February 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Good Books Are Like Good Pranks: Chatting with the Terribly Funny Authors of “The Terrible Two”

Terrible Two 2Mac Barnett and Jory John, authors of The Terrible Two (2015), kicked off their book tour for the second installment of the series, The Terrible Two Get Worse (2016, both Abrams), on Saturday, January 10 at ALA Midwinter. By the time we met up, the pair had already spent the morning greeting librarian fans, signing books, and telling jokes—they are close friends who share a similar sense of humor and comedic timing, sometimes even finishing one another’s sentences. After finding a quiet spot away from the hubbub of the exhibits floor, we spoke about being a new kid, forging one’s identity, and the subversive—yet honorable—underpinnings of pranking. The conversation took a few detours, as Barnett and Jory riffed on each other’s answers.

In book one, we met Miles, the new kid in Yawnee Valley who was the prank king at his last school, and Niles, a goody-two shoes who [SPOILER ALERT for those who haven’t read the first book!] turns out to be secret genius prankster mastermind.

JJ: That IS a spoiler alert!

MB: I haven’t actually finished the book yet…

Whoops—sorry about that! Didn’t mean to ruin it for you, Mac. In this relationship, is one of you a Miles, one a Niles?

MB: I think so. We definitely feel an affinity for both those characters, but I won’t dance around it: I feel like I’m a Niles.

JJ: Yeah, and I have more of an affinity to Miles. But there’s a lot of overlap in the characteristics between the two of us. Mac and I both grew up in single parent households; we both moved at pivotal points in our childhood, and had to start over at new schools and try to figure out our identites.

MB: I should say, just for the record—because I’ve heard this come up in many interviews I’ve done with you—I did not move at a pivotal point in my childhood.

MB: Sorry!

JJ: Huh. Really? Right, that was me.

MB: See, you are definitely a Miles.

JJ: Well, in any case, I did have that experience at age nine, moving from this beach town, Santa Cruz, CA, to the mountains of Lake Tahoe and I had to figure out who I was in relation to those kids. It was a difficult transition for a few years, for sure.

I love that part in the first book where Miles has that moment—he has to figure out what kind of kid he’s going to be. The cool kid, the sporty kid, the quirky kid with the strange socks?

JJ: That was one of our favorite parts, too.

MB: Though I didn’t move, I did switch schools as a kid and I think that is a really big part of it, that fantasy of the first day of school. That question of who am I going to be? It is a chance to reinvent yourself. But, of course, I think you always wind up just being some version of yourself, right?

JJ: Yeah, people always figure you out eventually.

That’s so true. I moved a lot as a kid and each time I thought to myself, now’s my chance. This time I’ll be the cool girl! But it never quite panned out that way.

JJ: That’s right—it never quite pans out. They always figure you out.

MB: You always become yourself.

JJ: I had that same experience where I thought, This time I’m going to be friends with all the popular kids. So I sort of moved into that circle for a second and I quickly realized—

MG: Literally, Jory just physically moved and stood next to the cool kids. Which, you know, is not a good way to make friends. But that’s how we became friends. We were working together and Jory just kept coming over and just standing next to me. And on week three, I finally asked, What’s your name?

JJ: That’s exactly right…. Now I forget what point I was trying to make. I think there was one? That I’m…

MB: A Miles, you’re a Miles.

JJ: Yeah, exactly. That no matter what you’re trying to be, people always figure you out. And you figure out that maybe it’s okay to be that person—to be yourself—whether or not that’s accepted.

MB: See, I was able to answer that question in one sentence: “I’m more of a Niles.” Done.

JJ: Right, well, that’s because I’m more of a Miles. I ramble.

I’ve heard that you guys play pranks when you visit schools. Can you tell me about any recent pranks you’ve perpetrated on unsuspecting children?

MB: We have the principal tell the students something like, “I know we were going to have an author visit today, but I read this book last night and it’s about pranking and pranks at school, and pranking the principal. That’s not appropriate. That’s not our school spirit! To be honest, this book isn’t even any good! The author visit is canceled…. But, we’re going to do something even more fun: I called two local pediatricians and they’re going to talk to you about healthy eating choices. They’re called The Rockin’ Docs!”

