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Mac Barnett and Adam Rex’s Chloe and the Lion is a complex affair of metafictional play, appropriately taking place on a stage and peopled by puppets. They include a feisty little girl, a lion — and the author and illustrator, arguing with each other about just what turns the story should take, such as when in-the-book Adam challenges in-the-book Mac to illustrate the darn thing for himself, whereupon we see Chloe become one very badly drawn girl. I began the interview by asking Adam and Mac how they gauged children’s understanding of such literary antics.
Adam Rex: You look at things like Looney Tunes cartoons and the Roadrunner, right? Wile E. Coyote paints a tunnel on the wall of a mountainside, and the Roadrunner runs right through but the coyote gets flattened against the rock. That’s a funny joke, but there is a complex metafictional thing going on there, and we understood it as kids. I loved metafiction as a kid. It’s game-playing, and it has a pretty broad tradition in kids’ entertainment. It’s just maybe that the picture book is getting into the game a little late. Mac and I talked about the seminal Looney Tunes cartoon “Duck Amok” where the animator is basically, you know, just messing with Daffy and putting him through all kinds of torturous paces. Look at a picture book like The Monster at the End of This Book, the old Sesame Street and Grover book published in 1971. That’s kind of the grandfather of books like ours. I read Chloe and the Lion to one pre-K-to-kindergarten class, and they seemed to be laughing at all the same stuff as the fifth graders that I read it to later in the same day.
RS: Mac, you told me about enthusing about The Stinky Cheese Man to a friend in college only to find out that friend, Casey, was Jon Scieszka’s daughter. How did you happen upon the book in the first place?
Mac Barnett: It was the only book in the library at my summer camp that I could stand. I got sick of everything very quickly. It was a remarkably bad library. The Stinky Cheese Man really was the only thing in there that could hold my attention.
AR: I worked at a Waldenbooks when I was in high school and into college, and it was there that I picked up The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. I hadn’t looked at any kids’ books, of course, for years, because I hadn’t been a kid in years. But I was thinking that I might like to tell stories and draw and paint pictures for a living, and seeing that remarkable stuff being done by Jon and by Lane Smith and by William Joyce came at just the right time for me.
RS: That was a real boom time in picture book publishing.
AR: I realized that later when I actually was trying to get into the industry and was told over and over again by editors who were looking at my picture book dummies that “If you had shown this to me, like, five years ago, I totally would have bought it, but boom time’s over, kid.” And so I just packed up my things and made the lonely walk back to my New York flophouse.
RS: I have a technical question about picture book collaboration. What do you do when, for example, in this book, the character Mac says to the character Adam — “so if I say Chloe found a birthday present on the ground, the next page better have a picture of a big pretty birthday present, wrapped up in silver and tied with a pink bow.” And you turn the page and the text says “Very funny. This better be fixed by the next page.” This is all meaningless without a picture to provide the punch line. How does that joke get made in a manuscript?
AR: I think Mac has a good understanding of when that kind of stage direction is really necessary and when it isn’t. I understand a lot of picture book authors fill up their manuscripts with details about art and stage direction, and that’s generally the first thing that the editor removes when sending it along to somebody like me. But I think Mac understands when he has to give just a little clue of what he’s thinking of. And he is all too happy to be surprised by what his illustrator comes up with.
MB: A verbal joke paid off by an illustration is one of my favorite things to do in a picture book. For the last page-turn in that sequence I just put in brackets, “This is the worst humiliation here,” and really left it up to Adam to decide how to trash me.
RS: And Adam, what’s the difference for you between being in charge of the whole thing from the outset when you do the text and the pictures, and when you’re following someone else’s text?
AR: The collaboration with another author can push me a little harder than when I’m working on my own. I’m thinking about Mac’s book with me, Guess Again, where Mac came up with all these rhymes that have surprising outcomes. Had I written it myself I would have taken great pains to go really easy on myself, finding visual gags that would have been very easy to come up with. But Mac wasn’t thinking about the visual gags, or how they would be resolved. He was just making the text as good as it could be. That book really challenged me to come up with images that were as clever as the text was.
RS: So Mac, thinking as an author, and Adam, thinking as an illustrator, who is your dream collaborator? It can be anyone, living or dead.
AR: I just finished a book with Neil Gaiman. I’m not sure when it’s going to come out, but all of the artwork is done. He was always on a shortlist of people I would drop everything to work with, so I’ve had one of my dream collaborations already.
