There’s absolutely no way she’s getting me to take that whale to school.”
(Click this image to enlarge — and all other illustrations and sketches in this post.)
A few weeks ago, when illustrator Dan “Bellyache” Santat stopped by, he mentioned an upcoming picture book, Oh No!, written by Mac Barnett (writer and strongman-for-hire), and showed lots of great art from it. Being the illustration junkie and all-around picture book nerd that I am, I visited Mac’s site. I saw that his very first picture book was named Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem (Hyperion), and I was immediately intrigued. I also saw that it was illustrated by none other than Adam Rex, and I, at once, began to scold myself for having missed the fact that ADAM REX HAD A NEW BOOK OUT. I mean, if you’re as huge a fan of Adam’s books as I am (can you say, one of my top-five favorite contemporary illustrators?), then shouldn’t there be, I thought to myself, some kind of Jedi-like, clairvoyant, preternatural Adam-Rex mind alert that makes me just FEEL he has a book out and that I need to hit the library or bookstore? No? Oh crap, I just got behind at his blog, and this is what I get for getting behind.
So, I hit the library down the road that day, and it turns out that the book was just released at the end of June. Whew. I was scared for a moment there that I was tragically delinquent; that the book was, say, a year old; and that I’d have to hang my head in shame in Adam Fan-Dom.
Kirkus, who described the book as “definitely funny and slyly subversive,” included this in their review of the book: “Readers know what kind of place they are in when the endpapers include ads for giant-squid repellent and shrimp-of-the-month club and the author and illustrator snark at each other in the dedication.” Yup. You’re in Mac and Adam’s world. That’s what kind of place. And it’s unpredictable and funny-as-hell and…well, calling it “offbeat” hardly cuts it. It’s a postmodern wack-fest. It’s like Clifford meets Nietzsche.
Billy Twitters needs to clean up his room. He’s also been lagging on his chores in other ways—not eating his veggies, not brushing his teeth—and his mother gives him a pretty harsh ultimatum:
Things aren’t as cheery as they are for Emily Elizabeth and her big red dog (which Mac discusses a bit below) when you have a creature whose tongue weighs as much as four hundred cats. Billy learns quickly that blue whales make terrible pets and are not exactly welcome on the playground, nor are they acceptable to Frank Grunner, the class bully, who “always smells like corn chips, even when he hasn’t been eating them.” Billy weakly defends the whale, but then when the class know-it-all gets stuck in the blowhole one afternoon when Billy attempts to take his stranded classmates home on his ginormous, new pet, even Billy knows things aren’t exactly going to turn around for him. Whether or not he can make the most of it is what I won’t spoil for you, should you decide to read a copy yourself.
First, Mac’s writing is clever and funny, he possesses a style all his own, and if this is his first book, why then, I’m really looking forward to what comes next. As for Adam? You know how you love everything in an author/illustrator’s body of work—or, for that matter, the body of work of any sort of artist, whether he or she is a musician or painter or driftwood sculptor—and you worry that, at some point, he or she will let you down? Well, Adam hasn’t let me down yet. Billy Twitters is full of the humor and the smart details and the exceptional art work you come to expect from a title to which Adam Rex has contributed in some way.
Sure, Publishers Weekly—who all-around liked the book, calling it “tons of fun” (bah-dum-ching)—points out its “abrupt ending,” but I say: If this is Barnett’s biggest crime, I predict very good things to come from him in the future. And I predict that I’ll follow his books with a close eye.
I invited Mac and Adam over this morning for a strong cup of cyber-coffee and to discuss Billy Twitters, as well as what’s-to-come from them. Adam popped in a little late — with the biscotti. And some shrimp. And, though Adam has answered the Pivot Questionnaire before (in the 2007 7-Imp interview), I felt a strong urge to hand that weird-ass questionnaire over to Mac, and he obliged me. Let’s get right to it then, and I thank them both for stopping by. Special thanks to Adam for sharing the art.
Mac, pictured here (and Adam): “Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem is about a kid whose life is ruined when he gets a blue whale for a pet. I got the idea for the book in 2004, right after I graduated from college (and two years before the creation of the web site Twitter) [Adam here. Doesn’t that make you hate him a little bit? That he wrote this right out of college? Or maybe it would make you hate him, if he weren’t so adorable. Look at him–he’s like a meerkat.], while I was looking at old medieval manuscripts in the Þjóðmenningarhúsið [Okay, now he’s making things up.], or Culture House, in Reykjavík, Iceland. This is weird, because I wasn’t surrounded by children’s books or blue whales, but by centuries-old drawings of men sticking swords in other men’s heads. (I don’t want to spoil the book for those who haven’t read it, but death by sword is not a major plot point in Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem.) [But not for lack of trying.] In fact, almost all my ideas for books have come to me while traveling. The others occurred to me while taking showers. [Now he’s got a hundred children’s librarians picturing him in the shower. Le travail bien fait, Mac Barnett!]
Anyway, the theme of Nice Kid Gets Giant Pet has a venerable history in children’s literature. There’s Clifford, of course, and The House on East 88th Street, and The Mysterious Tadpole, and Danny and the Dinosaur — Syd Hoff built a career on pairing children with unreasonable animals. I wanted to play around in this tradition, to subvert it a little. [It’s funny, but until I read this, it hadn’t occurred to me that Mac was playing with this convention. His concept always seemed to me to be utterly new and out of the blue. But maybe that’s because I always pictured Billy’s whale as inscrutable -– barely a character, even. It might as well be architecture -– just something horribly big and heavy with which Billy has to contend.] And what struck me about these books was that, the protagonists’ initial reservations notwithstanding, their descriptions of giant-pet-owning experiences were so unfailingly sunny. These pets are practical, even. When the school bus breaks down, Clifford gives everyone a ride. [I can’t believe I didn’t remember this.]
