An Interview With Mac Barnett & Jon Klassen
About Sam & Dave Dig a Hole
Plus a Giveaway!
Ready? Grab your copy (it’s the book birthday today for Sam & Dave Dig a Hole), brew a cup of tea (in honor of Jon), sit back and enter the world of Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, two of today’s most creative talents in the children’s book industry. After you’ve read the Q&A, scroll down for a link to my review of the book and to enter the Rafflecopter giveaway. Sam & Dave Dig a Hole (Candlewick Press, $16.99, Ages 4-8) – in stores now.
Good Reads With Ronna: I read in the promotional material that you were eating together at a diner here in L.A. when you began discussing the book. So, which came first, the chilaquiles or the egg, I mean the fried egg that is? Okay, joking aside, – when you sat down to brainstorm, did Sam & Dave exist already or just a hole to dig?
Jon Klassen: Oh! That morning? Everything. It was Sam & Dave and the hole that we came up with that morning. We left breakfast with basically that Sam & Dave are two kids going down and digging a hole, and missing what they wer searching for and ending up somewhere different from where they started off. All that stuff was kind of worked over the breakfast table.
GRWR: Now why digging as opposed to building? I’m just curious as they’re both things kids love to do.
KLASSEN: I think that maybe initially, it was. The idea of vertical movement through the book either up or down was kind of maybe the first little bit of the thing we got talking about.
Mac Barnett: Yeah, we did talk about both that morning.
KLASSEN: Yeah, I think we did talk about going up. … if you’re building up you kind of know what’s up there, there’s not really any mystery to it because you are just going higher into space. But digging down, if you start the way the book starts, where the ground is at the very bottom of the page instead of being able to see everything, you’re kind of finding things out as you turn the page. It’s just more exciting as a story and also something that kids can see their way to doing. If you’re building something that seems really complicated, it’s not as relatable …
BARNETT: Jon and I were both diggers as kids … We’ve dug a lot of holes. Everything that I built as a kid I was disappointed in and never looked like I wanted it to look. But I was never disappointed by any of the holes I dug. Those came out great!
GRWR: Has either one of you ever dug up any neat stuff as a child?
BARNETT: My best friend when I was a kid, we dug a lot of holes. And then he told me one time, when we dug a hole, that he found this little plastic skull that had red eyes that he told me were made out of diamonds and created this elaborate mythology around it. I was so amazed that we had dug this thing out of the ground.
And then he told me like three years later that he had just dropped it in the hole before he put his shovel in and then pretended to pick it up. I was devastated. I had created an entire mythology that just crumbled. I lost three years of my childhood that day. That was my big discovery which turned out to be false.
KLASSEN: There was a tree in a field behind our house. We lived in sort of a suburb in Toronto for a while. There was this big field that they kept promising they were going to turn into a school but it just being this crappy field. And it wouldn’t grow anything because it was sort of filled with … half-hearted attempts to pour cement or dump bricks. It was just a horrible little field, but we really liked it because you could run around and we built baseball diamonds and stuff back there. But the only thing that grew was this one tree that looked like it was never gonna ever sprout a leaf, but it was this gnarled thing. And I had a long row of unfortunate hamsters that got buried under the tree one by one after you know, you get a new hamster and it would die, you get a new hamster and it would die. There were probably like eight of them under the tree.
And every now and then I would go and try to find one of the hamsters. I don’t think I ever did though, I think I kept forgetting where I had buried them.
BARNETT: That’s amazing. Your story managed to be even more depressing than mine, Jon.
GRWR: When you collaborate on a book as a team, do you check in with each other daily?
BARNETT & KLASSEN: On this one (Sam & Dave) we did.
BARNETT: Particularly. Extra Yarn – a little bit less so. We talked about that book a lot and had a lot of conversations. That was probably closer to weekly, if that. Jon and I talk a lot anyway, though, and so were just talking everyday probably before we started working on this book. So this gave us something to talk about.
GRWR: Now you’ve got skulls and hamster skeletons to talk about.
BARNETT: You know what? You know there were skeletons in this book for a little while.
BARNETT: And then, maybe then, they got taken out. But at one point there were a lot of skeletons in this book. Monster skeletons. Yeah Jon and I would talk. We’d open up an audio link between our computers every day and just talk about the book. And Jon would be making sketches and send them over to me and then we would talk about those. And sometimes he would create something that was so good that I would have to rewrite the text to support the illustration that was a moment that hadn’t occurred originally to us, but Jon would have a good idea. I think we each had a lot of impact on the other’s work. More so than any other collaboration I’ve done and I tend to collaborate closely with the illustrators I’m working with.
