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Mac Barnett: Why a good book is a secret door

June 14, 2014

Childhood is surreal. Why shouldn't children's books be? In this whimsical talk, award-winning author Mac Barnett speaks about writing that escapes the page, art as a doorway to wonder -- and what real kids say to a fictional whale.

Mac Barnett - Children's book author
Mac Barnett is a bestselling author of books for children. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Hi everybody. So my name is Mac.
00:12
My job is that I lie to children,
00:14
but they're honest lies.
00:18
I write children's books,
00:20
and there's a quote from Pablo Picasso,
00:22
"We all know that Art is not truth.
00:25
Art is a lie that makes us realize truth
00:28
or at least the truth that is
given us to understand.
00:32
The artist must know the manner whereby
00:35
to convince others of the
truthfulness of his lies."
00:37
I first heard this when I was a kid,
00:42
and I loved it,
00:44
but I had no idea what it meant.
00:46
(Laughter)
00:49
So I thought, you know what, it's what I'm here
00:50
to talk to you today about, though,
00:52
truth and lies, fiction and reality.
00:54
So how could I untangle
00:56
this knotted bunch of sentences?
00:58
And I said, I've got PowerPoint.
Let's do a Venn diagram.
01:01
["Truth. Lies."]
(Laughter)
01:04
So there it is, right there, boom.
01:07
We've got truth and lies
01:08
and then there's this little space,
01:10
the edge, in the middle.
01:11
That liminal space, that's art.
01:13
All right. Venn diagram. (Laughter) (Applause)
01:19
But that's actually not very helpful either.
01:24
The thing that made me understand
01:27
that quote and really kind of what art,
01:32
at least the art of fiction, was,
01:34
was working with kids.
01:37
I used to be a summer camp counselor.
01:38
I would do it on my summers off from college,
01:40
and I loved it.
01:43
It was a sports summer camp
01:46
for four- to six-year-olds.
01:48
I was in charge of the four-year-olds,
01:49
which is good, because
01:51
four-year-olds can't play
sports, and neither can I.
01:53
(Laughter)
01:56
I play sports at a four-year-old level,
01:58
so what would happen is the kids would
02:01
dribble around some cones, and then got hot,
02:04
and then they would go sit underneath the tree
02:06
where I was already sitting — (Laughter) —
02:08
and I would just make up stories and tell them to them
02:11
and I would tell them stories about my life.
02:14
I would tell them about how, on the weekends,
02:16
I would go home and I would
spy for the Queen of England.
02:17
And soon, other kids
02:21
who weren't even in my group of kids,
02:24
they would come up to me, and they would say,
02:26
"You're Mac Barnett, right?
02:27
You're the guy who spies for the Queen of England."
02:29
And I had been waiting my whole life for strangers
02:32
to come up and ask me that question.
02:35
In my fantasy, they were svelte Russian women,
02:38
but, you know, four-year-olds —
02:40
you take what you can get in Berkeley, California.
02:41
And I realized that the stories that I was telling
02:46
were real in this way that was familiar to me
02:50
and really exciting.
02:54
I think the pinnacle of this for
me — I'll never forget this —
02:55
there was this little girl
named Riley. She was tiny,
02:57
and she used to always take
out her lunch every day
03:00
and she would throw out her fruit.
03:03
She would just take her fruit,
03:05
her mom packed her a melon every day,
03:06
and she would just throw it in the ivy
03:08
and then she would eat fruit snacks
03:09
and pudding cups, and I was like, "Riley,
03:12
you can't do that, you
have to eat the fruit."
03:14
And she was like, "Why?"
03:17
And I was like, "Well, when
you throw the fruit in the ivy,
03:19
pretty soon, it's going to be overgrown with melons,"
03:21
which is why I think I ended up
03:25
telling stories to children and not
being a nutritionist for children.
03:27
And so Riley was like, "That will never happen.
03:32
That's not going to happen."
03:34
And so, on the last day of camp,
03:35
I got up early and I got a big cantaloupe
03:38
from the grocery store
03:41
and I hid it in the ivy,
03:43
and then at lunchtime, I was like,
03:45
"Riley, why don't you go over
there and see what you've done."
03:46
And — (Laughter) —
03:49
she went trudging through
the ivy, and then her eyes
