Three years ago, we chanced upon a very funny and clever picture book at the library — Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem (click here for our review). As it turned out, that was an apt introduction to the very funny and clever Mac Barnett, especially since Billy Twitters was the very first children’s book that he wrote and sold.
To say that he has been pretty prolific would be an understatement: from the time he burst onto the children’s literature scene in 2009 until now — a mere nine years — he has already sold over a million copies of his books which currently number more than 30 titles (and there are many more in the works) and have been translated into more than 30 languages, garnering various prestigious awards along the way. Oh, and he was also invited to give a TED Talk.
But what is most striking about Mac’s body of work is his impressive range and versatility: most authors are comfortable working on either picture books or novels, but he has managed to stamp his inimitable wit, humour and style on both forms with aplomb. Of course, it also helps that he has collaborated with some of the best contemporary illustrators in the business.
While Mac Barnett is probably best known for his quirky picture books, such as the aforementioned Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem, Sam and Dave Digs a Hole, How This Book Was Made, and The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse, among many others, we think it’s with The Terrible Two series which he co-authored with Jory John, that his talents have been given the scope to truly shine.
With myriad influences from classic literature (children’s and otherwise) and their own experiences and real-life friendship, Mac Barnett, Jory John and Kevin Cornell (who is behind the indispensable and amazingly detailed illustrations in the books) have created an incredibly special series of books about pranking but also friendship and camaraderie. These are not just hilarious and brilliant on multiple levels, appealing to a wide audience, but they also have heart.
The eponymous first book serves as a perfect introduction to Yawnee Valley and its irresistible cast (and cows), but books 2 and 3 (The Terrible Two Get Worse, and The Terrible Two Go Wild) are where the characters really come into their own and you grow to care for all of them (OK, maybe with the exception of Old Man Barkin). And it goes without saying that the writing is excellent throughout, which speaks volumes of the rapport that the authors share with each other: the plots are intricate, the pranks ingenious, the tender moments genuine and poignant — and the way that the books have built upon one another and are brought to life with the wonderful illustrations feels serendipitous and almost magical.
Mac was kind enough to pen down the answers to our burning questions about the series for our inaugural author spotlight, and we hope you’ll enjoy reading them as much as we have!
Miles and Niles look a lot like Jory and you. How much of each character would you say is based on you in real life, and in what sense?
I was obsessed with pranking when I was a kid, but I was terrified of getting in trouble. So I didn’t play pranks at school. I read stories about pranksters (Matilda was probably my favorite). I read pranking how-to manuals. I plotted out complicated — mechanically complicated, psychologically complicated — pranks in a secret notebook, then never did anything about it. After years of mischievous thoughts and good behavior, I’d built up a sterling reputation, which I realized was the perfect cover. And so then, when I finally did start pranking, nobody suspected it was me. In that sense, I’m like Niles. But these days I stay awake at night wondering: What if I am actually a Principal Barkin?
I love the prankster’s oath and all of the pranks described in the books. What was the best prank you’ve ever pulled in real life?
When Jory and I toured for the first book, we would prank the kids (and the teachers usually fell for it too): Before the presentation, the principal would come out, looking angry, and make an announcement: “We were all looking forward to having some authors visit our school today, but I read this book last night, and I have to say I was disappointed. This book is about pranking. Pranks at school. Pranks on principals. That’s not funny. That’s not appropriate. So I called the authors this morning and told them they were not welcome in our school. The author visit is canceled. But since we’re all gathered here, we’re going to do something even more fun: I’ve invited two pediatricians to talk to you about healthy eating choices. Please welcome the Rockin’ Docs!”
Then Jory and I would come out in lab coats and fake mustaches. And we really did talk about healthy eating choices. For a long time. We would show pictures of oranges and cupcakes, until we finally ripped off our mustaches and revealed ourselves.
[Photo courtesy of Mac Barnett]
Niles is our favorite character and I love that we got a peek at his incredible book collection in book 3. Have you personally read all the books that were mentioned/pictured? What other authors and books have influenced this series and your writing in general?