GRWR: Were all the fabulous “so close yet so far” visual gags always planned or did they evolve organically as the story evolved – in other words, was the book carefully plotted and dummied from the start so every page turn would be full of anticipation or did some of the things you came up with actually surprise and delight you, and maybe move you in a different direction?
BARNETT: It was definitely written for every page turn to have something like a near miss to build anticipation. That said, the exact mechanics of it changed. For instance, when they split up and go around the diamond. That was a way to miss the diamonds that wasn’t in it originally., but was just a drawing Jon did that we both really liked. It was definitely written very consciously to create that sense of anticipation and frustration. But it defitintely kept evolving after that as well. It was Jon’s job to kind of then work out how to exactly to maximize the emotional impact of all the near misses.
GRWR: Did you intentionally want an ending that’s open to interpretation, something to spur little and big imaginations or do you feel what occurs (without revealing too much) is obvious to the reader?
BARNETT: I think that any book is a conversation between the person who is making it or people who are making it and the reader. Any piece of art is a conversation between the creator and the reader, and some conversations demand a little bit more from their listeners than others do. Some conversations somebody is just talking right at you, they’re not really listening or making any contribution back. I think this isn’t one of those books.
This is a conversation that invites the listener/reader to participate a little more closely and that’s particularly true with the ending.
KLASSEN: I think that for me with this book, with the ending of it, what I’ve come around to and settled on, is that everything that, I think, that we want them (readers) to know is in the pictures.
KLASSEN: The specifics in terms of discussing it like this or talking about it in a review or in a paragraph that describes the book for booksellers, or whatever else, it’s a tricky one. Because you can’t exactly say what happens. There’s not much of a term for it, but you know what happens because it’s in the pictures.
As specific as we want to get is the picture. I think that’s the best way of putting it. That is as much information as we know and as we want to know.
BARNETT: And that’s as much as we’re giving. I think that’s true of the sublime. That it’s a place where words can’t necessarily go.
GRWR: I think there needs to be more of that in books for kids’ imaginations these days.
BARNETT: I agree completely. It’s a reason that I come to literature and that I’ve always come to literature. And yet mystery, ambiguity, the sublime, these are things that are sometimes considered off limits in children’s books. And I don’t know why? They’re some of the greatest pleasures that art can offer.
GRWR: Do either of you have any rituals you practice before beginning work?
KLASSEN: I eat a lot of peanut butter.
BARNETT: Jon you make tea.
KLASSEN: I make what?
BARNETT: You make tea.
KLASSEN: I do make tea, yeah that’s true. I usually wake up and put water on for tea in sort of a blind stupor before I’m even knowing what I’m doing. Yeah, and just all of the stuff that goes along with that. I don’t know, I think that right now I’m in a spot, and I was for this book as well, where I don’t really have a studio place that I go to a lot. I work at home in a makeshift area ’cause I’m kind of between places I work and so I didn’t have as much of a routine with this one as I did with some of the other books. Usually I like to make the same lunch for weeks and weeks …
GRWR: Okay so Jon your routine is that you have tea in the morning.
KLASSEN: (Laughing) Yeah! Short answer is I have tea in the morning. (Laughter)
BARNETT: Yeah, that was all Jon’s ritual right there. My working is a kind of, my process is ugly and chaotic and there’s a lot of anxiety over not working and a lot of pacing around the house. I don’t know … the impetus to write has to come from the excitement of the idea or a contractual obligation (laugh). Those are the only reasons that could get me into a chair. I don’t have any kind of regular writing process.
GRWR: That’s cool.
BARNETT: I was gonna say both of us … would like to have a studio space. I don’t have one. I’ve always wanted one which is one reason that I think we always open that audio run between our computers. It kind of creates the illusion on some days when it feels … because it’s a lonely job writing books … it will create the illusion that you’re sharing a studio space with someone. A lot of our conversations just become quiet like, I just hear like shuffling of papers, the clinking of a mug over on Jon’s side of the desk for, you know, 20 minutes, 40 minutes or whatever, but it can be reassuring to have the sense of another person kind of struggling along working on stories, too.
GRWR: Wow what did people do 30 years ago?