JJ: And then, for the next 15 minutes, we give the worst presentation on healthy eating choices that the kids have ever seen.

MB: We come out in lab coats and fake mustaches. Sometimes the kids boo us. There are always a few kids who are like, “Those are the guys, those are the guys!” But as we proceed to show slide after slide about healthy eating, you can see the hope extinguish in their eyes.

JJ: It’s fun to get the principal involved because they really get into it. They get a chance to go up in front of their students and act. We only give them about five minutes of warning, they don’t know [until we arrive] that they’re about to “cancel” the event.

MB: We had this one principal…he threw our book on the floor and screamed, “This book isn’t funny!” Another time we had a librarian say—and I wish this was our introduction every time—she said to the kids, “You know I love you as much as my arms are wide. But I have to tell you, there are much better books than this one.” I love it. That is exactly the expectation I want every time I go on stage.

JJ: Then, by the time we rip off our mustaches and take off our lab coats, they cheer and go crazy. For the rest of the presentation, Mac and I go back and forth talking about all the pranks we’ve pulled on each other.

MB: It becomes a workshop on how to prank.

JJ: It’s this strange, circuitous path to an actual reading. We talk about how to be a prankster, we describe all these pranks we’ve pulled on each other. The kids get all riled up, but then we bring them back down again. We read from the book and things go really quiet. And we end with a coda—one more big prank. It’s a really fun presentation for us to do—and we’ve done a lot. We’ll be visiting about 20 schools next week.

Terrible Two Mac and Jory in Costume

From l. to r.: Jory John and Mac Barnett in disguise as a pair of pediatricians, about to prank a roomful of kids. Photo credit: Jason Wells/Amulet Books.

Have you inspired any kids to create their own pranks? Any annoyed emails from parents or principals?

MB: We talk a lot about pranking notebooks, which is a big part of the book, and we get sent a lot of pictures of all these pranking notebooks teachers find. Kids write into our website, too. They write about the pranks that they’ve pulled and there’s a pranksters hall of fame. There’s a girl, Esther, who just wrote in. Esther froze a snowball and a couple weeks later woke up her sister, with the snowball in her hand, and said, “It’s a snow day!” That’s amazing!

JJ: We’ve also been on the other end of it. You remember the school that pranked us?

MB: Yes! As we were walking in, the principal told us that it was a testing day, not the best day to have an author visit.

JJ: And that the kids were working on their testing skills.

MB: So he warns us that the audience will be a bit smaller than anticipated.

JJ: Usually, we’re in an auditorium with about 500 kids.

MB: So, he tells us that because it’s testing day, we’re going to see the kids that are “really good at bubbling.”

JJ: So he leads us into this teeny tiny room with eight kids.

MB: And they each had their standardized test sheets that were all filled in, with comments in red pen from teachers that said thing like, “Great bubbles!” And the principal begins to introduce us.

JJ: And there’s a photo of us at that moment and both of our mouths are just wide open.

MB: We got totally worked. Of course, in retrospect, the idea of kids being in remedial bubbling is ridiculous. But at the time, it felt exactly right.

JJ: And then, of course, we were taken to the auditorium where there were 500 kids waiting. There was another school where they all held up massive cow signs at one point. So sometimes the kids will anticipate us and prank us when we get there.

Terrible Two swering in

Jory and Mac swearing in a group of kids into the “International Order of Disorder.” Photo credit: Jason Wells/Amulet Books.

The official pranking terminology used in the books, like “goat,” did you make that up? I Googled the International Order of Disorder, but couldn’t find any references.

MB: Well, it’s very secret.

Of course.

MB: We were very much inspired by the thieves’s argot. Any culture, especially an ultra secret subculture, needs to develop that language. So we wanted to develop a secret language of pranking. Pranking shares a lot in common with cons. But pranks are really recourse for the powerless—that’s what a great prank is. We made up these terms, but there are some amazing books on practical jokes.

