really believe him?”) and want to talk about it. They are involved the entire time, which I like. I don't want a book to just be us saying stuff and inscribing it on kids’ brains. There is a way in which this book is conversational which makes it really fun to read out loud.
You leave it open-ended like in Sam & Dave Dig a Hole but this time it actually closes with a question. Do the kids try to answer the question?
Mac: Yes, immediately! Without raising their hands or having any respect for decorum or the rules!
Jon: They are not left wondering about a story point. The story is finished and you’re just asking what they thought, basically, how they think of the character at the end. With Sam & Dave the questions get more story into it: Where are they? How did they get there? What happened? Whereas this time it’s: Do you believe him? Well, no, we don’t. I don’t think anyone believes Square.
Mac: Yes, overwhelmingly the kids do not believe Square. There! That’s the thing that’s surprising. I have come across a couple kids who believe Square. But it’s like four kids to five hundred. I’m just surprised that there’s those four! Who are these guys?!
When you present to kids during school visits, do you sense that they begin to see that being an author or illustrator is a job they can do?
Jon: Yes. That’s one thing I really try to see if we can bring home. I try to think of when I was that age. Seeing a book someone is holding and reading, I don’t know if I immediately made the connection that they made it and what they had to do with it. They’re not quite sure what this whole process is: How do you make a book? So you draw in front of them, you show your other work, you show your mistakes, so they ask about writing and I always try to give an answer that tells them that things they’re learning (and writing and drawing) now are things that they’ll remember and can use, if they decide to do this as a job. Even if they decide to write one book. It’s not a lie to say you remember and still work on stories that you wrote in third grade. Some people tell them they’re practicing right now. But they’re not. If they’re going home and drawing and writing, or at school, it’s all legit. This is real stuff. Getting both those ideas across is tricky. You’re saying, “Right now, you’re doing real writing or drawing and at the same time you’re telling them that this is a profession.” And this profession isn’t a club you need to get into. I try to break that down. They shouldn’t have to feel like that.
Mac: I think that’s right. I have this weird goal on school visits where it seems contradictory but it’s not. Where you demystify and then remystify writing. The thing that I’m trying to break down is this idea of writer as authority figure. I don’t want it to sound like anything else that happens in school. I want it to be exciting, strange. Also, like Jon says, there’s a real and flawed person in front of them and this is their job. I never had a writer visit my class when I was a kid and I didn’t know any writers. I also want to make books seem more fun than anything else that’s happened during their school day. And that’s the remystification of the process. Tell them anybody can do this! And also have some weird stuff happen so they want to do it!.
Jon, you have described the characters in Triangle as “just pals, hanging out” yet the word “friend” never appears in the text. So this is a question for you both. What about the development of those characters through the art or text suggests their friendship as a subtext?
Jon: We had talks about this question when we were making the book. The idea that they are friends, their affection for each other, but it doesn’t really get stated overtly anywhere. There’s never a page where they’re saying, “We’re friends.” Triangle doesn’t go to see his “friend” Square, he goes to play a trick on Square. We did have to defend that. The way we went about it was that it reminded us of how it feels for us to have friends, especially how it felt to have friends when you were younger and didn’t have a whole bunch of weird, fake reasons to see your friends: “Hey, want to go get a drink?” When you’re four, you can’t call up and say that. You think, ”I want to go see that guy on the playground.” You don’t really have a social ”in” but you have this water balloon to throw at him. You need these other weird excuses. Triangle is excited to go see Square because he has a trick but also because he gets to go see Square. Those two things don’t necessarily have to be split up and dissected. He wouldn’t go see him if he didn’t like him and if they weren’t friends. Square is more of a homebody. He’s not sitting around dreaming up tricks to go see Triangle, but he’s happy to play one back.
Mac: We wanted to describe a friendship. And to allow this kind of antagonism into a friendship, to show a different facet than you normally see in books about friendship. But show it by something that happens to make it clear that this is a friendship. I think there’s one thing that we didn’t talk about before. Friendship is very tough to describe because it doesn’t have a home run moment like a love story would where you state it or you kiss. With friendship, even in adulthood, you dance around it and it would be weird to say, “We’re friends now, right?” That’s not a thing to say. So you state it over and over again in these weird, passive ways. You probably have a much bigger collection of expressions of friendship than you would even with someone you love where you can just tell them, “I love you.” But if you have a friend, you have to show it and prove it. That’s what this book is doing, it’s them finding excuses to go and hang out with each other. There’s definitely a sense that Triangle woke up that morning wanting to see Square.