KLASSEN: Well, they wrote pretty good books. (Laughter)
BARNETT: I was gonna say, 30 to 40 years ago, you do know the all those stories about like, Sendak sleeping on … Ruth Krauss’s couch and that kind of stuff? I mean people were collaborating on books so many of them lived in Manhattan or on that corridor from basically Manhattan to Maine that they were in the same room so much of the time. I think that it’s kind of cool that after a period where I think it’s a good thing that you don’t have to live in New York to write a children’s book or to illustrate them. Technology has allowed us to get a little bit closer to that romantic ideal I always have of you know Sendak and Krauss in the same room.
KLASSEN: There doesn’t seem to be those meccas anymore of like creative people headed for one town to do whatever it is is going on there, as much, so you have to sort of replace that with something.
GRWR: That’s great that lots of avenues have been opened for people that wouldn’t have existed. That’s what we need.
BARNETT & KLASSEN: Yeah, exactly.
BARNETT: That’s the good thing about it, right, that you don’t have to live in Manhattan to make picture books?
GRWR: I mean you could collaborate with someone in London now.
BARNETT: Yeah. I would definitely do that. Jon, you know, Jon hates English people so he would not do that.
GRWR: But he likes tea. (Laughter)
KLASSEN: The world has opened a little bit too wide. (Laughter)
BARNETT: Yeah, I think that is. That’s so cool. And you do see more of that. You do see people collaborating with illustrators in different countries.
GRWR: … I actually lived in London, so I think it would be pretty cool.
BARNETT: I lived in London for a little while, too.
KLASSEN: It’s a great town. Mac was kidding. I like English people.
BARNETT: That is true, Jon does love English people. He was just there.
KLASSEN: I was just in London like two weeks ago. It was great.
GRWR: Oh, were you doing promotions?’
KLASSEN: I was actually there twice this year for stuff. Walker books who publishes these books, the parent company of Candlewick, puts on these really cool events for this book. We went to a bookstore in London and saw a whole shop window full of dirt for the Sam & Dave book. it was really neat.
GRWR: Oh, that’s fantastic
KLASSEN: Yeah, it was fun.
GRWR: Guys, what’s the wildest question you’ve been asked by a kid when you’ve been at a school or at a signing?
KLASSEN: Mmm…I always think it’s weird that they want to know how old I am. And I don’t know what they think of the answer. When I say I’m 32 or 33 or whatever the heck I am. I don’t … and they always go, “Whoa!” I don’t know what that is?
BARNETT: They think you’re old. When they ask how long have you been doing books and you say seven years, then that means that’s older than them. I think it is crazy.
BARNETT: Oh, I was with some kindergartners in Chicago over winter and a little guy asked me how do you make a book? And so I ran through that and then he raised his hand again. And he said, “How do you make a baby?” And I was … was not ready for that presentation. That’s definitely the wildest thing I ever got asked. I told him I don’t make babies, I make books.
GRWR: That’s a classic, just fantastic! Can you share any of your secrets for writing a successful picture book or maybe just tell me the elements that you strive for?
BARNETT: One thing that I think is so important for me because I can’t draw, but I do think picture books are a visual form and that even writing a picture book is a visual act. So, I’m always very conscious of the fact that there have to be strong images that I’m trying to create in my texts. And a really tight relationship between text and image. To essentially use the text most often to create opportunities for illustrators to look good, and to have some of the most exciting things in the stories that I’m working out happen in the pictures, the pictures that I’m not drawing, right and I don’t even have any conception of how it will turn out necessarily. I would say the three things that I’m always pretty conscious of is that relationship between text and image. Page turns, I think page turns are like the basic building blocks of a picture book. Each page turn is an opportunity to turn on the light or surprise and then lay out. Just like trying to create opportunities for interesting lay out and making sure that I’m writing about different kinds of images and that the scenes are changing or that the things we’re seeing are changing.
GRWR: That’s super. What about you, Jon?’
BARNETT: Just go with animals, that’s all he does.
KLASSEN: Yeah, it’s as simple as that (Laughter).
KLASSEN: I had a friend in college who, we were talking about what we think makes a story, and when we think we have a story versus just like some weird cool idea. And he said it was when you feel like it ended, at the end. Even if you didn’t know it was headed somewhere, he thought that as long as you feel like something ended, that’s when you have a complete story. And I like that … even my definition of what an ending feels like is kind of changing and this book changed it for me again, I think. You don’t really know what you want an ending to feel like, but as long as it lands in the definition of that word … picture books, especially are so short … have all sorts of different ways of making that happen and satisfying, whatever it is. It could be a totally local problem – it doesn’t have to be a big philosophical point although the better ones end up finding those things even accidentally. But as long as it feels like something that started ends, then you’ve got the book. I love the idea of how wide open that is and how you can sort of satisfy an audience with ways that they didn’t even know they could be.