JJ: The oath was really important to us. And it’s not just something in the book; we bring it to the schools and swear in all the kids [to the International Order of Disorder] at the end of our presentation. It’s another way of pulling them into that world.

One of the things I love about the book is the fact that even though these kids are pranksters, masters of mischief, up to no good, they are incredibly sweet kids. They have good hearts. There is an ethical basis, an honor code within the Order. Underlying the mayhem is a lot of heart.

MD: There are ethics to pranks. That’s what makes a prank a prank. They are anti-authoritarian, they are oftentimes absurdist, they subvert expectations. Last year, a kid asked us, “Do you consider yourself more pranksters or writers?” The truth is, good books are a lot like good pranks. They challenge the things that we’ve heard, they tell us new things about the world, they tell us the truth about our world, they can challenge authority. And, sometimes, they’re funny.

Tell us about book two. I understand that something quite unfortunate happens with Principal Barkin.

JJ: It starts with the “Golden Age of Pranking,” Miles and Niles are finally teamed up and really working together on lots of pranks.

MB: But then, Miles and Niles pull a prank which, regardless of their intentions, goes too far. And so they have that experience of a joke going too far and hurting someone. That’s a terrible, awful feeling. Principal Barkin is fired and replaced by his father, Principal Barkin. It’s very confusing! The new Principal Barkin shares his son’s disdain for pranking, but he has a much more severe way of handling them. Miles and Niles have to now deal with this new principal at school, but also come to terms with their ethical obligation for playing a prank that basically ruined someone’s life.

How does the writing process work for you two?

JJ: We’ve definitely experimented with every which way at this point. At the very beginning, when we lived in the same town, we had a regular writing day. The writing day preceded the book, actually. We were two relatively lonely fellas, sitting in our houses, with no schedule and nowhere to go and not a lot of friends. So we’d come together every Monday and work on our various projects, whatever they were. Then we’d take a walk at lunch and talk about ideas. This [series] really sprung out of that.

MB: We talked a lot about books we loved as kids. I loved Matilda. That was one of my favorites, and Jory was a big fan of a series I hadn’t read as a kid, “The Great Brain.”

JJ: I was a huge fan of the “Great Brain” books. If you look at those books and The Terrible Two, there’s some parallels. That kind of goes back to that heart. There are stories in “The Great Brain” where, rereading them recently, I teared up. They’re so funny and filled with pranks, but you get to the chapter where they have a funeral for a dog and the whole town turns out, and it’s just so poignant.

MB: So, pretty soon [after the regular Monday writing days] we went from working on separate books to working on this idea together. We were writing it in Google docs. So we’d have this document open, and we’d be on our laptops, sitting across from one another, typing. Sometimes we’d work on separate sections, sometimes we’d work on the same sentence and literally be finishing each others sentences.

JJ: It was an interesting way to learn how to collaborate. I could see Mac’s sentence forming and finish it.

You have to have a total mind meld to be able to pull that off successfully.

MB: Yeah, I think Jory and I have this voice in the books that’s a real melding of the two of us. It’s a place that neither of us would have gotten to without the other.

JJ: A lot of our individual interests, too, were able to make it into the books.

MB: Jory’s a big fan of death metal. Which I’m not really into.

JJ: That’s not true. But we do have different answers for some of the elements in the book. For instance, why are there so many cows? We both love cows for different reasons. My passion came out of a love of “The Far Side.” I was so inspired by Gary Larson.

MB: Can we make the headline for this interview “Jory’s Passion for Cows”?

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.

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  1. Thank you, Kiera, Mac and Jory for your entertaining chat. I love the idea of pulling school principals into your author visit pranks. Sadly, I disagree with Mac when he said – “You always become yourself.” I wish that was true. But many children are forever changed by their circumstances. Sometimes the change is for the better – sometimes.

  2. Jilanne Hoffmann says:

    Yes, these two are hilarious. We invited them to our school and the kids haven’t been the same since. Kind of like letting pranking out of the bag, it’s become SOP. Love it! My son is reading the second book, so I’m going to have to watch my back or think twice before responding to some strange situation. :D