Jon: And Step Two was: How do I get over there?
Mac: Friends trick friends all the time, not in every friendship, but it’s a type of friendship. And it’s a type of friendship that I don’t see a lot in books. So yes, it was very deliberate that the word “friend” was kept out of the text.
What about the next two upcoming books, Square and Circle? Do those take that idea and develop it in a more complex way or are they continuing that same idea?
Mac: Over the next couple of books, there are three characters, Square, Triangle and Circle. Right now we only know Square and Triangle. The next book will have Square and Circle in it. One thing that’s interesting about this group of three is that there’s a long history of friendship books. We have Frog and Toad and George and Martha and all the other books they sparked. With three characters, it’s the smallest community you can have that’s not just a dyad. So you’ll see the different ways these characters relate to each other. The next book is about Square and Circle and how they interact. The last book will have all three of them. The idea of community is something that we’re both interested in.
Jon: When I grew up, we would visit my grandparents, who lived in this town that was almost one street. If we were there for dinner, just as our dinner was finishing up everyone on the street would be finishing dinner at the same time. Everyone would go walking to each other’s houses and just drop in. There wasn’t a reason for a social visit, you just wandered by. If you were working in the yard, someone would walk up and help you out or ask, “What are you up to?” That kind of feeling: you’re up to something and there’s a real possibility that one of your community is going to just come by and ask you about it. I don’t think we see that as much anymore. I don’t have that much anymore. That’s a close relationship but it’s also one born of geography. It’s automatic, you just spend time near each other. It’s a community. We see that Triangle lives just over the waterfall from Square, setting up that they’re basically the only living things that they could walk to. It’s not so much that they’ve chosen to be friends with each other, it’s that they are because that’s just who’s there. We have so many choices for how we make friends now. We can really dial it in, in ways that are really specific to us. But I like the idea, and I think Mac does too, that these are characters that are living in the same little fishbowl that we put them in. So how do you interact then? What is your tone like then? How patient do you have to be? Gear down? Because if you’re too hot all the time, you’re going to burn out or burn down the community. So there’s this low key conversation, like what happens when you run into someone along the sidewalk, on your street, where you’ve lived for forty years. That’s the way I remember it being when we were younger.
In most communities we no longer have a front porch, where you walk out after dinner and everyone else is out there doing the same thing.
Jon: Yes, and I’m much more interested in the conversation between front porches of houses that just happen to be houses next to each other than with two friends who decided they have tons in common.
Mac: Yes, friends, communities, the things that are taught as concepts to kids, starting in preschool, are usually toothlessly positive. But friendship is complicated. Community is complicated.
Jon: There are allegiances and things that come up. Especially, like Mac said, with two people versus three, it’s always going to be easier to agree on something or come to a compromise over a problem. But with three people, you may get outvoted or there are sides to be taken.
Triangle launches a new trilogy. What is it about trilogies that appeals to you both as a vehicle for storytelling?
Jon: I didn’t plan necessarily on doing a “Hat” trilogy. This one is another and you’re right, I wondered, “Why am I doing this?’
Mac: Yes, why are you doing it?! (laughing)
Jon: Part of it is, with picture books, they’re so short that wandering around in an idea, exploring it further, there isn’t tons of room for that because these stories have to be so succinct, so short. With picture books it gives you a chance to find out things you didn’t know about the idea in the first place. I don’t remember a lot of picture books that connected to each other when I was little. When Mac and I did the book Extra Yarn I had a bear in there that looked like the bear from I Want My Hat Back. Kids, whenever they figured that out, they really liked it. It helped that idea we talked about earlier about someone making the books. Something suddenly clicked: Oh, this person made this book too and that’s a thing you can do. All of a sudden, all those things are easier to explain, the idea that there are books that are made together but that you can find them separately. I don’t think our goal with these books is that you have to read them in order, necessarily. That’s important. There may be relationships between them and that’s a tricky thing to stage too. This is not a continuing story beat by beat. Our approach to these books was much more about a place we wanted to hang out more than a story idea. For me, I think an ongoing set with these guys is a much better way to explore that than a story point or a plot.
Mac: Something I really admire about Jon’s ”Hat” books that makes it different for me as a trilogy is that the hat books are, obviously, not made by characters or the view, it’s a hat. It’s a moral universe. Jon was trying to get at a moral question three different ways. And that’s what those books are. It’s deeply ethical storytelling each time. . . . like slapping Square around . . . (laughing) These are characters that we like a lot and we want to put them in different situations so you’ll be returning to the same place and meeting the same characters each time.
