Mac Barnett: Why a good book is a secret door (1)
So my name is Mac. My job is that I lie to children, but they're honest lies. I write children's books, and there's a quote from Pablo Picasso, "We all know that Art is not truth.
Art is a lie that makes us realize truth or at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies. I first heard this when I was a kid, and I loved it, but I had no idea what it meant.
(Laughter) So I thought, you know what, it's what I'm here to talk to you today about, though, truth and lies, fiction and reality.
So how could I untangle this knotted bunch of sentences? And I said, I've got PowerPoint. Let's do a Venn diagram. ["Truth. Lies."] (Laughter) So there it is, right there, boom. We've got truth and lies and then there's this little space, the edge, in the middle. That liminal space, that's art. All right. Venn diagram. (Laughter) (Applause) But that's actually not very helpful either.
The thing that made me understand that quote and really kind of what art, at least the art of fiction, was, was working with kids. I used to be a summer camp counselor. I would do it on my summers off from college, and I loved it. It was a sports summer camp for four- to six-year-olds. I was in charge of the four-year-olds, which is good, because four-year-olds can't play sports, and neither can I. (Laughter) I play sports at a four-year-old level, so what would happen is the kids would dribble around some cones, and then got hot, and then they would go sit underneath the tree where I was already sitting — (Laughter) — and I would just make up stories and tell them to them and I would tell them stories about my life. I would tell them about how, on the weekends, I would go home and I would spy for the Queen of England. And soon, other kids who weren't even in my group of kids, they would come up to me, and they would say, "You're Mac Barnett, right? You're the guy who spies for the Queen of England." And I had been waiting my whole life for strangers to come up and ask me that question. In my fantasy, they were svelte Russian women, but, you know, four-year-olds — you take what you can get in Berkeley, California. And I realized that the stories that I was telling were real in this way that was familiar to me and really exciting.
I think the pinnacle of this for me — I'll never forget this — there was this little girl named Riley. She was tiny, and she used to always take out her lunch every day and she would throw out her fruit. She would just take her fruit, her mom packed her a melon every day, and she would just throw it in the ivy and then she would eat fruit snacks and pudding cups, and I was like, "Riley, you can't do that, you have to eat the fruit." And she was like, "Why?" And I was like, "Well, when you throw the fruit in the ivy, pretty soon, it's going to be overgrown with melons," which is why I think I ended up telling stories to children and not being a nutritionist for children. And so Riley was like, "That will never happen. That's not going to happen." And so, on the last day of camp, I got up early and I got a big cantaloupe from the grocery store and I hid it in the ivy, and then at lunchtime, I was like, "Riley, why don't you go over there and see what you've done." And — (Laughter) — she went trudging through the ivy, and then her eyes just got so wide, and she pointed out this melon that was bigger than her head, and then all the kids ran over there and rushed around her, and one of the kids was like, "Hey, why is there a sticker on this?" (Laughter) And I was like, "That is also why I say do not throw your stickers in the ivy. Put them in the trash can. It ruins nature when you do this." And Riley carried that melon around with her all day, and she was so proud. And Riley knew she didn't grow a melon in seven days, but she also knew that she did, and it's a weird place, but it's not just a place that kids can get to.
It's anything. Art can get us to that place. She was right in that place in the middle, that place which you could call art or fiction. I'm going to call it wonder. It's what Coleridge called the willing suspension of disbelief or poetic faith, for those moments where a story, no matter how strange, has some semblance of the truth, and then you're able to believe it. It's not just kids who can get there. Adults can too, and we get there when we read. It's why in two days, people will be descending on Dublin to take the walking tour of Bloomsday and see everything that happened in "Ulysses," even though none of that happened. Or people go to London and they visit Baker Street to see Sherlock Holmes' apartment, even though 221B is just a number that was painted on a building that never actually had that address. We know these characters aren't real, but we have real feelings about them, and we're able to do that. We know these characters aren't real, and yet we also know that they are. Kids can get there a lot more easily than adults can, and that's why I love writing for kids.
I think kids are the best audience for serious literary fiction. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with secret door novels, things like "Narnia," where you would open a wardrobe and go through to a magical land. And I was convinced that secret doors really did exist and I would look for them and try to go through them. I wanted to live and cross over into that fictional world, which is — I would always just open people's closet doors. (Laughter) I would just go through my mom's boyfriend's closet, and there was not a secret magical land there. There was some other weird stuff that I think my mom should know about. (Laughter) And I was happy to tell her all about it. After college, my first job was working behind one of these secret doors.
This is a place called 826 Valencia. It's at 826 Valencia Street in the Mission in San Francisco, and when I worked there, there was a publishing company headquartered there called McSweeney's, a nonprofit writing center called 826 Valencia, but then the front of it was a strange shop. You see, this place was zoned retail, and in San Francisco, they were not going to give us a variance, and so the writer who founded it, a writer named Dave Eggers, to come into compliance with code, he said, "Fine, I'm just going to build a pirate supply store." And that's what he did. (Laughter) And it's beautiful. It's all wood. There's drawers you can pull out and get citrus so you don't get scurvy. They have eyepatches in lots of colors, because when it's springtime, pirates want to go wild. You don't know. Black is boring. Pastel. Or eyes, also in lots of colors, just glass eyes, depending on how you want to deal with that situation. And the store, strangely, people came to them and bought things, and they ended up paying the rent for our tutoring center, which was behind it, but to me, more important was the fact that I think the quality of work you do, kids would come and get instruction in writing, and when you have to walk this weird, liminal, fictional space like this to go do your writing, it's going to affect the kind of work that you make. It's a secret door that you can walk through.