Mac Barnett: Why a good book is a secret door (2)
So I ran the 826 in Los Angeles, and it was my job to build the store down there.
So we have The Echo Park Time Travel Mart. That's our motto: "Whenever you are, we're already then." (Laughter) And it's on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Our friendly staff is ready to help you. They're from all eras, including just the 1980s, that guy on the end, he's from the very recent past. There's our Employees of the Month, including Genghis Khan, Charles Dickens. Some great people have come up through our ranks. This is our kind of pharmacy section. We have some patent medicines, Canopic jars for your organs, communist soap that says, "This is your soap for the year." (Laughter) Our slushy machine broke on the opening night and we didn't know what to do. Our architect was covered in red syrup. It looked like he had just murdered somebody, which it was not out of the question for this particular architect, and we didn't know what to do. It was going to be the highlight of our store. So we just put that sign on it that said, "Out of order. Come back yesterday." (Laughter) And that ended up being a better joke than slushies, so we just left it there forever. Mammoth Chunks. These things weigh, like, seven pounds each. Barbarian repellent. It's full of salad and potpourri — things that barbarians hate. Dead languages. (Laughter) Leeches, nature's tiny doctors. And Viking Odorant, which comes in lots of great scents: toenails, sweat and rotten vegetables, pyre ash. Because we believe that Axe Body Spray is something that you should only find on the battlefield, not under your arms. (Laughter) And these are robot emotion chips, so robots can feel love or fear. Our biggest seller is Schadenfreude, which we did not expect. (Laughter) We did not think that was going to happen. But there's a nonprofit behind it, and kids go through a door that says "Employees Only" and they end up in this space where they do homework and write stories and make films and this is a book release party where kids will read. There's a quarterly that's published with just writing that's done by the kids who come every day after school, and we have release parties and they eat cake and read for their parents and drink milk out of champagne glasses. And it's a very special space, because it's this weird space in the front. The joke isn't a joke. You can't find the seams on the fiction, and I love that. It's this little bit of fiction that's colonized the real world. I see it as kind of a book in three dimensions. There's a term called metafiction, and that's just stories about stories, and meta's having a moment now.
Its last big moment was probably in the 1960s with novelists like John Barth and William Gaddis, but it's been around. It's almost as old as storytelling itself. And one metafictive technique is breaking the fourth wall. Right? It's when an actor will turn to the audience and say, "I am an actor, these are just rafters." And even that supposedly honest moment, I would argue, is in service of the lie, but it's supposed to foreground the artificiality of the fiction. For me, I kind of prefer the opposite. If I'm going to break down the fourth wall, I want fiction to escape and come into the real world. I want a book to be a secret door that opens and lets the stories out into reality. And so I try to do this in my books.
And here's just one example. This is the first book that I ever made. It's called "Billy Twitters and his Blue Whale Problem." And it's about a kid who gets a blue whale as a pet but it's a punishment and it ruins his life. So it's delivered overnight by FedUp. (Laughter) And he has to take it to school with him. He lives in San Francisco — very tough city to own a blue whale in. A lot of hills, real estate is at a premium. This market's crazy, everybody. But underneath the jacket is this case, and that's the cover underneath the book, the jacket, and there's an ad that offers a free 30-day risk-free trial for a blue whale. And you can just send in a self-addressed stamped envelope and we'll send you a whale. And kids do write in. So here's a letter.
It says, "Dear people, I bet you 10 bucks you won't send me a blue whale. Eliot Gannon (age 6)." (Laughter) (Applause) So what Eliot and the other kids who send these in get back is a letter in very small print from a Norwegian law firm — (Laughter) — that says that due to a change in customs laws, their whale has been held up in Sognefjord, which is a very lovely fjord, and then it just kind of talks about Sognefjord and Norwegian food for a little while.
It digresses. (Laughter) But it finishes off by saying that your whale would love to hear from you. He's got a phone number, and you can call and leave him a message. And when you call and leave him a message, you just, on the outgoing message, it's just whale sounds and then a beep, which actually sounds a lot like a whale sound. And they get a picture of their whale too. So this is Randolph, and Randolph belongs to a kid named Nico who was one of the first kids to ever call in, and I'll play you some of Nico's message. This is the first message I ever got from Nico. (Audio) Nico: Hello, this is Nico.
I am your owner, Randolph. Hello. So this is the first time I can ever talk to you, and I might talk to you soon another day. Bye. Mac Barnett: So Nico called back, like, an hour later.
(Laughter) And here's another one of Nico's messages. (Audio) Nico: Hello, Randolph, this is Nico.
I haven't talked to you for a long time, but I talked to you on Saturday or Sunday, yeah, Saturday or Sunday, so now I'm calling you again to say hello and I wonder what you're doing right now, and I'm going to probably call you again tomorrow or today, so I'll talk to you later. Bye. MB: So he did, he called back that day again.
He's left over 25 messages for Randolph over four years. You find out all about him and the grandma that he loves and the grandma that he likes a little bit less — (Laughter) — and the crossword puzzles that he does, and this is — I'll play you one more message from Nico. This is the Christmas message from Nico. [Beep] (Audio) Nico: Hello, Randolph, sorry I haven't talked to you in a long time.
It's just that I've been so busy because school started, as you might not know, probably, since you're a whale, you don't know, and I'm calling you to just say, to wish you a merry Christmas. So have a nice Christmas, and bye-bye, Randolph. Goodbye. MB: I actually got Nico, I hadn't heard from in 18 months, and he just left a message two days ago. His voice is completely different, but he put his babysitter on the phone, and she was very nice to Randolph as well. But Nico's the best reader I could hope for.
I would want anyone I was writing for to be in that place emotionally with the things that I create. I feel lucky. Kids like Nico are the best readers, and they deserve the best stories we can give them. Thank you very much.