A dinosaur ends up doing some kid’s math homework. And, I thought, surely there’s a different story to be told here. And so came Billy’s ordeal, a nonstop parade of inconveniences and awkward social situations. This whale doesn’t talk. It doesn’t have a name. It’s not even mobile. This is not a fun pet. Even the ending, which leaves Billy feeling better, is not really a depiction of unalloyed happiness. [“unalloyed happiness?”]
Adam is a brilliant artist and storyteller, and I feel lucky to work with him. [Adam is a brilliant artist and storyteller, and Mac is lucky to work with him.] I love picture books—the interaction of text and illustration is so exciting—and I’m really only interested in writing stories that will make for good pictures. I’m a terrible artist, but when I’m writing, I always have little scenes in my head. Seeing Adam’s illustrations was like looking at the pictures in my imagination, only better. There were paintings—I’m thinking particularly of the two-page spreads that serve as visual punchlines to textual setups—that made me dance a little in my chair. [Well, this was exactly the sort of manuscript you want to get if you’re a picture book illustrator. Actually, if you’re a picture book author AND illustrator, it’s exactly the sort of manuscript you want to write. After an initial period of mourning the fact that I couldn’t go back in time and steal this idea, I finally accepted the consolation prize of being its illustrator. Mac really gets the collaborative nature of this medium. I’ve read manuscripts in the past that are lovely but sort of give the impression that the author approaches his/her illustrator as a necessary evil rather than a partner. It’s like Mac knows that he’s a robot lion and I’m a robot lion and the editor and book designer and…um…marketing team are all robot lions, but when we combine together we’re supposed to be Voltron. I guess what I’m saying is that Mac completes me.]
Adam and I have a book coming out in September called Guess Again!, which is sort of a demented guessing book. [That book is going to make your head bleed rainbows.] I had a lot of fun making that book with him and my editor at Simon & Schuster, and I think it shows. In October, The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity, which is the first in a series of middle-grade mystery novels, called the Brixton Brothers, will hit shelves. It’s about Steve Brixton, a kid who’s obsessed with a Hardy Boys-like pair of sibling sleuths, called the Bailey Brothers. He becomes involved with a criminal conspiracy when he’s mistaken for an actual kid detective, and the only way to prove he’s not a sleuth is to solve a mystery. Adam drew the pictures for that, too. [The cover gave me a nice opportunity to do something I really hadn’t done in a while, too -– a totally straight, “realistic” rendering, albeit of a preposterous scenario.] And then there are some more picture books coming out 2010. [Which I’m not illustrating, but I’m sure will be fine.]
As far as influences go, Jon Scieszka is the reason I started writing children’s books. [Hey, me too!] One of my first jobs was as a counselor for four- and five-year-old campers, and I would read them The Stinky Cheese Man daily. They loved it, and I loved it, and when I watched them listening to the story I realized that this was the audience for me. I just clicked over to Adam Rex’s interview and saw that he mentions Chuck Jones’s cartoon Duck Amuck and Jon Stone’s The Monster at the End of this Book. Well, both of these are big enough deals for me to mention here, despite fears of looking like a copycat. Adam and I are working on a picture book that’s in many ways a love letter to all the things I’ve mentioned so far. I can’t get enough Tomí Ungerer, Marc Simont, James Marshall, or Judith Viorst. Everybody should be reading more Judith Viorst — check out the deep cuts. Jerry Smath wrote a book called But No Elephants that I’ve probably read 4,000 times. I love James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, George Saunders, and Ernest Hemingway. And I owe a lot to my college writing teacher, David Foster Wallace, who made me start thinking hard about how to write a sentence. (I still haven’t stopped.)
(Adam’s ’07 Pivot answers are here.)
7-Imp: What is your favorite word?
7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?
7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Mac: I couldn’t write my stories if I didn’t spend time hanging out with kids.
7-Imp: What turns you off?
Mac: Children’s verse that doesn’t scan.
7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)
Mac: I just found out yesterday that “Fudrucker’s” is a hamburger restaurant and not the dirtiest word I know.
7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?
Mac: Sam Cooke’s eight bars of soul.
7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?
Mac: My teeth on a metal fork.
7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Mac: Skipper on the Jungle Cruise.
7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?
Mac: Contestant on the Real World/Road Rules Challenge. I’m scared of CT.
7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Mac: When I was a kid, and we’d go to church at school, the idea of heaven terrified me. The pastor would go on about infinite happiness, and I would think about infinity–day after day after day after day–and I would start sweating, and start crying, and then whisper to my teacher that I was sick, so I could go lie on a cot in the nurse’s office. I guess what I’m saying is I’d love to finish this questionnaire, but I’m not feeling very well, and I need to go to the nurse’s office.
BILLY TWITTERS AND HIS BLUE WHALE PROBLEM copyright © 2009 by Mac Barnett. Illustration © 2009 by Adam Rex. Published by Hyperion Books, New York, NY. Images reproduced by permission of the illustrator. All rights reserved.