MB: I would like to work with James Marshall. The Stupids Step Out was my favorite book as a kid, and I love Marshall. I think he’s a classic underrated funny guy. I was this close to saying Tomi Ungerer, but I think that guy’s better when he’s not collaborating, so I wouldn’t want to mess with what he’s got. I love that he does whatever he wants. If he wants a character to come in three-quarters of the way through the story, he does that. If he wants to introduce a character on the second-to-last page, he does that. He’s not concerned with character arc. There can be great picture books with character arcs, but not every picture book has to have a character who has an epiphany at the end, and he’s not concerned with those things, and he explores the different ways of telling satisfying stories that don’t play by those rules that I feel get enforced pretty heavily.
RS: Do you feel like you have to play by the rules, you guys?
MB: Sometimes I have to break a sweat keeping the stuff I want in a book.
AR: No one in editorial or advertising illustration is encouraged to try anything new, because otherwise how would the art directors ever know what they’re going to get? So working instead in picture books, I think I’ve been very lucky. I just lucked into this job that allows me to play as much as I want to. And so far everyone’s been very indulgent.
RS: One thing that drives me crazy in editing book reviews is when a reviewer says “trademark illustrations by Joe Blow.” Meaning they look like everything that Joe Blow has ever done. It’s lazy reviewing, but I can see why they resort to that kind of shorthand. Because so many illustrators do try to make a particular look for their work.
AR: I think it would make me die a little inside to read “trademark illustrations by Adam Rex.”
MB: That said, you were telling me the other night, Adam, that Joe Blow was your dream collaborator.
AR: He’s so good. Yeah, I got a little pang when you were dissing on Joe Blow just now.
RS: Did either one of you guys have to learn something new to do this book?
AR: I was pushing at the outer limits of all of my natural ability on this book. Somebody, upon hearing that I don’t consider myself either a good sculptor or a good photographer might wonder why I made a book that was primarily featuring the photography of sculpted puppets, but it was something I wanted to do for so long, so I just did the best I could with my meager abilities. And I did learn more than I ever cared to know about the making of doll clothes.
There was a lot of digital sleight of hand, obviously, but the one piece of doll clothing I’m most proud of, though, is the puppet Adam’s shirt, which is actually made entirely out of toilet paper and glue. And toilet paper has proved to be surprisingly durable. A year and a half later that shirt is still perfectly fine after having posed and reposed on that wire puppet.
RS: And you had one puppet for each of you?
AR: Yeah, that’s right.
RS: And you would draw in the eyes? I think the eyes are amazing. The pupils remind me of James Marshall, in that they make me remember how much expression he could get simply by moving the pupils a quarter of an inch one way or the other way.
AR: Yeah, that’s something I really admire. Sometimes I’m kind of obsessed with a lot of texture and surface detail and a painterly approach. People who can tell as much or more about a character with just a slight movement of a pupil or a little dip of an eyebrow – those are the people I really admire.
MB: I’m always really interested in form, and this book required me to get into some formal considerations that I hadn’t thought of, but I also do make my artistic debut in this book, which I think the world has been waiting for.
RS: Badly Drawn Chloe was actually yours?
MB: Chloe is mine. That lion is mine. And to give you an idea of what a sweet guy Adam is, he called me up, and he said, “Mac, you know, I really feel bad asking you to do this. I’ve been paid to illustrate this book, so I feel bad asking you to do some of the work, but I’m really having trouble drawing badly enough, and even when I try to draw badly, my drawings aren’t as good at being bad as when you try to draw well.” So then I parsed that sentence, and I found out that he was insulting me – he started off so sweet, and then got so rude. I think Adam will probably see I got kind of a primal energy and a rude charm to my work.
AR: That was part of your rude charm, sure.
MB: Thank you, Adam.
RS: Where will you go from here? Are you going to do something else together?
MB: Yes. I have a presentation I give at schools about how a book is made, a question you get asked a lot. It’s just me and a whiteboard I did one day to fill time, and it shows all the things from editorial to printing to pirates, the Bermuda Triangle, all the disasters that go into making a book. It’s very involved, and I think it’s about ten percent useful. One day a kid raised his hand and said, “I have an idea for a story you should write.” And, normally, when a kid says that, they mean a story about a panda and a snake and they have a dance.
AR: Or Spongebob fighting ninjas, or something.
MB: Yeah. As many trademarked characters as possible.
MB: But this kid said you should turn this presentation into a book. And he was right, so I’ve written How This Book Was Made. Adam’s going to illustrate it, and it will be a lot less useful than Aliki’s How a Book Is Made, but will, hopefully, have more arm-wrestling with tigers.
RS: Yeah, but does it have ninjas in it?
MB: It’ll look like I’m pandering. And then zombies, and —
AR: And it’ll become a black hole singularity of pop culture at that point, so we should probably stop.