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Mac Barnett & Jory John Talk with Roger

 TalksWithRoger_Barnett_John

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mac barnett

Mac Barnett

Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winner Mac Barnett (for Extra Yarn, with Jon Klassen) and Jory John (All My Friends Are Dead, with Avery Monsen) team up for a tale about an equally formidable pair of pranksters, The Terrible Two. It’s kind of like the pots calling the kettles, er, pots. I caught up with them via phone between — literally between; they were driving — school visits.

Roger Sutton: So where are you school-visiting?

Mac Barnett: We’re in Houston, Texas. We’re visiting twenty-two schools in one week, Roger. It’s pretty insane.

RS: And what do you talk about?

MB: We’re talking about pranks and how to be a prankster.

Jory John: It’s an instructional presentation on pranking. How to make your pranking notebook, places to hide it, things to write on the outside, including boring words like form and business.

MB: You know, the secret language of pranking. What we actually do is come in disguised as two people with terrible mustaches who are going to give a presentation on healthy eating choices. The kids almost rioted this morning when the principal announced the pranking presentation was canceled and instead they would be listening to an assembly about nutrition. The kids really lost it. It was a nice moment.

RS: Just what kind of role models are you presenting yourselves to be here?

MB: I’m not sure we’re presenting ourselves as real role models. I don’t think literature has ever been a real place for role models. It’s sort of a refuge for scoundrels, isn’t it, Roger?

RS: Mac, you should know better. You should have seen the tongue in my cheek.

MB: I know. You should have seen the tongue in my cheek. My tongue was almost in your cheek, Roger, that’s how—

RS: Oh, now it’s getting interesting. How did this book get started?

JJ: Mac and I have been friends for more than ten years. We met working at an educational nonprofit. And we have been pranking each other the whole time. It’s our own version of a prank war. We thought we would channel some of that energy into writing a book.

MB: The pranks were starting to take a toll on our friendship, so we said, “Why don’t we write a series of novels together? That’d be more productive.” But it turns out that it’s probably taken an even greater toll.

JJ: I would agree with that. Roger, I know I don’t know you very well, but I’m confiding in you.

MB: This isn’t getting published anywhere, is it?

RS: Thirty thousand people will be receiving this in their inboxes.

JJ: Okay, as long as it’s not 35,000.

Jory John

Jory John

RS: So how does the collaboration work?

MB: Well — and this wouldn’t have been possible even two years ago — we opened up a Google doc while we were in the same room sitting across from each other. It’s basically a live file that has two cursors. So Jory and I would be typing in the same document, sometimes working on different sections, but sometimes shaping the same sentences at the same time. It was really kind of mind-blowing. There were times when I would send a character to one side of the room, and then Jory would move him back to the other side of the room. It was the exact thing that character would do, and he seemed to be doing it of his own accord. We both knew these characters really well, so it was amazing to just kind of watch them do things in front of your eyes.

RS: How did you resist the temptation to mess with each other? Would you prank each other while you were writing the book?

MB: Well, no. When we were writing the book it was mostly hard work and then watching a lot of TV.

JJ: We would always ease into the writing by watching about three to six hours of television.

RS: You know, old guys like me can get cranky about you smart alecks taking over children’s books.

MB: I like where this is going, Roger.

RS: We are seeing a new kind of humor in children’s books. I mean, Jon [Scieszka] and Lane [Smith] started giving it to us about twenty-five years ago. Now it’s everywhere.

MB: Jon and Lane are a big reason I got into children’s books. I read The Stinky Cheese Man as an adult. I missed that book when I was a kid. I grew up mostly with books bought at yard sales, picture books from the fifties to 1975, which is really a lucky thing. But Jon and Lane’s book is the kind of stuff I was reading and loving in college. I love those adult writers with the pranking ethos, DeLillo and Barthelme and David Foster Wallace. I don’t see any reason not to bring those kinds of influences to bear on books for children. It’s a sort of patronizing idea that literature for children has to feature role models of exemplary behavior. I think not only is that bogus, but it leads to really boring books.

barnett and john_terrible twoRS: True. So what envelope is this book pushing?

MB: I don’t think we’re trying to push an envelope. This is a book about pranking, which maybe carries with it subversion, but it’s rooted in the tradition of friendship books that I love.

JJ: Everybody in the book needs a friend. The two pranksters are basically loners up front. Mac and I both really like the character of the principal. Even though he’s a buffoon, even though he flies off the handle and plays favorites, we’re very sympathetic toward him.

RS: Sure. We understand why he is the way he is.

