In the new picture book Chloe and the Lion, a little girl blows a jarfull of change on the merry-go-round, gets dizzy, loses her way in the woods, and meets a hungry lion. Then she ends up standing on a street corner wearing a tube top in order to lure more unsuspecting children into the lion's clutches.
Wait. No. That's not what happens at all! That's me, the reviewer, hijacking the story. Which I am completely not supposed to do. Bad reviewer! Fired!
Hey and you know who else is not supposed to hijack the story of a picture book? The illustrator. Yup. The illustrator is not supposed to draw a purple dragon instead of a hungry lion (even if a dragon is way cooler), because if he does, the author is going to step in with a WAITAMINIT, VARLET - YOU DRAWS WHAT I TELLS YA TO DRAW, and then maybe the illustrator will retaliate by drawing the author in a variety of interesting and humiliating outfits, and then the illustrator will find himself FIRED. And eaten.
Like it? Me too!
Naturally, firing an illustrator of Adam Rex's exceptional skill is not good news for the book. And while Mac Barnett may try to replace him, he will eventually have to admit that Adam is irreplaceable, and after a brief lecture from our petite heroine (remember Chloe?) about his mulish behavior and lack of drawing skills, Mac will call Adam and admit he was wrong. At which point the whole cast sets about finding a way to get Adam out of the lion, and in the end, it's merry-go-round rides for everyone.
It makes perfect sense that Mac Barnett and Adam Rex have teamed up to make a picture book this explicitly meta. ... Hm. You know what? I'm done with "meta." It's a lazy term. And these guys have been working in "meta" for too long, and in too many ways, to reduce all that play and observation to one four-letter word.
Um, by the way, I really did interview them. I'm just getting a little carried away with the intro. You can skip down if you like, I won't mind.
In Guess Again!, a book of silly poetry that the two also teamed up on, the authorial presence is not as explicit, but it is definitely there. We are definitely being led down the garden path by the author's rhyming couplets, only to be definitely ambushed by an unexpected punchline. These jokes are like a stand-up routine: they are written in the first person, refer to the speaker's family, build upon each other, and have built-in timing. Viking! Never not funny.
Then there's Adam's Fat Vampire, which, rather than asserting or implying the author's hand, is "meta" in its explanation of the reflective relationship between cultural images of vampires and, uh, actual vampires. "Actual" in the context of the book, ok? Shut up. And in Mac's Brixton Brothers mysteries, the lead character's devotion to a pair of fictional midcentury teen detectives inspires him to solve his own mysteries, but also lands him in terrible situations, because that's what happens when people take literature too literally.
Yet again, in Adam's Cold Cereal, there is an interplay between the stories we think we know versus 'reality,' and how what we think we know impinges back upon the real. In that book, it was leprechauns and wizards - but in our world, maybe it's librarians and sanitation workers.
I think I've reviewed everything either of these guys has ever written, and I've enjoyed every minute of it. It ain't often I get to exercise my critical chops like this.
So instead of writing a review of Chloe and the Lion, because - ahem - I obviously don't have anything else to say about the work of Mac Barnett and Adam Rex... (Well, I thought I didn't. But it appears that I am halfway to a GRADUATE DEGREE in Mac Barnett and Adam Rex. Edward Cullen and Frank Hardy Ruined My Life: Explorations of Received Cultural Notions in the Works of Mac Barnett and Adam Rex. That would be my thesis. You wouldn't know whether to laugh or cry.)
What was I saying? Oh. So I asked them to answer a few questions in lieu of a review. And - listen, these guys are gracious guys, because I asked some DUUUMB questions - this is what they said:
Paula: The two of you have been teamed up on a fair number of books - in addition to Chloe and the Lion, there was Guess Again and Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem; plus Adam has illustrated all three Brixton Brothers mysteries so far, and you both had a hand in The Clock Without a Face. What was the first project you worked on together? Whose idea was that? What were they thinking?