GRWR: Or ways that you didn’t even know.
KLASSEN: Well, yeah. Well I think that works both ways, exactly. Like it surprises me as much as it surprises an audience I think when anything works. You don’t plan it. You’re trying to find a way to make it end and to make it feel like it just ended under its own power kind of.
GRWR: That’s how I felt at the end of this book. I was “Yes! Just a loud, “Yes!”
BARNETT: Oh, cool!
KLASSEN: Oh, that’s great!
GRWR: That’s just how I felt. Like, they did it, they did it. I love it. This is excellent, you got me and you’re gonna get everybody with this.
BARNETT & KLASEN: Aaaww.
GRWR: Can we count on you for a third collaboration, a kind of picture book trifecta?
KLASSSEN: Oh, yeah probably.
KLASSEN: I don’t know. I don’t know if it will feel like, you know a trilogy or anything like that.
BARNETT: I think this book is very different from Extra Yarn and I think the next thing that we do would probably be different again. But yes, yes.
GRWR: Yes? Oh awesome. You could be chameleons. I feel you both are very chameleon-like in what books you do. … If we took away your names, could people still identify you? Each story, each picture book, everything is so different. It’s very chameleon-like … Do you intentionally do that or do you just feel like that’s part of the creative process that when a person creates it’s just constantly changing?
BARNETT: Well I don’t like to repeat myself I think first and foremost. The stories that I tell or just in general, I don’t like to repeat myself .. and to do so in a book feels like such a wasted opportunity. Particularly picture books are such a young form. We’re just still figuring out what’s possible in them. I mean something that looks like a contemporary picture book doesn’t really even come around until like Wanda Gág, you know, and even then there’s a long time before Wanda Gág’s vision of what a book should be sort of won out. So we’re working with something that’s less than a century old and I feel like I’m just like running around on a blank map trying to like put flags in as many different areas as I can and it’s exhilarating!
GRWR: That is such an exciting way to put it!
BARNETT: Top that, Jon!
KLASSEN: Yeah. Now I can’t talk at all.
GRWR: That said, Jon, how do you feel about that?
KLASSEN: I think Mac’s got more range than I do that way. I think that even though I read a lot of Mac’s things, sometimes he’ll send me a text he’s working on … and I just I can’t believe he switched gears so quickly from the last thing he did. It’s all self-contained. It’s working under the rules of this particular one. I think he understands that concept of just following a very local set of rules to the story and having fun with that inside of it. There are probably themes and things that you could find. But it would take a minute, I think, because they are so self-contained. I like changing things myself and I always try to keep the decisions and the work kind of local to the story … I mean, I’m not sure that I stray as far from the things that I like, maybe story wise a little bit. To think of the ideas I’m working on for other books in the future are consciously sort of trying to keep trying different things. But I have a few things I like very much that I keep sort of going back to and I’m not sure I’m done with yet. So I don’t know if I have as much range that way. I’d like to think I do but I’m not sure when it all finally comes out of the printing press, it kind of looks like if it sits next to the other one it’s pretty close. (Laughter)
BARNETT: Oh, I think there’s something to not being attached to a visual style just writing picture books that is really liberating, too, and there’s something self-erasing about it. Kids will look at Extra Yarn or Sam & Dave Dig a Hole and see them, I think, as Jon Klassen’s book. That’s certainly how I saw books as a kid even when they were written by different people. I always identified them as the illustrator’s first. And so I think that if Sam & Daves or Extra Yarns sit comfortably, visually next to the Hat books, kids will often kind of lump them together that way, so you could see that as … self-erasing, but it actually … allows you to write in so many different styles. And part of why I feel so liberated, is it’s a completely different set of rules if I’m writing in Jon Klassen’s visual universe. Things work very differently in that world than they would in Adam Rex’s visual universe. And it is sort of like writing stories that take place on two different planets.
GRWR: Yep. That space on the shelf is getting larger and larger.
BARNETT: Oh, man. I know. It’s too big. People are tired, tired of my books, Ronna. They don’t want to get the phone call that I have a new book anymore. (laughter)
GRWR: What about you Jon?
KLASSEN: I think so. Yeah, I think we line up pretty close on that.
GRWR: If you guys weren’t creating books for kids, what would you be doing?