03:52
just got so wide, and she pointed out this melon
03:55
that was bigger than her head,
03:57
and then all the kids ran over
there and rushed around her,
03:59
and one of the kids was like, "Hey,
04:02
why is there a sticker on this?"
04:04
(Laughter)
04:06
And I was like, "That is also why I say
04:09
do not throw your stickers in the ivy.
04:11
Put them in the trash can. It
ruins nature when you do this."
04:14
And Riley carried that melon around with her all day,
04:20
and she was so proud.
04:25
And Riley knew she didn't
grow a melon in seven days,
04:27
but she also knew that she did,
04:32
and it's a weird place,
04:35
but it's not just a place that kids can get to.
04:37
It's anything. Art can get us to that place.
04:40
She was right in that place in the middle,
04:43
that place which you could call art or fiction.
04:45
I'm going to call it wonder.
04:49
It's what Coleridge called the
willing suspension of disbelief
04:51
or poetic faith,
04:54
for those moments where a
story, no matter how strange,
04:55
has some semblance of the truth,
04:58
and then you're able to believe it.
05:00
It's not just kids who can get there.
05:02
Adults can too, and we get there when we read.
05:03
It's why in two days, people will be
05:06
descending on Dublin to take the walking tour
05:08
of Bloomsday and see everything
that happened in "Ulysses,"
05:12
even though none of that happened.
05:17
Or people go to London and they visit Baker Street
05:20
to see Sherlock Holmes' apartment,
05:22
even though 221B is just a number that was painted
05:23
on a building that never
actually had that address.
05:25
We know these characters aren't real,
05:29
but we have real feelings about them,
05:30
and we're able to do that.
05:33
We know these characters aren't real,
05:34
and yet we also know that they are.
05:36
Kids can get there a lot more easily than adults can,
05:39
and that's why I love writing for kids.
05:43
I think kids are the best audience
05:44
for serious literary fiction.
05:46
When I was a kid,
05:51
I was obsessed with secret door novels,
05:54
things like "Narnia,"
05:56
where you would open a wardrobe
and go through to a magical land.
05:57
And I was convinced that secret doors really did exist
06:01
and I would look for them and try to go through them.
06:04
I wanted to live and cross over into
that fictional world, which is —
06:06
I would always just open people's closet doors.
(Laughter)
06:10
I would just go through my mom's boyfriend's closet,
06:15
and there was not a secret magical land there.
06:18
There was some other weird stuff that
I think my mom should know about.
06:20
(Laughter)
06:23
And I was happy to tell her all about it.
06:25
After college, my first job was working
06:31
behind one of these secret doors.
06:35
This is a place called 826 Valencia.
06:38
It's at 826 Valencia Street
06:40
in the Mission in San Francisco,
06:42
and when I worked there, there
was a publishing company
06:44
headquartered there called McSweeney's,
06:46
a nonprofit writing center called 826 Valencia,
06:49
but then the front of it
06:52
was a strange shop.
06:54
You see, this place was zoned retail,
06:56
and in San Francisco, they were
not going to give us a variance,
06:57
and so the writer who founded
it, a writer named Dave Eggers,
07:00
to come into compliance
with code, he said, "Fine,
07:03
I'm just going to build a pirate supply store."
07:06
And that's what he did. (Laughter)
07:10
And it's beautiful. It's all wood.
07:13
There's drawers you can pull out and get citrus
07:15
so you don't get scurvy.
07:17
They have eyepatches in lots of colors,
07:20
because when it's springtime, pirates want to go wild.
07:22
You don't know. Black is boring. Pastel.
07:25
Or eyes, also in lots of colors,
07:29
just glass eyes, depending on how you want
07:31
to deal with that situation.
07:33
And the store, strangely,
07:37
people came to them and bought things,
07:40
and they ended up paying the rent
07:44
for our tutoring center, which was behind it,
07:46
but to me, more important was the fact
07:48
that I think the quality of work you do,
07:51
kids would come and get instruction in writing,
07:53
and when you have to walk this weird, liminal,
fictional space like this to go do your writing,
07:56
it's going to affect the kind of work that you make.
08:00
It's a secret door that you can walk through.
08:04
