This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Books saved my life when I was 6 years old. I was ill, and because of the illness, I was confined to bed for most of the school year. Fortunately, the Alpine School District sent a "homebound" teacher who taught me to read, and after that, I was rarely lonely in spite of my isolation from other kids my age.
As much as I loved the company of my books, however, I had absolutely no idea how one was made. Did a pair of books get married and have a shelf full of baby books? Did the stork deliver? Or were books simply organized matter like water and air? When I was 6 years old, I seriously had no idea that actual human beings from writers to editors to illustrators to printers participated in the creation of my favorite books.
Too bad Mac Barnett's highly entertaining new title, "How This Book Was Made" (illustrated by Adam Rex), wasn't around then to answer a few of my questions. And when it comes to making books, Barnett should know. He is, after all, the author of such acclaimed titles as "Sam and Dave Dig a Hole" and "Extra Yarn" (illustrated by Jon Klassen), "Telephone" (illustrated by Jen Corace) and "Leo: A Ghost Story" (illustrated by Christian Robinson). He is also the author of "The Terrible Two" series, written for readers ages 8-12. All of Barnett's books are notable for a quirky sensibility that speaks equally to children and adults.
Barnett, who will be appearing at The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 9, took time out of a busy touring schedule to answer questions about his new book.
"How This Book Was Made" is an exuberant mix of realistic and fanciful details about the writing and publishing process. How did the idea for this project evolve?
When I present at schools, sometimes I'll show kids how a book is made, drawing (badly) on a big whiteboard. And I guess like a lot of stories I tell, the line between reality and fiction gets blurred pretty quickly. One day after I had finished my insane drawing, a girl raised her hand and told me that I should make that, the story of how a book is made, into a book. I knew as soon as she said it that she was right.
What would you say to people who assume making a picture book is easy?
Writing a picture book IS easy. Writing a good picture book is really hard.
Most picture book writers have no (or very little) input when it comes to their books' design and illustrations. Do you collaborate at all with your illustrators?
I do, sometimes. I always have at least some say over who illustrates a manuscript, and I'm incredibly grateful that my editors ask for and consider my opinions. Adam Rex, who illustrated "How This Book Was Made," did the art for my very first text, "Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem." This is our seventh book together, and we're good friends. If he solicits input on a drawing, I'll give it, but really the book is his once I'm done with my text. Adam isn't illustrating my story the story is what happens when my text and his illustrations are combined.
Which five picture books are essential for every family to own?
You know, reading is so personal, I'm reluctant to prescribe any five books to every kid. Part of the fun of being a kid is reading a bunch of stuff, including stuff you don't like, and figuring out what books are essential to you.
You're also a novelist. What are the particular pleasures of writing a novel as opposed to a picture book and vice versa?
I get more pleasure from writing picture books. It's a much newer form, and people are still figuring out what a picture book can do. Plus the interaction between text and image adds an exciting layer of complexity, especially when you can't draw.
You're well known for your sense of humor. Who have been your primary comic influences?
When I was a kid, I would watch Comedy Central all day, usually with the sound low so my mom wouldn't come in and turn it off. In the '90s, Comedy Central played mostly short bits cut from stand-up specials and old episodes of "Saturday Night Live." I memorized bits from comics with giant shoulder pads and tried to get laughs at school. I think James Marshall is probably the funniest picture book writer we've had. Jon Scieszka made me want to write for children. Some of my favorite funny novelists: Douglas Adams, Helen DeWitt, Gogol. I think the funniest thing I read now is a Twitter account called @seinfeld2000.
Do you have a particular audience in mind when you write? Or do you write to entertain yourself?
I think books, like any art, are essentially acts of communication. I have an obligation to the reader, and when you write for kids, you write across the chasm that separates childhood from adulthood, so you'd better have some familiarity with the audience's lived experience.
What would you like to do when you visit Salt Lake City?
I was in Salt Lake City a couple of years ago, on my way to Evanston, Wyo. It was a quick visit, but I ate some good food and did some shopping at The King's English. I know I'll be back at the bookshop, and I'm looking forward to some more good eating.
What's next for Mac Barnett?
Meet Mac Barnett
When • Friday, Sept. 9, 6:30 p.m.
Where • The King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City
Tickets • Free; 801-484-9100 or http://www.kingsenglish.com for more information
"How This Book Was Made"
By Mac Barnett with illustrations by Adam Rex
Price • $17.99
Suggested for • Ages 4 and up