I was first introduced to children’s book author Mac Barnett six years ago when I was a new mother and a new transplant to the Bay Area. The strangeness of both experiences left me feeling isolated, lost in a persistent figurative and literal fog that rolled through the city each afternoon. To escape the loneliness, I immersed myself in TED Talks. I learned about the hidden life of giant sunfish, befriending stress, book cover design, power poses, anything to distract myself and it was in that endless parade of ideas that I stumbled upon a 2014 TEDx Talk by Mac Barnett entitled “Why a Good Book is a Secret Door.”
With my infant daughter asleep in my arms, I listened to Mac talk about making books for children and drawing the fictional world into his early work at the writing nonprofit 826 Valencia (where classes famously take place in a room behind their Pirate Supply Store). Something about his manner was remarkable. Not his cleverness but quite the opposite: the seriousness of his pursuit. “The joke isn’t a joke,” Mac said of these created writing spaces of 825 National. “You can’t find the seams on the fiction and I love that. It’s this little bit of fiction that’s colonized the real world.”
As he spoke, I found myself transported to an old, forgotten doorway.
A good book is a secret door, Mac explained. “Kids can get there a lot more easily than adults can, and that’s why I love writing for kids. I think kids are the best audience for serious literary fiction.”
I’m an adult now. I have to rationalize my way into a children’s book: oh, how stunning are those images, how didactic the text, how moral the lesson. My kids just flip a page and the secret door swings wide open. Reveling in the world of Mac Barnett that foggy day in California, I was stunned to discover that this the old, familiar secret door was actually quite a tiny thing. I could only peer into a fictional world that was once my first and warmest home. Still, even as a stranger now, it was nice to have a taste of a fictional homeland.
We dove into the stories of Mac Barnett. Each book was a portal and Mac was our trusty guide. We borrowed Telephone again and again from the Serramonte Library and projected equally silly personas onto the birds that visited our stoop. We listened to Mac (in person, gasp!) reading Sam and Dave Dig a Hole in San Mateo and went home to chocolate milk and animal cookies. We dubiously ventured into President Taft is Stuck in the Bath one night and then again the next night and the next until we had memorized the dialogue and mastered our delivery.
And we fell in love with other authors along the way and discovered many secret doors and wandered a bit.
Then this spring when the state shutdown and we felt trapped in our house, in our fear and uncertainty, we found Mac again. We tuned in to the Mac’s Book Club Show on Instagram Live each morning, eager to hear Mac read old favorites and discover new stories from his collection: Extra Yarn, Chloe and the Lion, The Wolf, The Duck, and the Mouse, and Leo: A Ghost Story. Mac and his dog Henry paced our wobbly weekday schedules like a trusty metronome.
And then, just when we needed magic and escape most of all, the marvelous mind of Mac Barnett and illustrator Shawn Harris gave us the joyfully low-tech, high wire art, live cartoon series The First Cat in Space Ate Pizza. We eagerly awaited the new episodes on Saturdays (it was really our only way to keep track of the days) and when it reached its inevitable, oddball conclusion, the girls were amiss.
I was too, but work/life/relationships/the dentist was calling…
It’s this little bit of fiction that’s colonized the real world…
In discovering Mac Barnett, and many other great picture book authors along the way, I realized that I’m less worried about finding a way through the secret door, back into Narnia. I’m quite tethered to this reality. I have loitered on this street corner of adulthood long enough to be accepted by the locals and I like it here. I can build stuff. I can stay up late, really late. I can make stuff up and call it fiction and people nod their heads solemnly. I find myself less able to travel into fictional worlds, but I am capable of holding open the door and beckoning forth the soul of a story.
“I want fiction to escape and come into the real world. I want a book to be a secret door that opens and lets the stories out into reality. And so I try to do this in my books,” Mac said in his TED Talk. Let it be so in this world that needs more doors and more eager greeters at the threshold of reality.
Welcome, stories. Please, won’t you stay a while.