Mac Barnett On Picture Books, Medieval Poetry, and the Ineffability of Pigs

Mac Barnett has charmed kids and adults alike with his whimsical picture books. (And adults again with his wonderful TED Talk.) We can't wait to host Mr. Barnett in the store on September 19 – he's one of our favorite authors, and we absolutely love his new book. We caught up with Mr. Barnett for a quick Q&A earlier this month. Read on to wet your whistle, then pre-order Mac's new book, I Love You Like a Pig, before our event.

You have said that sentences become writing when they're connected to something you care about. What did you care about that inspired I Love You Like a Pig?

I wanted to be a writer when I was little, but I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to write until I was in college, when I worked as a camp counselor on my summers off from school. It was telling stories to my campers that made me realize I wanted to write picture books. I was inspired by the brilliance of kids, as readers and as thinkers. I Love You Like a Pig very directly comes from kids’ brains, or really a kid’s brain. When I was signing a book for her granddaughter, a librarian asked me to draw a picture of a pig on the title page. The girl, she said, always told her mother, “I love you like a pig.” I knew just what she meant, and I also had no idea what she meant. It was such a perfect piece of poetry. Love, luck, laughter: How can we describe these things without diminishing them? How do we talk about the ineffable without breaking its spell? How do we make a sentence as fresh as a feeling? That kid found a way: “I love you like a pig.”

Your background is in medieval poetry. Where do you see a connection between medieval poetry and picture books?

One of the things I studied was the distinction between court poetry and popular poetry. I was interested in the ways the appreciation of difficult poetry can be a marker of coteries or in-groups, but also whether there was an aesthetic argument for difficult poetry—the kinds of pleasure and beauty you can find by reading things that are hard to understand. I’m convinced that kids are generally better, braver readers of literary fiction than adults are—that children will take on a text that’s challenging, or strange, or experimental, that they’ll decode it and appreciate it for its own sake, without the nastier elitist baggage you’d find among art patrons in a medieval court, or even in the living rooms where certain hypercompetitive book clubs meet today. Finally, I’d just like to thank anybody who made it to the end of this kinda long-winded answer about difficult medieval poetry.

Which level of connection do you envision I Love You Like A Pig working on? Alone, one-to-one, or one-to-many?

I hope I Love You Like a Pig works both as a raucous read-a-loud to a group and as a cozier, one-on-one story. I definitely feel it's a book for sharing.

You grew up with your mother reading to you. What were some of your (and her) favorite read-alouds?

My mom and I read together a lot, but the big book for us (and I feel sure she’d say the same thing) was But No Elephants by Jerry Smath. What a book! It’s not very well-known today, but sometimes I meet other people who grew up reading it, and it always seems to be an indelible part of their childhood, too.

You've worked with a number of illustrators on your picture books. When you create the text, do you consider where images might go and what they might be? Do you indicate where you see page turns happening?

Absolutely! When I’m writing a picture book, a big part of my job is to create an architecture for the pictures—scaffolding and empty spaces that allow the illustrations to do a lot of the storytelling.

More by Mac Barnett

Places To Be
Noisy Night
How This Book Was Made

Same & Dave Dig a Hole
President Taft is Stuck in the Bath

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