Listen to the inaugural episode of Julie Chavez’s new Zcast podcast, Ask a Librarian! Julie is an elementary-school librarian and her forthcoming memoir, The Anxiety Library, will be published by Zibby Books. In this episode, Julie talks with New York Times best-selling author Mac Barnett about how he got his start writing books for children, the limit of language in picture books, and what inspired him to write Extra Yarn, one of Julie’s favorite books to read to kids.


Zibby Owens: Julie Chavez is the host of “Ask a Librarian.” She is an upcoming Zibby Books author. I am so excited to release this episode of her podcast so that all of you can get to know her better. Julie is a curious elementary-school librarian and graduate of the University of Colorado with a degree in Spanish language and literature. She writes a lot for Moms Don’t Have Time to Write and also Real Women Write: Living on COVID Time. Her forthcoming memoir, The Anxiety Library, will be published by Zibby Books. She currently lives in California with her husband and two tall teenage sons. Please enjoy Julie’s episode. Listen to it every week. Subscribe. Follow her on Instagram and do all the things because Julie is amazing.

Julie Chavez: Hi. Can I help you find something? Librarians specialize in helping you find what you were looking for and sometimes what you didn’t know you were looking for. Thank you for joining me as I talk to my guests about all things library, including the books inside them. I’m Julie Chavez. This is “Ask a Librarian.” Mac Barnett is a New York Times best-selling author of stories for children. His work has been translated into more than thirty languages and sold more than two million copies worldwide. Mac’s books have won a truckload of prizes, including two Caldecott Honors and also three E.B. White Read Aloud Awards. Mac lives in Oakland, California. On a personal note, I think we’re going to be best friends. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Mac.

Julie: Hi, Mac. Thanks for being here today.

Mac Barnett: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

Julie: I am so happy to talk to you. I am such a Mac Barnett fan. You should know that this morning, I said to Nolan, my older son, “Hey, did I tell you who I’m talking to today?” He said, “Yeah, you told me five times. I’m still really happy for you.” I’ve been reading Extra Yarn to them since they were little and then adding all your other books. So many of them, I love. You do such a good job of writing for children but not to children. I love it.

Mac: Thank you. That’s a really nice compliment. I think that sums up, in two prepositions, my whole project. Thanks so much.

Julie: I love it. Good, because that’s what I see when I read them. I love reading them aloud to the kids at school. A lot of times, Extra Yarn will make multiples appearances because I see them from kindergarten to fifth grade. They’ll say, “We already read this.” I said, “Yeah, and we’re reading it again.”

Mac: I think that’s one of the cool things about the library, is that you get to see these kids through their whole journey through elementary school and middle school or high school. Wherever in a school library you’re working, you get to see them, watch their taste in books change, and then also watch the way that they interact with the same book change as they get older. It’s such a cool vantage point in a school.

Julie: It really is. I’m really lucky. I enjoy exactly what you’re saying. I tell the kids that a lot. The book may be the same, but you’re different. That’s why adults read picture books. I love it. First of all, I wanted to discuss something very ridiculous but unrelated. What was your first job as a kid?

Mac: Let’s see. As a kid?

Julie: Or middle school, high school. What would you say your first job was?

Mac: When I was in high school, in the summer, I was on the maintenance crew for an elementary school when it was shut down. I went and was repainting classrooms and relandscaping the playground and stuff. I was terrible at it too. I’m a terrible painter.

Julie: Some poor kids came back in after that and they were like, what happened here?

Mac: I can see drips. What are these drips?

Julie: So you went from mediocre painting and then —

Mac: — You don’t have to — mediocre, that is better than —

Julie: — Too generous?

Mac: Yeah. You don’t have to spare my ego.

Julie: I don’t even attempt it because I’m too much of a perfectionist. I would just end up in a rage-y ball. Hey, I salute you for trying.

Mac: Honestly, that was probably my problem too. I was just too much of a perfectionist. Somewhere, that’s what translated into .

Julie: Maybe if I just do it quickly, then I don’t have to notice it. I love it. Painter, I love hearing what people did early on. From there, how did you get into writing children’s books?