So I ran the 826 in Los Angeles,
08:06
and it was my job to build the store down there.
08:09
So we have The Echo Park Time Travel Mart.
08:12
That's our motto: "Whenever
you are, we're already then."
08:16
(Laughter)
08:19
And it's on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.
08:23
Our friendly staff is ready to help you.
08:27
They're from all eras,
08:29
including just the 1980s, that guy on the end,
08:32
he's from the very recent past.
08:35
There's our Employees of the Month,
08:37
including Genghis Khan, Charles Dickens.
08:39
Some great people have come up through our ranks.
08:42
This is our kind of pharmacy section.
08:45
We have some patent medicines,
08:47
Canopic jars for your organs,
08:49
communist soap that says,
08:51
"This is your soap for the year."
(Laughter)
08:53
Our slushy machine broke
08:57
on the opening night and
we didn't know what to do.
08:59
Our architect was covered in red syrup.
09:02
It looked like he had just murdered somebody,
09:04
which it was not out of the question
09:07
for this particular architect,
09:08
and we didn't know what to do.
09:11
It was going to be the highlight of our store.
09:12
So we just put that sign on it that said,
09:13
"Out of order. Come back yesterday."
(Laughter)
09:14
And that ended up being a better joke than slushies,
09:19
so we just left it there forever.
09:21
Mammoth Chunks. These things
weigh, like, seven pounds each.
09:25
Barbarian repellent. It's full of salad
09:29
and potpourri — things that barbarians hate.
09:32
Dead languages.
09:36
(Laughter)
09:38
Leeches, nature's tiny doctors.
09:41
And Viking Odorant, which
comes in lots of great scents:
09:44
toenails, sweat and rotten vegetables, pyre ash.
09:47
Because we believe that Axe Body Spray
09:51
is something that you should
only find on the battlefield,
09:53
not under your arms.
(Laughter)
09:55
And these are robot emotion chips,
09:59
so robots can feel love or fear.
10:01
Our biggest seller is Schadenfreude,
10:03
which we did not expect.
10:05
(Laughter)
10:06
We did not think that was going to happen.
10:07
But there's a nonprofit behind it,
10:10
and kids go through a door
that says "Employees Only"
10:12
and they end up in this space
10:14
where they do homework and write stories
10:15
and make films and this is a book release party
10:17
where kids will read.
10:20
There's a quarterly that's published
10:21
with just writing that's done by the kids
10:23
who come every day after school,
10:25
and we have release parties
10:26
and they eat cake and read for their parents
10:27
and drink milk out of champagne glasses.
10:30
And it's a very special space,
10:33
because it's this weird space in the front.
10:36
The joke isn't a joke.
10:39
You can't find the seams on the fiction,
10:43
and I love that. It's this little bit of fiction
10:45
that's colonized the real world.
10:48
I see it as kind of a book in three dimensions.
10:51
There's a term called metafiction,
10:55
and that's just stories about stories,
10:58
and meta's having a moment now.
11:02
Its last big moment was probably in the 1960s
11:03
with novelists like John Barth and William Gaddis,
11:05
but it's been around.
11:08
It's almost as old as storytelling itself.
11:09
And one metafictive technique
11:13
is breaking the fourth wall. Right?
11:15
It's when an actor will turn to the audience
11:17
and say, "I am an actor,
11:20
these are just rafters."
11:21
And even that supposedly honest moment,
11:24
I would argue, is in service of the lie,
11:26
but it's supposed to foreground the artificiality
11:28
of the fiction.
11:31
For me, I kind of prefer the opposite.
11:33
If I'm going to break down the fourth wall,
11:35
I want fiction to escape
11:37
and come into the real world.
11:39
I want a book to be a secret door that opens
11:41
and lets the stories out into reality.
11:46
And so I try to do this in my books.
11:49
And here's just one example.
11:52
This is the first book that I ever made.
11:53
It's called "Billy Twitters
and his Blue Whale Problem."
11:55
And it's about a kid who gets a blue whale as a pet
11:58
but it's a punishment
12:00
and it ruins his life.
12:02
So it's delivered overnight by FedUp.
12:04
(Laughter)
12:07
And he has to take it to school with him.
12:10
He lives in San Francisco —
12:12
very tough city to own a blue whale in.
12:13
A lot of hills, real estate is at a premium.
12:15
