Pomona produces more than its share of writers, as we at PCM witness through the constant stream of alumni books that land in our mailbox. Cool kids’ books often stand out in the pile. So PCM’s Ratna Kamath ’11 interviewed two of our star children’s writers, Mac Barnett ’04 and Deborah Underwood ’83, to learn the stories behind the bedtime stories.
Barnett is a relatively new name in the world of children’s fiction, but he has already turned out eight on-the-edge-of-your-seat books—his latest being It Happened on a Train (of the Brixton Brothers series)—in the span of just three years. He loves his work because, Barnett says, kids are “the sincerest appreciators of stories, a uniquely receptive and honest audience.”
Underwood, who garnered plenty of praise for her New York Times bestseller, The Quiet Book, has been at it since 2001. “I once heard someone say that people become children’s writers either because they have kids or because they actually are kids,” says Underwood. “For me, it’s the latter. I’m always a little amazed when I go up to a car rental counter and they let me have a car—I want to say, ‘Are you crazy? I’m 6!’”
Underwood and Barnett met only for the first time last year, bumping into each other at a bookstore event. But while their lives are quite different, each author serves up fun and revealing insights into life as a children’s writer. Today we begin with Barnett. Read on to learn the stories behind the bedtime stories.
Mac Barnett, author of Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem, Guess Again!, The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity, The Ghostwriter Secret and It Happened on a Train.
Niche: “Picture books are really my favorite form. The interplay of text and image is so exciting, and there’s so much experimentation left to be done.”
Career Aspirations: “At Pomona I decided I wanted to be an English professor, probably a medievalist (although I did not want to grow a long beard). I was very into Icelandic poetry from the Middle Ages. But my advisor, who specialized in medieval Icelandic poetry (and who did not have a long beard), told me to leave academic life for a few years and see if the magnetic pull of scholarship was strong enough to draw me back in. But on my summers off from school I worked as a camp counselor, and I used to make up a lot of exciting stories about my weekends spying for the queen and tumbling in the circus, and I found my audience. I had my first idea for a picture book in the shower of my two-room double in Clark I, and so far I don’t have any plans to start a Ph.D. program.”
On-the-Side: “After college I was the executive director of 826LA, a non-profit tutoring center that gives kids free help with their writing and homework. Our first writing lab was in Venice Beach, and I opened a second one in Echo Park. The new center is fronted by the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, a fully functioning convenience store for time travelers. We sell robot emotion chips, woolly mammoth chili, chain mail, powdered horse milk—and all the proceeds fund our programs. What else? Oh! I’m editing a syndicated newspaper section for kids called The Goods (www.mcsweeneys.net/thegoods) where great children’s authors and illustrators will re-imagine spot-the-differences and how-to-draws and paper dolls.”
Inspiration: “I’m honestly not putting an act on for PCM: it all did start at Pomona. In fact, my next book, The Ghostwriter Secret, is dedicated to three [former] Pomona professors: Paul Saint-Amour, Dan Birkholz (the medievalist) and David Wallace … Dave gave me the confidence to attempt this career. I’m not sure I would have thought it was possible unless he told me he thought I could do it.”
A-ha! Moment: “Well the book that made me want to write for children was The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. I read it at that summer camp—it’s high metafiction for kids. I loved it, and my four-year-olds loved it: it was exactly the kind of book I wanted to make. Later, when I had my first idea for a picture book, I was talking about it over breakfast—this was in Frary, actually—and when I said I’d been inspired by this book The Stinky Cheese Man, my friend Casey said, ‘You know my dad wrote that book, right?’ I didn’t know how to spell her last name or say Jon’s. It was an insane coincidence. And so I sent my first manuscript to Jon, and he kind of grandfathered that book. He’s still the first person I send new stuff to.”
A Day in the Life: “I have a novel way overdue and every day is pretty much oversleeping, reading, puttering around my house anxiously, starting writing too late and going to bed much later, cycling over and over again until I have become a strange and unappealing person. Writing a book is hard on me, but I think it’s also terrible for everyone around me.”
Typical Reactions: “Mostly they pitch their Great Idea for a Picture Book, which is maybe about a flea or stuffed animal or the value of hugs. It seems like everyone has a children’s book they’d like to write, but not many people take seriously the kind of work that goes into a making good books. I hope that doesn’t sound bitter or self-important. When people ask me what I do at dinner parties, it would probably be better for me to tell them I’m a mob lawyer or medievalist.”
On tour I always bring…: “Well a couple of times I’ve been lucky enough to stay at the Four Seasons, and then I bring every dress shoe I own because they shine them for free.”