Mac: I started about the same time when I was in high school. The first volunteer work that I did, there was an elementary school down the hill from my high school. I just went down there to work with kids who were struggling with reading to do one-on-one reading tutoring. I loved picture books so much when I was kid. It was the one thing that — it was really important to my mom that we have a lot of books in the house. We didn’t have a lot of money, so she would go around to yard sales and buy picture books for me. I grew up in the late eighties and early nineties, but I grew up with picture books from the generation before that or before that just because of how my mom was finding our books. I grew up with books from the forties to the seventies. Part of that is that great golden age in American picture book-making. I think those books, they just informed my approach to literature. Frog and Toad, I think, is as wonderful as anything written in the English language. I really sunk my teeth into these books. My mom never put my picture books away. When I started reading novels, they just went on the shelf above my picture books. My picture books were always there. In middle school, it was really normal for me to revisit a picture book that I loved. In high school when I went down to tutor these kids, I was like, I’m going to bring my books that I care about. If I have something that I’m really into, then maybe they’ll get into too, rather than just the materials that were being assigned that, frankly, were kind of lackluster. I’m sure the students were picking up on the fact that I was like, this is boring. This is bad.

Julie: I’m not having a good time either.

Mac: Exactly. Both of us are sitting there not having a good time. That’s not what reading a book should be. It’s the opposite of what reading a book should be. I went back to my picture book shelf, pulled those off, and as a high schooler, came back in touch with these books. I was like, these are so great. In college, I worked at a summer camp for kids. That’s where I started telling my first stories that I was making up to kids. That’s sort of the journey, from reading these things to sharing them with kids to then making up my own stories, but always came from direct work that I was doing with kids.

Julie: What were some of your other favorites? Frog and Toad.

Mac: Love Frog and Toad; the work of Margaret Wise Brown, who’s most famous for Goodnight Moon but wrote so many books and so many strange books. In fact, Goodnight Moon, I think, is a deeply strange, experimental book itself. It’s so ubiquitous that I think we’re sort inured to its strangeness, but it’s weird. It is a weird book. In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak and the all the Sendak stuff; James Marshall; Donald Crews, who’s very famous for Fright Train. It’s a board book about the colors of a train car that somehow makes you cry at the end.

Julie: I’m going to have to look that one up. I don’t know that one.

Mac: Oh, yeah, it’s great.

Julie: I love it. It’s true, they’re such rich literature. Some of those were so experimental. Even when I read Where the Wild Things Are now, I feel like I get new things from it every time, which is bizarre. It’s not a long book. Just that same idea, I’m different when I go to it.

Mac: It’s an incredible book. Again, it’s one of these books that we’ve shared and read so many times that you can see it as — and it is a classic. The tradition of children’s literature, what is traditional children’s literature, it’s a tradition of experimentation. That book, starting with a kid who behaves really badly and is just creating mayhem and then says “I’ll eat you up” to his mom — he gets sent to his room. The camera stays on him. When you talk about writing to kids or writing for kids, there are other books that would need to have an intervention with Max. We would need to see an apology. He would need to see and explain exactly how he was wrong. That book doesn’t do that.

Julie: Maybe in a note.

Mac: Exactly. He goes on this adventure, in some ways, processing whatever went on. We have a story that sits alongside the story of what happened in that house. The connection between that adventure and what he did earlier is loose and literary, and you have to interpret the book to figure out how. When he returns without apologizing, without saying “I’ve learned my lesson,” there’s some supper there waiting for him. His mother’s love was constant. He still deserves to be loved even if he made a mistake, even if he didn’t, then at the end, comb his hair and become a good boy. He’s still loved. That is a radical position and I think actually feels more radical or just as radical now in 2020 as it did in the sixties. The Sendack model didn’t win the day. It’s still a fight to make real literature for kids that way.

Julie: That makes sense. You’re exactly right, this idea that there are messages, but the experimentation of it, that this is a — the books are a conversation with kids and where they are. That should be evolving and have some space in it. To see that model in those books that were ahead of their time, but we consider them classics, I love that. Speaking of that, part of the thing I love about Extra Yarn is when I read it to the kids, my favorite part is reading to multiple grades. The kindergarteners are so literal. Then you have their development. My favorite is when we revisit a book when they’re older and they finally get it or they get a part of it that they didn’t see before. I love the ending of Extra Yarn. Also, I have to say, I think you have a real gift for last lines. The way you finish your books is just perfect. I want to sit with those words. That’s another thing that I think you do really well. Tell me about the story for Extra Yarn if you don’t mind.