I’ve read all those books. For me, the Big Three children’s novelists are Ellen Raskin, E.L. Konigsberg, and Louise Fitzhugh. Roald Dahl looms large in this series, and the Wayside School books do too. I admire A Separate Piece for its depiction of an intense and complicated friendship. And all four Terrible Two books are loaded with references to Shakespeare’s plays.
We just read The Cut-Ups series by James Marshall, and it’s almost uncanny how they seem like picturebook versions of The Terrible Two in spirit. Did these books influence the creation of Miles, Niles, Holly, Principal Barkin and Old Man Barkin?
I love James Marshall, but only discovered The Cut-Ups after the first Terrible Two was published. I too was surprised by the convergences, and kind of delighted.
My kids are so tickled by Yawnee Valley’s cows mooing in the background and they wanted to know: what made you pick cows instead of another animal to feature so prominently?
Jory and I both have lived in towns with lots of cows and I personally have always found them to be funny and appealing creatures. The final prank in the first book is something that actually happened at my high school.
Kevin’s wonderful illustrations add so much to the series, and I’m obsessed with the ever-changing chalk art in the boys’ HQ, and of course, Miles’s cool T-shirts (RIP Max’s Market) that sometimes mirror what’s happening in the story but also almost seem like a running inside joke (the dog food tee comes to mind…). How much direction did you and Jory provide for the illustrations?
Kevin is terrific, a funny and sensitive visual storyteller. The characters in these books are very much his creation, too. The manuscripts have a few specific, practical, restrained notes about art, but only where it wouldn’t already be clear to Kevin what sort of visual moment we’re trying to achieve.
Really, the art’s all Kevin. And very often, something he draws influences the text. Miles’s T-shirts, for example: Miles’s love of offbeat logo tees was something Kevin added to book one, long after the manuscript was finished. In book two, Barkin’s disdain for Miles’s shirts becomes an important part of the narrative.
Kevin is so thorough and thoughtful. Sometimes he sends these great emails explaining the backstories behind his pictures. Here he’s talking about M + N’s chalkboard: “The boys planned a lot of practice pranks (I didn’t know whether these qualified as études or not?). Most of these were designed not to even be noticed by the victims. One prank that I managed to squeeze into the first shot of the Prank Lab in the second book was “Stuart’s Magic Lunch Sack”, where every day more and more fruit snacks appear in Stuart’s lunch bag, and he starts to think his bag is magical.”
Kevin is so great.
The Terrible Two feels almost like a personal project, and I think it comes down to the care with which you and Jory have developed the characters (even Holly and Josh!) right from the start in book 1. Book 3 feels particularly poignant as I think your real-life friendship really came through in the way Miles and Niles’s has grown. Is it easier or harder to work with your close friends?
A lot of being a writer is being alone in a room, not writing. So writing with a friend can be a pleasant relief from the solitude.
Just out of curiosity, was the last scene in book 3 a tribute to Frog & Toad?
It’s actually a tribute to The Once and Future King, but Frog & Toad is so fundamental to me as a writer and a human that I’m sure those stories are always lurking deep down somewhere.
[Photo courtesy of Mac Barnett]
Have you guys finished working on book 4, and is it as hard for you as it is for us fans to know that it will be the final installation of The Terrible Two — i.e. will tears be shed?
It is hard! I’m very fond of all these characters. I mean, I certainly shed a tear working on the last few pages.
What can we look forward to in book 4?
Our sincere thanks to Mac Barnett for taking time out from his jam-packed schedule for this little email interview! We can’t wait to read The Terrible Two’s Last Laugh, and I know that The Terrible Two will forever hold a special place in our hearts. If you have not read any of these fantastic books, well, what are you waiting for?
The Terrible Two’s Last Laugh will be released by Abrams Books on 15 January 2019 and you can preorder a copy here.