Mac Barnett and Greg Pizzoli Talk with Roger

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Mac Barnett and Greg Pizzoli hope you are happy to make the acquaintance of their new easy-reader antihero Jack and his friends/foils Rex (a dog) and the Lady (a lady). Hi Mac! Hi Greg! Hi, Jack!

Roger Sutton: Was this series conceived by the two of you from the start?

Mac Barnett: Not at the very start, but pretty early on. I finished writing the first book, Hi, Jack!, at three in the morning. I woke up my wife, who is a children's book editor, and made her read it — which is one of the occupational hazards of being married to me.

RS: Read it right then?

MB: At three in the morning, yeah.

RS: You owe her big time.

MB: I owe her so big time. When she read it, she said, "Greg should do this." I had been picturing his art when I wrote it. Then I sent it to my agent, and he said, "Greg should do this." So there was something about this text that was linked to Greg from the start, but I still had that nervous moment of sending it to Greg and hoping that he'd like it.

RS: And Greg? Did you like it?

Greg Pizzoli: I did, immediately. I remember laughing a lot — I was actually surprised at how much I was laughing. Within a day or two I had drawn sketches of the characters and made up a proposal for how I thought the book should look. It was one of those rare projects that clicked immediately.

RS: Who decided Jack was a rabbit?

MB: That was a very late decision. We made it together. At first, he was a monkey, but some people believe anthropomorphic monkeys in children's literature have an inherent connection with the monkey as used in racist iconography. We didn't want anyone to associate the hero of our books with an offensive trope, so we made Jack a rabbit instead.

RS: Pulled him out of a hat, eh? My first laugh in Hi, Jack! came, I think, precisely where it was supposed to, which is when he swipes the purse. Not only is it unexpected — it's a surprise within the story — but it's also a surprise within an easy reader. They don't usually have that degree of troublemaking. Or do they?

MB: There's been a tension in children's literature from the very start as to whether stories are supposed to provide explicit moral instruction. With easy readers, because they have a pedagogical purpose — teaching kids to read — that moral imperative sneaks back in, and we also end up trying to teach them how to act. Which I don't think we should.
 

RS: I'm not even sure I agree that easy readers are for teaching kids to read. Maybe this is just my experience, but when we were young, the easy readers were rewards for doing well in classroom reading.

MB: I was a reading tutor for many years and then taught writing, which often involves going back and teaching reading. Series such as Frog and Toad and George and Martha were important tools for me. Those books are great! With so many other easy readers, you watch a kid struggle to decode a sentence, and when they get to the end it's totally banal.

RS: "Why did I have to read that?"

MB: Right. "Why did I do all that work?" I think that's the greatest betrayal you can commit, as an author or as somebody who's trying to instill a love of reading in children.

RS: What worked for each of you? What were your own first reading experiences?

GP: I was raised by a single mom and spent a lot of time at the library. The first book I remember feeling was my own was Don and Audrey Wood's Quick as a Cricket. Arnold Lobel's Owl at Home, a few choice Berenstain Bears books, and Frog and Toad were big for me, too. I spent hours copying from Ed Emberley's drawing books, which is why I felt it was important to pay tribute to his work with the how-to-draw sections at the end of the Jack books. I'm a huge Marshall fan and love George and Martha now, but I didn't actually find them until my early twenties.

MB: Marshall was huge for me. I grew up with a single mom, too, and our favorite book to read together was The Stupids Step Out, which is so anarchic and wild. I remember her laughing so hard tears were streaming from her eyes. It wasn't like she was reading to me; we were experiencing this thing together. That was special, that experience of sharing a piece of art with another person and laughing together.

RS: How did you divvy up responsibilities for the storytelling? With the classic Little Bear and Frog and Toad books, the storytelling is entirely in the text. The illustrations provide clues to support the text, but they don't become part of the narrative. But in your books, the illustrations absolutely do. You have an interplay going on between text and pictures. Who's in charge of that?

GP: It starts with Mac. He's very charitable in his writing — he leaves a lot of room for me to insert myself into the storytelling. This series has been the most collaborative I've worked on. Mac and I have been friends for so long, it's a natural part of our friendship to talk about picture books. So while I wouldn't normally share my sketches to get feedback from an author — publishers tend to prohibit that — we've had much more of a dialogue about where the series is going and ways that I could, with the pictures, firm up a message within a particular story. We've been able to see the long view of this universe together.

MB: I think you're right, Roger, that the dynamic of an easy reader is different from a picture book. In a picture book, words and pictures split the burden of the storytelling fairly evenly, if it's working well. Often the pictures do more narrative work than the words. In a reader, that relationship changes. Kids are just beginning to read on their own, so the pictures are there to support them in decoding a text. Greg and I wanted to see if we could have the pictures perform that utilitarian role, but also have a relationship between text and image that was more dynamic, more picture-book-like.