Mac: Sure. Extra Yarn, it’s about a girl who finds a box full of yarn in the snow. She lives in a town that’s just sort of — it says, “Everything is either the white of snow or the black of soot from chimneys.” She finds this box full of yarn. Her first impulse is to make herself a sweater. She has some extra yarn, so she knits a sweater for her dog. She still has extra yarn. She begins to knit sweaters for people, for animals, for things, and covers this whole town in yarn. There’s sort of a false ending to the book where you see the entire town covered in this beautiful yarn in this two-page spread, but the book’s not over yet. An archduke arrives out of nowhere, tries to buy the box off of her. She won’t sell it, so the archduke steals the box, takes it across the sea back to his castle, and opens the box. It’s empty. He’s furious. He throws it out the window. It lands on an iceberg, floats all the way back across the sea where Anabelle, the girl who first found it, is waiting on the seashore sort of as if she knew it was coming on some level. It arrives back. She’s opens it, and it’s full of yarn. She knits a sweater for a giant tree, and that’s the end.

Julie: Where did that story come from for you?

Mac: Usually with a picture book, the words come first. Then the pictures come second. That book was illustrated by Jon Klassen, who’s a good friend of mine. We were friends before we started making books together. We’d already met, hung out. We actually met and when we met, we found out we both loved Frog and Toad growing up. We spent two hours in the corner of this party just talking about Frog and Toad. At the end, I was like, I think I just made a friend.

Julie: I think our best friendship has been secured. Absolutely.

Mac: I was looking on his website. He had a picture that he’d done in college of a girl and a dog walking through the snow wearing matching sweaters. It was really funny and charming. I dragged it to my desktop to save it, where I just save images that I come across that I like. The film name was extrayarn.jpg. I was like, that’s really funny. She had some extra yarn, so she knit a sweater for her dog. That’s basically a line in the book, that thing that occurred to me where I was just basically getting the joke that Jon was setting up. That’s the magic of a picture book right there. It’s an image and text laid together. When you put them together, the story grows. There’s a little joke or a connection. Even just a digital file with a file name can get that magic of text and image that a picture book has. That sent me off. I’m like, I’m going to write. I’m going to write this story out. I wrote the first draft of the story and then had this panic like, oh, wait, maybe Jon’s already written a story for this. Maybe he won’t like my story. I sent him sort of a sheepish email. I was like, “Hey, I don’t know if you’ve written a story for this. If you have, great. Sorry, this will be such a weird email. Also, if you haven’t, here’s a story. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. Don’t worry, and this will also be a weird email.” Luckily, he liked it.

Julie: And can we still be friends?

Mac: Can we still be friends? Totally. It was early in the friendship. That’s one of those things we — .

Julie: We’re still okay, right?

Mac: Yes. Luckily, he did like it. We made that book. In terms of the influences, it’s influenced by some of those picture books that I mentioned, especially Tomi Ungerer. I don’t know if you know his books at all. He did Three Robbers, is one of them.

Julie: I’ll have to look it up.

Mac: Check it out, folktales, fairy tales. In some ways, Jon and I both talk about that book, it felt like we sort of remembered it into being, both the words and the pictures, rather than actually made it ourselves. In a way that’s different from any other book I’ve made — Jon and I talk about this. I think he feels the same way. We look at that thing and we’re like, this feels like it already existed, and then we just sort of brought it in.

Julie: You were a conduit.

Mac: Conduit, yeah. Totally.

Julie: It just came through you. What a gift to feel that way and to see the fruits of it but have that — it’s attachment and detachment that feels really neat to see because you’re part of the creation of it. I can see that. It does have that feel of, have I read this story somewhere before? It’s so beautifully told. I love the details, like the fact that the word “but” is on the iceberg in that penultimate illustration, I think, or just before that. Those touches are amazing. Jon Klassen is also on my list of — people love his books. I also love seeing how many people you’ve been able to partner with. Do you enjoy working with — I would think so. You’re working with —

Mac: — I love it. I’ve gotten to work with some great illustrators. As somebody who writes but doesn’t draw, still, my favorite form is the picture book. That means I’m always going to have a collaborator very early in the process. It’s very freeing as a writer. I think that if you’re writing a picture book, it allows you to write about things that words can’t describe. Even though I’ve always loved language, loved books, I’m also really interested in the limits of language. Picture books just acknowledge that right off the bat. There are limits to what language can do, but if you add images in there, you can get to a new place. I think that’s really exciting. Any piece of art, you let go of. It doesn’t become what it is until it reaches its audience. With a picture book, you let go very early. It’s not even close to what it is when I’m done. It’s a bunch of words on a page. The words shouldn’t even make sense without pictures. There should be big holes in the story. If you just read a picture book text out loud, it should feel kind of lackluster and even confusing because the pictures should be doing at least half of the work. Then an illustrator comes in and add these pictures. It’s still not done because picture books are read to kids, usually, not by kids. There’s an adult, often, or at least a literate human, maybe an older sibling.

