March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Avant-Garde Children’s Lit: Mac Barnett on “The Skunk” and Writing Picture Books

The_SkunkSLJ called your new book, The Skunk (Roaring Brook, 2015) “clever” and “sly.” Kirkus said that it’s “training wheels for Samuel Beckett.” A Goodreads reviewer wrote (all caps hers) “WHAT IS THIS BOOK EVEN ABOUT.” You tell us—what is The Skunk about? Who (or what) is the skunk?
The question that Goodreads user asks is one that all good readers ask every time they finish a book (the CAPS LOCK is optional): What is this book even about? Most books worth thinking about don’t yield their answers quickly. This is as true for a good children’s book as it is for any other work of literature.

So: What is The Skunk about? Is it a comedy? A romance? A ghost story? A tale of paranoia? An allegory of trauma? I could tell you what I think, but that would be a lot less fun than just reading it yourself.

Is this a story from personal experience?
I’ll say this: The story is important to me, and I have great empathy for both the man and the skunk.

You’ve worked with Jon Klassen, Adam Rex, Dan Santat, Kevin Cornell, Chris Van Dusen, Jen Corace, and now the great Patrick McDonnell. Do you have any say in deciding which artist illustrates your words, or do your editors generally surprise you? When did you find out it would be Patrick for The Skunk?
I’ve been lucky—editors have consulted with me about illustrators, and this has been the case since my first book, when I worked with Adam Rex. On The Skunk, it was funny: I think my editor, Simon Boughton, and I both came to the conversation planning to suggest Patrick McDonnell. After we agreed, I just hoped Patrick would be interested—he usually works alone.

When you write your manuscript, how much direction do you give to the artist? How closely—if at all—do you typically work with them? Do you get to see the artwork take shape little by little, in various stages, or do you see it nearly done toward the end of the process? How did things come together with this book?
It depends. The first conversation Patrick and I had about The Skunk happened last week. When I work with Jon Klassen and Adam Rex, both of whom are good buddies, we tend to be in pretty close touch throughout the process.

When I’m working on the manuscript, I try to leave plenty of space to let the illustrator do the storytelling. Writing a picture book is the art of finishing an unfinished thing.

Is there an illustrator you haven’t worked with yet who you’re dying to collaborate with?
There are lots. Isabelle Arsenault, Laura Carlin, Emily Hughes, Isol.

Patrick is from the comics world. Have you ever been inspired to pen a comic or graphic novel?
Not yet. I’m always excited by new forms, though.

SkunkFerriswheelYour picture books take risks. There’s a sense of playing with and upending expectations (Guess Again!), using humor to poke fun at authority (Mustache!, President Taft is Stuck in the Bath), exploring metafiction (Battle Bunny, Chloe and the Lion), and delving into some existential crises (Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, The Skunk). Was it ever hard to sell your ideas to editors and publishers—especially when you were first starting off in the industry? Who have your champions been?
I’ve been fortunate to work with editors at many different houses, and, with all their help, I’ve been able to put out a body of work I’m very proud of. But I haven’t found a single editor who gets, or gets excited about, every book I’ve published. And that’s OK. I think my stories are animated by a shared philosophy or set of ethics, but I don’t like repeating myself, and one book tends to be pretty different from another. My real champion, the person who from the beginning has understood all the strange and varied things I write, is my agent, Steve Malk. He’s incredible—a great reader, a great editor, a great adviser, a great businessman, a great friend. When you look at the books he’s represented, the many writers and illustrators he’s encouraged, it’s hard not to think that his creative contribution to 21st-century children’s books will be on par with someone like Ursula Nordstrom’s in the 20th.

Children’s book reviewers sometimes have the view that certain types of humor or themes are too sophisticated for young children—that very often most forms of subtlety, irony, and ambiguity go “over the heads” of the intended audience. What are your thoughts? When you do class visits, what are some of the reactions from kids?
I spend a lot of my time with kids—I visit more than 50 schools per year. Children’s literary tastes vary as widely as adults’, and my books aren’t for everyone. No good book is. But I believe children are more likely than adults to enjoy fiction that takes risks, just as they’re more likely to climb a dodgy jungle gym, or dance in front of strangers. Childhood is experimental. It’s only right that children’s books have long been a place for experimental literature.

I think a lot of the time, when an adult objects to a kids’ book as being too dark, or too subtle, or too ambiguous, it’s because that book’s darkness, subtlety, or ambiguity doesn’t comport with that adult’s literary tastes, or with some benighted idea of what childhood should be. Too often, the term “kid- friendly” is used to club down books that threaten adults. And when we too tightly circumscribe the biblioverse of children, who are trying to discover the kinds of books they’ll spend their whole lives reading, it’s not just patronizing and insulting. It’s downright unethical.

Mac BarnettWhat were your favorite picture books when you were a kid? When did you decide that you wanted to write one (or dozens) of them?
I loved James Marshall, Ruth Krauss, Arnold Lobel, Margaret Wise Brown, and Maurice Sendak. My mom never put my picture books away—they stayed on our bookshelves and remained part of my reading life through middle and high school. I always wanted to be a writer. It was in college, the summer before my senior year, when I figured out that I wanted to write picture books.

You seem like you’re always having the time of your life. Is this the best job on the planet?
Yes and yes.

For the aspiring picture book creators out there, what’s your one piece of advice?
Read. Read picture books all the time. It’s a peculiar form with a tremendous history. Before you start, and after, you should acquaint yourself with the craft and the tradition. (And that reading leads outward, from picture books to novels, poetry, folktale, myth, music, dance, and theater—get into all that stuff, too.)

What are you working on now?
I’m writing my first picture book biography—on Margaret Wise Brown.

Kiera Parrott About Kiera Parrott

Kiera Parrott is the reviews director for School Library Journal and Library Journal and a former children's librarian. Her favorite books are ones that make her cry—or snort—on public transportation.



  1. Lauren Soloy says:

    Thanks for this interview! Mac is a hero of mine, and I loved the quote “But I believe children are more likely than adults to enjoy fiction that takes risks, just as they’re more likely to climb a dodgy jungle gym, or dance in front of strangers.” Yes and yes and yes!