BARNETT: I think I would be teaching in some form. The plan I had right before I decided to write books, I was going to go and get my Ph.D. and become a medievalist. I may have been, you know, stroking a fat beard and reading Icelandic poetry.
GRWR: Did you say a medievalist?
BARNETT: A medievalist, that’s right.
KLASSEN: If you go to Ren (Renaissance?) faires, they’re all over the place.
BARNETT: I wasn’t a Ren faire medievalist. I was one of the cool ones, Jon. There’s a whole club. (Laughter)
KLASSEN: There’s always one guy in a Ren faire saying you have to call me doctor. And that’s the guy with the PhD.
BARNETT: And The turkey legs are outstanding.
GRWR: But anyway, parents and caregivers who purchase these books will be reading my interview with you on the blog so what would you like to say to those parents?
BARNETT: Hmmm, with me I think one interesting thing about the way picture books work … I would just say kind of thank you to them because they’re so much a part of it, not just for buying the books and choosing to read this book. By reading the book, a picture book, they’re so often read by a parent or caregiver or teacher, librarian or babysitter, they’re really as much of the creation of the experience as Jon and I are. They’re kind of the unsung 3rd creative force in putting a picture book together. I made this text. Then Jon interprets the text in illustrations which is then interpreted again by a parent before it finally reaches the audience. They’re choosing voices and telling our jokes and sometimes choosing to take out little pieces of dialogue or add things in. So really they’re like actors interpreting a performance so I thank them not just for getting the book, but for being part of an experience of bringing this thing to life.
KLASSEN: Yeah, I would try and say the same thing. My first picture books, well, we didn’t have a lot of picture books in our family’s house growing up. But my grandparents had all their books from when their kids were young. I think they had a lot more book clubs and stuff back then. There were all of these Dr. Seuss books and the reader books and things like that. They just had shelves of these things that were all the same size, but they were done by different authors and different illustrators and stuff. I still don’t really think of those guys very much. I think of those books and that room and that house and that time, all together as one big sort of feeling, and I still think that that’s still mainly the reason why I make books is because of that room and that house and those years and them having those books in that house it just creates a place you want to revisit. And this is the best way I sort of knew how to go back there was to keep trying to make these things. And the idea that they are in these houses and these rooms, they are making a place for their kids and memories that sort of you know the books are sort of merged into the memories of these rooms and those times. And it’s all sort of one thing, and they’re making it for them by having these books around. They are sort of creating a place for these kids that they can go and hear these stories, but also just feel like they feel in a really general way. It’s very important. It’s one of my most important memories.
GRWR: It’s hard getting rid of books.
BARNETT: I still have all of mine from when I was a kid. It’s true. I like what you said that, Jon. I always feel so grateful. We’re really, when we make books, like in a very intimate way invited into families and it’s such a privilege.
GRWR: I agree. I have to say that it’s been a privilege for me to chat with you guys but I’ve kept you long enough so I just want to say if there’s anything else you’d like to add before I let you get back to the rest of your day.
BARNETT: I just wanna say thank you, Ronna, this is a lot of fun talking to you.
KLASSEN: Yeah, thanks for the time. We really appreciate it, and thanks for liking the book so much. That’s really great.
GRWR: Oh, that’s fantastic. Jon, I guess I’ll see you in L.A. or at the Ren (Renaissance) Faire.
BARNETT: We’ll all see each other at the Ren Faire. I’m coming down. (Laughter)
GRWR: Best of luck to you guys. I know the buzz is continuing to grow over Sam & Dave and I just wish you the best of luck. Thank you so much.
– Interview by Ronna Mandel with special thanks to Armineh Manookian for her invaluable help!
Click here to read Ronna’s review of Sam & Dave Dig a Hole.
Want more humorous insights from Barnett and Klassen? Click here to read Mac Barnett & Jon Klassen Make a Book: A Transcript
ABOUT BARNETT & KLASSEN
Mac Barnett is the author of several award-winning books for children, including President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen, and Extra Yarn, illustrated by Jon Klassen, which won a Boston Globe–Horn Book Award and a Caldecott Honor and his most recent, Telephone. Mac Barnett lives in N. California.
Jon Klassen is the author-illustrator of I Want My Hat Back, a Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor book, and This Is Not My Hat, winner of the Caldecott Medal. He is also the illustrator of House Held Up by Trees, written by Ted Kooser, which was named a New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Children’s Book, and Extra Yarn, written by Mac Barnett, which won a Caldecott Honor. Originally from Niagara Falls, Ontario, Jon Klassen now lives in Los Angeles.