Usually, an adult is there reading this picture book out loud, choosing whether to use voices for the character, maybe adding in jokes or taking out sentences that I spent weeks writing, putting page turns where the illustrator did not put page turns. All that stuff is totally valid. A good reader knows their audience, and knows their audience that day, and knows, okay, we’re going to read this story a little quieter today because we need to bring the mood down. We can really go for it today. Today is going to be that perfect — it’s going to be like big-wave surfing. It’s going to be raucous, but they’re going to be ready. We’re going to let loose on this book. Just so sensitive to the audience they’re reading to. Every picture book is really made in that moment. Every picture book is a performance. Every reading is a new artwork because the adult reading this book out loud, the teacher, the librarian, the caregiver, the babysitter, they’re artists who are making this happen. Then finally, you reach that kid. If everything has gone well, there should still be spaces for that kid to fill in to figure out what it means to bring their experience, their intelligence to the artwork, and to make meaning from it. That chain of collaborators that starts with a writer, moves through pictures, through a reader to a kid, it’s so exciting. Energy is created each time somebody comes in and reinterprets the work.

Julie: I love how you put that. That made me a little teary. I feel that so deeply. You’re so right. What a beautiful thing for children to see and be part of. For adults, that’s my favorite part of the gig, is reading to them and sharing those stories and, you’re exactly right, leaving space, then, for them to enter in. I love what you said at the very beginning about, it should have a lot of holes without the illustrations. As someone who lives to overexplain things — just ask my editor — that is a good note. I was thinking about children’s writing. I never considered that a picture book — you’re right, it’s incomplete without the other half.

Mac: The first manuscript I wrote for a picture book, which was for my first picture book, Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem, I sent it to an author who sort of inspired me to start writing picture books for kids, Jon Scieszka, who wrote The Stinky Cheese Man. I read that book. I was like, this is so smart, so funny, so experimental. I want to write for kids. This is the best stuff.

Julie: He’s the one you wrote Battle Bunny with.

Mac: I wrote Battle Bunny with Jon, yeah.

Julie: Which, oh, my gosh, I love so much. Okay, continue.

Mac: I sent him the manuscript. He was like, “This is great. This is really funny. Go through and cross out, just as a first step, any time you’re describing what something looks like.” He just did it as an example. He was like, “Some of this stuff is really funny. Some of it is beautiful description. None of it belongs in a picture book. You’re going to have pictures doing this.” He did it for a few pages and just crossed out the stuff that the pictures would make redundant. That unlocked so much for me about how you approach this thing. Once you take out those redundancies, then you also start thinking about, how do I construct something where it’s not just removing redundancies, but the words are going to amplify because of the kind of peculiar relationship they have to an image on that page? How can we design the entire thing to be a dance between words and images?

Julie: I love that. That is such a good description. You’re exactly right. This book, speaking of which, How This Book Was Made, I feel like you described it so perfectly when you were talking about the collaborators. Again, books that just make me want to cry with their last lines, I loved this one from the first time I read it because it honors the reader. I love that idea. You’re exactly right, it’s not really a book until someone reads it.

Mac: I think that’s just right. When I hear artists talking about making art for themselves and not caring about the audience, I think that can be a way of getting at something. I think it can also just be a pose that sounds really cool.

Julie: Yes. I’m too evolved to even care about that sort of thing. Got it.

Mac: Yeah, but I don’t feel that way about art generally. You’re always making it to communicate something. You’re trying to communicate something, yes, authentic and particular about yourself, something you truly believe in, something that you sincerely feel, but it’s finding somebody else who sincerely believes or feels that thing too. That’s what we’re all searching for. We’re putting out messages. We’re receiving messages. It’s that conversation, that interaction that makes an artwork powerful. In kids’ books, if you’re just writing for yourself — I’m a thirty-nine-year-old adult. That’s not my audience. I have to write for a particularly — kids have a different experience of the world. You’re communicating across a gulf. You have to know, I’m making a piece of art for somebody who’s having a very different emotional and even physical experience of the world, somebody for whom the world I inhabit, it’s truly, literally not built for them. My chair is too big for them. How do I communicate something that I believe but I know that they can relate to as well?