Jon: When we decided to make these guys, the physical limitations, their qualities, right away gave them a certain look. We talked about the eyes in Square; you have to place his eyes right in the middle because that goes with his geometry. With Triangle’s eyes, they needed to go closer to his feet because that’s the widest part of his body where they would match with how wide Square’s body would be. Right away you look at the three of them and there’s a distinction. Triangle looks a little sneakier because his eyes are further down his body. With just the two of them next to each other we can extrapolate how these guys would sound if they got into a conversation. One of them might be up to something and the other one might be taken aback. We were both worried that Square might be a tough guy to write because he’s not your crew cut, boring, by-the-books kind of guy. As we came up with ideas for these guys, Square is actually maybe the more interesting one of everybody. He’s got the most insecurity it turns out. All that is coming out of the geometry, quick decisions at the beginning of the book. More than going into this project with a moral question, it’s much more about how we are surprised by these characters. They don’t have a lot of screen time so we look at them and say, “Well, Square wouldn’t say that.” Where are we getting that from? Having him standing there looking at us while we’re doing it gives us all this weird information. It’s strange.
Mac: It’s a weird case with these books. Triangle was the first one but we’ve been talking about Circle and Square for months! It reminds me of when we were talking about Sam & Dave, when they split up. We knew them so well and there was anxiety about whether they do this. Whenever I tell the story about how we talked about whether they’d split up for a few days, I feel like I get quizzical looks from people. Yes, this is the main thing Jon and I talked about, for days, every day, for days in a row. There were months of talking about Triangle, Square and Circle, who they are and what they do, before we started writing this book. That being said, part of the fun, like what Jon said, is that we learn new things about these characters, Square especially. There’s a lot before Triangle was written, a lot of work in discussing who these guys are.
For you Mac, this was a different approach to making a book where the characters and world were created before you collaborated on the action.
Mac: We were talking about this world for a long time. It was a phone call and Jon and I were just talking about a specific aspect of Triangle and Square’s relationship. We were talking about the fact that they would play tricks on each other.
Jon: Or at least Triangle would.
Mac: Right. Triangle was always very tricky. Jon said, ”I feel like he would just go over to Square’s house and slap him with a fish.” On the phone we started talking about how this story would work, saying lines from the story and pacing it out. The great thing was, it was clear, without even seeing Jon’s sketches, and I got a sense of page turns and the rhythm. I went to walk my dog and I had to stop and I thought, “Oh, I know what this story is going to be.” I called Jon with the lines when I got home. There was a tremendous amount of momentum and forward movement once we committed to making the book.
Jon: It’s an important distinction to make. The idea of the world lent itself to very stiff stories. Our initial interest in this was the puns that you could make, visual puns and story puns like Triangle’s house with a triangle picture on the wall. They aren’t home run puns, as puns seldom are. I think I would’ve been okay with the story just quietly punning along, but as soon as we talked about the combination of that stiffness with some really over the top action . . .
Mac: Yeah, like madcap action and also characters driven to the edge! Again it is underpinned by these puns, when both Square and Triangle confront their deepest fears. They’re both desperate. And they end in desperate straits with Triangle terrified in his own home, trapped and Square is the one trapping him because he can’t get out of the doorway. This is when it gets exciting to us to break through the gag and find out that there’s total pathos on the other side of the joke. Wouldn’t it be funny if a square got stuck in a triangle-shaped door? Like a round peg/square hole joke. And wait, what if Triangle is terrified of being trapped inside his own house and there you’ve got the funny joke and Triangle’s terror, which not to sound heartless, is even funnier.
Jon: I think it’s an important combination that you have to have, one way or the other. You can’t have a boring concept. Boring is the wrong word. What’s the word? Straightforward . . .
Jon: Yeah, boring.
Jon: My writing has been fighting that battle. When I started writing books, I wanted to find a way to get everything super quiet and boring and still have a book that was satisfying. But you can’t do it. You can’t have characters that just stand there and not do anything, a story where nothing happens and no one says anything. As much as you want to subvert high action, come up with something that doesn’t need any of that, you find the only thing that satisfies you is a story where someone is murdered or something like that. It was the same thing with this book. These guys have a limited range of expression they have no way of posing themselves. They have small ways of expressing themselves, small little tilts or squints but they’re very restricted in what they can show. So to balance that out we needed this basically to be a Three Stooges action and slap each other with fish. That’s the balance. You’ve given yourself permission to draw a bunch of triangles and squares because they’re running all over the place and playing tricks on each other. You couldn’t have them just hanging around talking about the sunset. That would be boring.
