Telephone by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jen Corace + Q&A with Mac Barnett

It’s time to fly home for dinner! In this witty picture book from award-winning and bestselling author Mac Barnett, a mother bird gives the bird next to her a message for little Peter. But passing messages on a telephone line isn’t as simple as it sounds. Each subsequent bird understands Mama’s message according to its own very particular hobbies. Will Peter ever get home for dinner? This uproarious interpretation of a favourite children’s game will get everyone giggling and is sure to lead to countless rereads.

– Abrams & Chronicle

Q & A with Mac Barnett


James: Telephone, like all your books is brilliant; it literally made me laugh out loud. Then I made my wife read it and she had the same reaction. I took it to school and read it to my class and they also found it hilarious. I think the reason your picture books are such delightful reads is because they begin with a great concept. The simplicity of Telephone is what makes it so funny. I think you would have made a very successful copywriter in the advertising industry; however I’m relieved that isn’t the path you followed.
How did you come up with the idea for the book?
Mac: Thanks, James. If writing didn’t work out my plan was to become a medievalist, actually. But I don’t know whether I would have made a successful medievalist. Telephone gets at some things that are interesting to me—the strangeness of words, the imperfections of communication—in a very simple way. But for me the trick was to animate the premise, emotionally and narratively. There had to be a relationship at work (in this case, mother-son), some urgency to the message (but not so much that it competed with the climax’s ridiculous alarmism), and an appealing rhythm to the message’s transformations. Every picture book presents the author (and then the illustrator) a set of problems to solve, and doing so is the source of a lot of the joy and frustration in my life.
James: To quote the Picture Book Proclamation that you put together, ‘the line between author and illustrator is irrelevant’. Jen Corace’s illustrations do a great deal of the storytelling process, how do you choose who to work with on each project?
Mac: Well, typically the author has no say in the selection of the illustrator. I’ll sometimes approach a publisher with an artist in mind for a book, and I’m lucky enough that they’ve usually listened. But it was Chronicle Books that suggested Jen for Telephone, and I was thrilled. Jen and I are friends, and I love her work. Her pictures for Telephone are so smart, so funny, so beautiful. Illustrators of picture books do a lot of the narrative lifting—sometimes they’re doing the bulk of the storytelling. Good picture books get a lot of their juice from that interdependence of text and image.
James: Do you come up with the concept first and then hand it over to the illustrator to interpret it how they wish, or is it done in a more side by side fashion?
Mac: It’s almost always the case that the manuscript comes first. A picture book text goes through many interpretations before it reaches its audience. First it’s interpreted by an illustrator, then a reader (parent, teacher, librarian, babysitter, etc.) who often provides voices, decides on pacing, and sometimes even adds or subtracts text. Then, finally, it’s interpreted by the child. In that way, writing picture books is a lot like playwriting. And each time someone reaches across one of those interpretive gaps, there’s the possibility of creating tremendous energy.
That said, my text often changes once I see an artist’s sketches. I figure out what bits the art has made superfluous, or how I can amplify the impact of a particular spread.
James: You have worked with some of my all time heroes of illustration; Jon Klassen, Christian Robinson and Dan Santat. Can you tell us about any future collaborations that are on the horizon?  If not¸ who would you like to work with in the future?
Mac: My book with Christian comes out next year, but he’s posted a few pictures to his Instagram, so I think I can give some sneak peeks of that one.

The book is called Leo, and it’s a ghost story, and I’m very excited for it.

James: You and Jon Klassen have worked together on two inspired picture books, can we hope for this to be a career long collaboration? Like the Tim Burton and Jonny Depp of the picture book form.

Mac: I’m pretty certain we’ll be making more books together. Jon’s one of my closest friends, and so working with him is rewarding in a very particular way. 

James: As a teacher I find myself surrounded by bland children’s books. When the book fair arrives and sets up their pop up shop in the hall I am always disappointed that not one original book sits amongst the shelves. The book corners in the classrooms were filled with drab novels and naff picture books. I decided I would put a list together to improve the situation. It’s surprising how many educators of children are not aware of how brilliant the art form can be. I hope my blog is helping to back up your picture book proclamation in a small way. 

Mac: It’s true. There are a lot of terrible children’s books. There are a lot of terrible books for adults, too. But for a lot of complicated reasons—scarcity of adult expertise in kids’ books, pervasive wrongheaded notions of what stories for children “should” or “must” do, market pressures on stores and publishers and writers—with kids’ books, it can feel like the whole art form is defined by its least interesting output—that everything is moralizing and singsong and Freytag’s triangle. That’s not so. In fact, I think it’s possible we’re entering a new golden age of picture books. Daring, fascinating, provocative, beautiful books are coming out in great number. I’m glad you’re helping people find them, James. 

James: Your talks and books have inspired me greatly. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, I am very grateful. 

Check out Mac’s website for more information on his work

Or follow Mac on twitter.

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