Julie: I love that. I’m loving hearing you talk about it because your heart and the way that you approach the work completely comes through in this and all of your books when I read them. They’re all so different. I loved What is Love? I have that here. Just Because, at the end, I just was like, is there anything truer? I’m just going to sit here. I still read to my boys, so of course, I made them come over, which they enjoy because that’s what teenagers love. In How This Book Was Made, I also loved the picture behind the scenes of the details of how books actually happen. The editing, the back-and-forth, the printing, I loved it.

Mac: That’s our global supply chain book. Unfortunately, we came out three years before that global supply chain moment was on everybody’s mind.

Julie: It’s really true.

Mac: It’s ahead of its time.

Julie: I’m so glad that I can be highlighting it as sort of a prophetic work that you made and then in that way, release it into the world. I have one more question for you. That is, what is something that you’re not good at that you wish you were good at?

Mac: Oh, wow, there’s so much. I’m only good at a few things. I have trouble when I’m not good at something, really sticking with it, because I get so frustrated with myself. Obviously, we talked about painting at the beginning, but I don’t care if I’m good at painting or not.

Julie: It’s not going to spark joy.

Mac: Exactly. I wish I was good at woodworking. I’ve always loved wood carvings. I think carving something out of wood is so cool, or building something out of wood, building furniture, building a cabinet. I read about woodworking a lot. I refinished a dresser for my baby son. It was such a fun project, such a basic project. I was like, this is so fun, not just making it all look nice, but actually fixing the drawers a little bit, just in the lightest way. Then you mentioned What Is Love? The illustrator of that book, Carson Ellis, she is somebody who I think also — she’s long been like, “I’d love to get into woodworking.” We were talking about this at the same time. She immediately started carving beautiful — she carved a giant thumb that’s the size of her forearm that’s a realistic thumb that is just the most beautiful, absurd thing you’ve seen. I feel like it was week three.

Julie: She just hammered that out.

Mac: She’s building furniture. She’s made five tables. I know that she started at the same time I did. I’m not good at this. I wish that I was. I can see it’s not like, well, if you just give it time… Look what Carson is up to. She started on the same day.

Julie: That’s amazing. Those are those sort of friendship moments where you’re like, gosh, I’m really glad I like you because if I didn’t, I would really feel bitter about this. I’m sanding a piece of my drawer feeling really good about it, and you’re whittling. It’s not fair.

Mac: This is a podcast, so you can’t see, but your sanding motion, which was so — you risked diminishing the work that I was doing but actually looked exactly like what I was doing.

Julie: That was the sort of detail work?

Mac: Not even detail. I’m just so proud of myself for badly sanding something. That’s what it was.

Julie: With a tiny square of sandpaper, right?

Mac: Also, the grit had already rubbed off, but I didn’t buy enough sandpaper. Really, I’m just rubbing copy paper over a dresser and saying, good job, Mac. Today was a great day. You better buy an expensive leather toolbelt to keep your sandpaper nubs.

Julie: It’s perfect. You can tuck it right in there. Then you walk through the house with it on, right?

Mac: Absolutely. Go walk the block, wave to the neighbors.

Julie: Tell everyone what you’re doing today, which is sanding. I’m busy sanding.

Mac: Sanding. Today is sanding day.

Julie: Today is sanding day. It’s going to be tough on the biceps, but I think we can get it done. I love it. I think that you can safely stay in your lane. You have one book coming out soon, John’s Turn.

Mac: John’s Turn, that’s right.

Julie: When does that come out?

Mac: That comes out in early March. That one, I’m very excited about. It is set in an elementary school and about a beautiful performance that happens in an elementary school. I’ve spent so much time in elementary schools, I guess starting in attending one.

Julie: Yes, required.

Mac: And then volunteering in them and working in them. They’re just such fun, weird, specific places. I’m excited for that one to come out.

Julie: I cannot wait. Hopefully, we can chat about it again when it comes out. I’m so excited.

Mac: I would love that.

Julie: I would love that too. Thanks so much for being with me today. This was a pleasure. Thanks for spending these minutes with me.

Mac: Oh, for me too. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

Julie: Thank you for joining me for this episode of “Ask a Librarian.” As always, it’s my joy to share and learn with you. You can follow me on Instagram, @JulieWritesWords. You can go to my website, juliewriteswords.com. There, you’ll find the show notes, including all the books mentioned in the episode. See you in the stacks next week. Until then, friends, never go anywhere without a book.

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