GP: One of my favorite examples of that would be from Jack Goes West, when Jack is forced to carry luggage for another character who's not very nice to him. The narrator says, "Why are you mad, Jack? Why are you mad?" The narrator's asking him that question, but it's up to the reader to decipher, through the pictures and what's happened in the story so far, why Jack would be mad that he has to carry all the luggage for this person. It's a surprise — something the narrator isn't saying directly, but the pictures act as a wink and a nod to the reader so that they feel like they're in on a joke. If Jack is getting away with something, it feels as if the reader is getting away with that same thing.

MB: For new readers a feeling of accomplishment is so important, whether it comes from figuring things out for yourself as you're reading or from just getting through a book that's divided into chapters. Many kids aren't concerned with word count so much as some of those trappings of "bookness": "I've read six chapters" or "I've read a ninety-page book." How do we foster that sense of accomplishment, the sense of interacting with a book?

RS: Now that you're well into the series, does your collaboration work differently than it had at the beginning?

GP: The collaboration has changed in that at the beginning we were creating something from scratch. There wasn't any sort of template that we were following from book to book; we're creating this universe as we go. At the start of book two, Jack Blasts Off, the Lady is fed up with Jack and Rex, so she puts them in a rocket and sends them into space. There's a freedom that came with that idea — now we can do anything. I'm excited for all the places we're going to be able to take these characters throughout the series.

RS: Remember when Little Bear went to the moon?

MB: Yeah, absolutely.

GP: Yeah.

MB: It's a great move. Send your character to the moon early.

RS: Once you've admitted that possibility into your fictional universe, you've given yourselves all kinds of freedom. But don't go crazy, okay?

GP: That's where genre helps. I want to throw out this idea that the early reader itself is the genre. Hi, Jack! starts out exploding the notion that there are rules and conventions in an early reader. Jack Blasts Off is a sci-fi early reader. But we also have a Western, a baseball book, a post-apocalyptic book. For a lot of kids, genre is one of the great joys of reading.

RS: What else are you going to do? Do you have a mystery story?

MB: Jack Goes West is a Western and a mystery. I read a lot of mysteries. Making a mystery out of something that limited in vocabulary was a real challenge. We have Jack and Santa coming — this is the only series I've written that I would make a Christmas book for. The first time we see Santa he's hanging upside down in a trap that Jack has laid for him — that's the next thing Greg has to illustrate.

GP: To be fair, Santa wasn't being very nice to Jack.

RS: How long do you guys think you can keep going with Jack?

MB: I think twenty-six.

RS: I wonder what the record is for number of books in an easy reader series.

MB: Elephant & Piggie has to be up there.

RS: They're huge, yeah. [Twenty-five — ed.]

MB: What we wanted was to create fundamental characters here, in this trio. Greg and I talked a lot about Looney Tunes when we were first planning the series, the way you had these core characters you could put into any situation. That's what we feel like with Jack — we can put him in lots of different situations and tell a different kind of story, knowing that story will make these three characters, who you already know, react in some interesting way.

RS: Do you see Jack growing from book to book, or is he going to be the same guy throughout?

MB: I think that we might grow in our understanding of who Jack is from book to book. Already you can see that the character who is growing and changing the most is the Lady. I think Jack is changing her.

GP: Our understanding of the Lady is changing in the way that she reacts to Jack. The complexity of character in Too Many Jacks, which will be the sixth book in the series, or Jack at the Zoo, the fifth book, or even the fact that he travels home in first class at the end of Jack Goes West.

RS: With stolen funds.

GP: Right. The moral hula-hooping that you have to perform with Jack starts with upsetting expectations at the beginning of the first book, when he nabs the Lady's purse — because he's so interested in wearing her lipstick. Then he's stopping a crime — there's a lot of complexity there. I am really interested to see how readers react to that. I hope Mac and I are able to continue to collaborate in ways that feel like we're making each story more and more interesting.

MB: The narrator grows, too. In the first few chapters of Hi, Jack!, morality, right and wrong, is very simple: Jack is bad. Kids will know immediately that it's more complicated than that. Adults, their mileage will vary. I appreciated that nobody at Viking ever asked us to "redeem" Jack. I don't think Jack does anything that needs redeeming, and it can be alienating for kids who get into trouble a lot to see a character who gets into trouble have an epiphany and become good out of nowhere — they feel like, oh, I never had that; I try to do better and then I mess up again, and that's what my life is. Jack has a really wide spectrum of emotion, but he is who he is, and it's important for kids to see that. We want to write with generosity about a kid who isn't always treated generously by books or by the world.

 

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Roger Sutton
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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