Mac, Jon has described you as a “chameleon” of a writer whose manuscripts continue to surprise him.
Mac: That is something that’s exciting to me about the picture book, how young the form is. The picture book, as we would recognize it now, is less than a hundred years old. Wanda Gag is the first American to really figure out what this does. We had picture books before that, but they didn’t work the same way. We had not unlocked their potential. That was not long ago. It’s such a versatile form. I wrestle with the idea that there is an ideal picture book that we’re aiming for. It’s so exciting to see what this thing can do. With every picture book, I don’t like repeating myself anyway. I feel guilty when I make the same joke to two different people. That said, I will be recycling jokes all through this book tour! It’s so exciting to be starting a new picture book because it’s a chance to tell a different kind of story. I definitely don’t want to write a story that anybody else could have written. If that’s the case, what’s the point? Why did I need to be involved? Something that I really love about writing picture books and not being able to draw, is that it allows me to exist in a different visual universe each time. The world of Jon’s art has a different set of rules from Adam Rex, or Christian Robinson, or Jen Corace. Different things live there, physics works in different ways in each individual’s universe. That’s a great thing too, knowing that I’m going to be paired with art, that the story is going to have a visual style. It’s an extra kick. I’m partly already predisposed to enjoy trying on different styles anyway. It’s an extra kick that liberates me to write in a new way each time.
Jon: Writing picture book manuscripts without knowing how they’re going to be illustrated is such a particular thing to do as a writer because you’re not working on the whole thing. You know that there will be this massive other element at the end. You want to take as much control as you can initially. I don’t think I realized this about Mac’s writing from the books that we’ve worked on, because it takes a few to get this. He is very attuned and interested in sound. And that’s where the cues come from. Maybe that’s the wrong way to do it but that’s the way I take it. You (Mac) seem to be inspired just as much by how a story sounds. When you have a certain sound in your head, that’s the story that will fit with how it sounds. With Triangle and Square, as soon as we talked about how they would act with each other, you knew they were going to sound like how they sound, they were going to talk in a certain way. Square’s just standing there but all of a sudden he’s got all these words coming up. The sound of him was such a great fit. Every other book I’ve worked on, I’ve just thought that that’s naturally how you write, but it turns out it’s just a particular book for a sound you wanted, where the story comes out of that. It’s almost like if you can’t draw, your hearing goes up. You know what I mean?
Mac: Yeah, like, “What am I in charge of? What can I bring?”
Jon: Which is the illustrator’s interest too. If you don’t have any control over the manuscript I want to take as many levers as I can to bring this over to what I’m interested in. You don’t have much time either. Triangle and Square only get to talk on four or five pages in this book so in order to establish them as real breathing things that you can imagine hanging out with after the book is over, you only get a few pages to do that. But as soon as he hears it, I feel they start breathing. It’s perfect.
And Mac, the way you write leaves openings in the text that allow for Jon’s universe to be on the page.
Jon: Exactly. There is a sound that he’s going for. Like, “Oh, this sounds like it would have harpsichord music behind it." You know what I mean? Just the way if you can get back behind it and you can hear the music whatever is playing as the soundtrack to the movie, “Oh, that’s how this movie would look. And that’s how these people would walk, that’s how the lighting would be.” It informs everything, right down to what tools you’re choosing to draw with. If you think, “Well, colored pencils would really suit how this sounds or maybe messy paint would suit how this thing sounds.” It all starts with that and I wouldn’t know where to start if it wasn’t for his specificity and sound. But now I have all sorts of interesting prompts to use. Yeah, it’s great, it’s a huge gift.
Mac: And ideally these things are also the choices we are making for a third party, which is the reader. Because these books are so often read out loud. I think that the text, the pace of it, the style, the sound, the art, all of these are cues that are going to help the reader, whether it’s a teacher, a friend, babysitter, relative, whoever is reading this book to a kid. Performance is so important. There’s so much talent out there in the world as reading performance. There are so many people who are great at reading to kids. We’re trying to give cues to them, to help them create a good social experience.
You mentioned that you had a sense, as you were writing the book, of where the pages would break. That’s an also an aspect of the rhythm of the story when it’s read out loud.