This market's crazy, everybody.
12:20
But underneath the jacket is this case,
12:22
and that's the cover underneath the book, the jacket,
12:26
and there's an ad
12:30
that offers a free 30-day risk-free trial
12:32
for a blue whale.
12:35
And you can just send in a
self-addressed stamped envelope
12:37
and we'll send you a whale.
12:40
And kids do write in.
12:44
So here's a letter. It says, "Dear people,
12:48
I bet you 10 bucks you won't send me a blue whale.
12:52
Eliot Gannon (age 6)."
12:55
(Laughter) (Applause)
12:57
So what Eliot and the other kids
13:02
who send these in get back
13:04
is a letter in very small print
from a Norwegian law firm —
13:07
(Laughter) —
13:10
that says that due to a change in customs laws,
13:14
their whale has been held up in Sognefjord,
13:17
which is a very lovely fjord,
13:19
and then it just kind of talks about Sognefjord
13:21
and Norwegian food for
a little while. It digresses.
13:22
(Laughter)
13:25
But it finishes off by saying that
13:28
your whale would love to hear from you.
13:30
He's got a phone number,
13:33
and you can call and leave him a message.
13:35
And when you call and leave him a message,
13:39
you just, on the outgoing message,
13:42
it's just whale sounds and then a beep,
13:44
which actually sounds a lot like a whale sound.
13:49
And they get a picture of their whale too.
13:52
So this is Randolph,
13:54
and Randolph belongs to a kid named Nico
13:57
who was one of the first kids to ever call in,
14:00
and I'll play you some of Nico's message.
14:05
This is the first message I ever got from Nico.
14:07
(Audio) Nico: Hello, this is Nico.
14:11
I am your owner, Randolph. Hello.
14:13
So this is the first time I can ever talk to you,
14:17
and I might talk to you soon another day. Bye.
14:21
Mac Barnett: So Nico called back, like, an hour later.
14:27
(Laughter)
14:30
And here's another one of Nico's messages.
14:32
(Audio) Nico: Hello, Randolph, this is Nico.
14:36
I haven't talked to you for a long time,
14:39
but I talked to you on Saturday or Sunday,
14:44
yeah, Saturday or Sunday,
14:49
so now I'm calling you again
14:51
to say hello and I wonder what you're doing right now,
14:54
and I'm going to probably call you again
14:59
tomorrow or today,
15:02
so I'll talk to you later. Bye.
15:04
MB: So he did, he called back that day again.
15:09
He's left over 25 messages for Randolph
15:13
over four years.
15:17
You find out all about him
15:20
and the grandma that he loves
15:22
and the grandma that
he likes a little bit less —
15:23
(Laughter) —
15:26
and the crossword puzzles that he does,
15:28
and this is — I'll play you one
more message from Nico.
15:30
This is the Christmas message from Nico.
15:34
[Beep] (Audio) Nico: Hello, Randolph,
15:37
sorry I haven't talked to you in a long time.
15:40
It's just that I've been so busy
15:43
because school started,
15:46
as you might not know, probably,
15:48
since you're a whale, you don't know,
15:51
and I'm calling you to just say,
15:55
to wish you a merry Christmas.
16:00
So have a nice Christmas,
16:04
and bye-bye, Randolph. Goodbye.
16:08
MB: I actually got Nico,
16:15
I hadn't heard from in 18 months,
16:17
and he just left a message two days ago.
16:20
His voice is completely different,
16:24
but he put his babysitter on the phone,
16:26
and she was very nice to Randolph as well.
16:30
But Nico's the best reader I could hope for.
16:34
I would want anyone I was writing for
16:38
to be in that place emotionally
16:42
with the things that I create.
16:44
I feel lucky. Kids like Nico are the best readers,
16:46
and they deserve the best stories we can give them.
16:50
Thank you very much.
16:53
(Applause)
16:56

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Mac Barnett - Children's book author
Mac Barnett is a bestselling author of books for children.

Why you should listen

Mac Barnett is the author of fifteen books for children. He was the executive director of 826LA, a nonprofit writing center, and founded the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, a convenience store for time travelers. In this talk about creativity and wonder, he explains why kids are the ideal readers of literary fiction -- and what adults can learn from them about imagination and the willing suspension of disbelief.

The original video is available on TED.com
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