MB: If anything, I think the envelope it’s pushing is to inject real character, warmth, and friendship into comedy. I don’t know how groundbreaking that is, but that would be the only agenda that I had in mind.

JJ: I also think about the fresh start. Mac and I both had times when we moved, started new schools, and we know how hard that was, figuring out your identity and who you’re going to be at the new school.

RS: What do you each think the other brought to this project that you didn’t have yourself?

MB: The narrative voice is so much a fusion of the way that Jory writes jokes and the way that I write jokes. It’s this hybrid of our two styles and a classic one-plus-one-equals-three situation.

JJ: Absolutely. And I learned so much from Mac. I had mostly been writing humor books, and my instinct is generally to go for the joke. Mac would say, “This is what Miles misses about his old life. Let’s talk about some of the things he loved about his hometown.”

RS: By putting that kind of flesh on the bones of the joke, as it were, you do give readers a stake in what happens to these kids.

MB: I sure hope so. They mean a lot to us.

RS: This is only the first in a series. How are you envisioning things going?

MB: The first draft of the second book is finished. The second book is dealing with two questions. One is, should we feel bad for Principal Barkin? And two is, who is Niles, and how did he get that way? We’re getting to spend more time with these guys and figure out why everybody’s brains works the way they do, and why they feel the way they do about the world.

RS: Is that smart girl Holly going to discover their identity?

MB: That’s a great question. It doesn’t happen in book two, but I would definitely say it’s on the radar. That’s another big thing these books are about: who we show to the world and who we are underneath, and the fact that the things we hide are often the most interesting ones.

JJ: Did you like Holly as a character, Roger?

RS: I did. For a while I wondered if she was the prankster.

MB: That’s exactly what we wanted. That’s great to hear.

RS: I figured it was Niles or it was Holly. But then of course the cover, I guess, gives it away. I hadn’t even thought about that. I feel stupid now.

MB: No, Roger.

JJ: No way. Never.

RS: How did you work with the illustrator? Because a lot of the jokes land in the picture rather than in the text, so you needed more coordination than is usual for an illustrated novel.

MB: Definitely. Kevin Cornell and I have worked together a bunch.

JJ: We knew Kevin was right from the start. It was no accident that Kevin ended up with us. We picked him and submitted a package with his art because he was just so perfect for the book. We worked on exactly the right sort of scratchiness that we wanted from him, to point him in the right direction, and then he just nailed it. We call it a grand slam.

MB: I think the trick of writing a good picture book manuscript is to leave that space for illustration. An illustrated novel can do the same thing.

RS: I have one last question: Can either or both of you offer a moral defense of pranking?

MB: Oh, absolutely. Pranking is a great way to indicate the underlying absurdities of the world. There’s so much effort put into creating order, an order that is not necessarily true order or justifiable order. Pranking exposes the truth that underneath this appearance of order is joy, laughter, and disorder.

JJ: We were just talking about this in our last school visit, actually. People were asking about the lines between pranking and other types of mischief. Pranking is ultimately turning the world upside down. It’s in good fun.

MB: That phrase, “a harmless prank.” I think this is the point. Not only is a good prank harmless, but, like a good story, it reveals an essential truth that would otherwise be hidden.

JJ: Mac and I prank each other during our presentation. We show baby pictures of each other looking completely ridiculous. I can’t believe the frilly shirt that I’m in, and Mac’s wearing a sailor suit and playing a toy piano. That’s a perfect example of a good prank, where we have three hundred people literally laughing in our faces, three hundred kids at every assembly. And it feels really good. It’s really fun.

MB: And it says to them: this could happen to you. We put authors on such a pedestal, and it’s a moment that humanizes the whole thing, and lends an absurdity to what otherwise is a “please sit with your hands on your lap” kind of event.

RS: Have either of you ever had a prank go awry? That is, it really did end up being hurtful in a way you didn’t intend.

MB: That’s another thing that the second book is about, Roger, that exact feeling. It hasn’t happened with pranks as much as with jokes. I definitely have made jokes and people have been offended and hurt. That feeling is the absolute worst. Even owning up to it and making amends is tough. There is a line, and that line gets crossed in the second book. Our characters are trying to figure out how they can right this wrong that they did.

RS: Looking forward to it. Enjoy Houston. You should take a ride through all the petroleum processing refineries on the road between Houston and Galveston. Have you been there at night? It’s amazing. The lights and the steam and the gas.

MB: Is this a prank?

RS: No, no. It’s beautiful.


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Sponsored by
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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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