Mac: Yes, ultimately Jon and I are trying to take care of that reader, that person who’s reading out loud. And then, of course, to take care of the final “reader,” who often can’t read, the audience who is hearing that story. And now Jon’s art, my words, the way they’re performed by that adult, all three of those things coalesce together into something that gives cues to that final person we’re interested in, which is the kid sitting there for the story.
Jon, you’ve alluded to your use of big shapes in your work that read across a room. It seems that might also help those readers when they perform the book.
Jon: Yes, it’s like the difference between film acting and stage acting. In a film, since the camera can go right up, you can capture someone’s small eye movement to cue into how he might be feeling. On the stage, if you’re sitting in the back row, and this guy has to show that he might be suspicious, he has to really over-exaggerate that pose. I’m not much on posing so I would make up for that with clear shape staging. If you can have a big shape over a little shape, that’s a story. Even if you can’t see the bear’s particular (or Triangle’s) expression just by virtue of the silhouettes, you’re hopefully designing the page so they can get what they need sitting in the back. It helps on every level, thinking of it that way. I have a big impulse to rein it in, try to be as subtle as I can, but I have to make sure I take care of that by saying, “No, no,” if my version of going to fifteen is actually most people’s version of five, then I have to turn it all the way up and then I finally get somewhere I want to be. That’s how I find out where the story lives, by going way further than I would’ve thought in terms of what they need staging-wise and story-wise. That’s the accessible point. I haven’t bored them to death. I haven’t done it too subtly.
What’s a typical working day for each of you, in studio, out of studio? Structured hours?
Mac: I’ve gotten a little more structured. My answer to this forever has been that it’s a total mess. I reserve massive lots of time to write, and then don’t write in them, then sneak writing in other times when I feel inspired. It reached the point where it was so chaotic I put a little more structure into it. Now I’m trying to wake up and set aside some time each morning, which is not really my time to be alive, to work. But I’m also finding that my best work, my ideal world would be to work in the middle of the night. I’m so happy doing that, the quiet, my brain is alive. But it’s really hard to have any kind of social life when you’re essentially nocturnal. As soon as I read the news or open up my Internet browser, my brain just gets fried very quickly, so I can’t work in the afternoon. Even though morning is probably my worst time in terms of being happy, it’s a time before anything else gets in my head. So I’ll be around the house, trying to work, eating a lot of snack foods and I’ll call Jon often thinking it’s mutually shared destruction because I know Jon will be on a really bad deadline too. Or I’ll see Jon’s name come up on my phone and think, “Great!” because we’re both on terrible deadlines. If I take this call we’ll both be in awful shape. Then we’ll talk for three hours and I’ll be like, ”I’ve got to get back to work. Man, we’re in trouble!” And Jon will be like, “I just drew six turtles!” I can’t work while I’m talking to Jon, but he’s sitting there drawing turtles!
Jon: I finished with turtles a long time ago. I don’t know why I’m drawing turtles! I get luckier that way. At least at most stages of the book, when I’m illustrating it, I have to be at a particular place, a particular desk with all my stuff. But I think there’s a danger in that. I have a studio downtown and so I’ll drive to it and go there and then I’ll sit at my desk and read the news and talk to Mac and sign some mail and send it out and then I’ll be, “Well, this has been a productive day.” Because I was at the desk. Nothing’s been drawn. I find that can be really lethal. You say, “Wow, another long day at work!” And you draw nothing. Just by virtue of being in the office you felt like you had a day. So I’m not sure which one is more dangerous or better. I’m the same way as Mac though. There is a point in every project where you’re way behind, and you’re crunching it, so you have to stay up until midnight or two in the morning and everything gets all dark and quiet around here. You just have one light over the desk and it’s, “Oh, that’s right. This is the best.” And you can’t sustain it and it's not good for your marriage or for your friends, but it’s so special. It’s the time when everything starts getting weird and bubbly and it’s great. I wish there was more of that. Maybe you find it in college.
Mac: Yeah, college was great.
Jon: I don’t know where that comes from. Most people I talk to that do this kind of thing have a special little place at two in the morning. But like I say, it’s not sustainable, so you have to do that Steinbeck thing where you write four hours a day regardless of if it’s any good and then find out it’s shit tomorrow.
It sounds like your friendship over the years has been a bit like some of the characters you’ve written about.
Jon: Yeah, there’s been a few fish slaps here and there.
Mac plays tricks on you by calling you up when he knows you’re on deadline.
Jon: Mac is definitely the more . . .
Mac: But then he blocks my door!
Jon: There’s definitely one person here who is more interested in tricks in friendship than the other. I have no patience or stamina for tricks.
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)
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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.