Mac Barnett: Blame goes to our agent, Steve Malk, who showed me Adam's work and thought he'd be right for my first picture book, Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem. I saw a couple spreads of his book Tree Ring Circus and agreed: the book was right for Adam. I lobbied pretty hard to get him on board, which I guess technically is not what you're supposed to do: as I'm sure Pink Me's readers know, authors aren't typically involved in illustration decisions.
But I figure you get to be fussy about one aspect of the process, and I like to opine about who's drawing the pictures. (I think some of my editors would probably say that I am fussy about other stuff, too.) After Adam signed on, we met for dinner, and it turned out we liked each other. We've had dinner many times since then, and it continues to be an enjoyable mealtime experience. (I am also fond of Adam's wife and parents and one of his cats.)
Adam Rex: So now I'm wondering if he preferred the cat that hid in closets the whole time Mac was here or the other cat that was always all up in his business.
Mac: I like Business Cat. I had no problem with Closet Cat: it's just that he was always hiding in the closets.
Paula: Mac, you are involved with 826LA, a program dedicated to helping kids with their writing skills. Chloe and the Lion, in addition to being a very exciting story about a girl and her merry-go-round addiction, is all about the process of collaborating on a picture book. I am trying to think of an open-ended way of asking if your experience working with kids influences the books you write, and failing. You wanna help me out?
Mac: I think you did a great job with this question, but maybe that's just because you identified what I consider the cornerstone of my work. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn't figure out what kind of writing I wanted to do until I worked at summer camp on my summers off from college. I would tell campers autobiographical stories, mainly about my exploits performing in the circus or spying for Queen Elizabeth II.
All stories are a kind of performance, but picture books are especially so. And I think that I internalized rhythms at that camp, and later at 826LA, that still serve me today. I always write with my audience in mind, and when writers don't, especially children's writers, their work suffers.
Paula: Adam, Chloe and the Lion includes art in many media: pencil, paint, sculpture, doll clothes, and what looks like a diorama... is there any medium you have found difficult to learn, or anything that you just can't draw, or labor over? Rocks? Bicycles?
Adam: Oh man, I hate drawing bicycles. They're the sort of thing I really want good reference for. I always want photographic or actual reference whenever possible, but I can fake my way through rocks. I've always struggled with watercolor. It requires an every-mark-has-to-be-the-right-one kind of planning, and I'm more of a keep-layering-and-cover-up-your-mistakes kind of guy. I'm sorry I'm getting so technical. I also just sucked at making the doll clothes for this book. Most are just alterations on existing store-bought clothes, fixed in Photoshop so you can't see my raggedy sewing. So I'm most proud of puppet-Adam's shirt, which I made out out of toilet paper.
Mac: Hey, my first book had a bicycle in it! Sorry Adam. You did a good job, though, so I'm wondering if you want to illustrate my next book about a bike-riding horse (well he's basically a horse, except he has photorealistic human hands).
Adam: I've actually had nightmares like this, nightmares in which I'm illustrating books with titles like Billy in the Land of Complicated Furniture. And I'm pantsless and can't remember which room of my old high school I'm supposed to be in.
Paula: Well, I think the doll clothes are dear. Just raggedy enough to be casual, but style-y enough to look like the kind of thing that guys that do what you guys do would likely wear. I am especially relieved that your Adam puppet wears pants throughout.
Paula: Taxidermy: revolting but fascinating, yes? Do you have a favorite example?
Adam: Is this a setup? Because I do have a favorite example, and it was a gift from Mac. It's a stuffed white mouse, wearing a red cape and Elizabethan ruff, and contemplating the skull of a different mouse. Or maybe the same mouse? It just occurred to me as I write this that the mouse may be looking at his own skull. Anyway, the whole thing has a dignified "Alas poor Yorick" sort of air, and it stands under a bell jar on my mantel.
[Paula: It was not a setup exactly, but it turns out I knew that mouse, Horatio! I had looked at a taxidermied mouse bride and groom from the same shop as a topper for my wedding cake.]
Paula: Here's a question from my elementary school's Film Club, who are making a movie of Dead End in Norvelt: "Your book trailers are really funny: what are your tips for making a really funny short film?" (I showed them a bunch of book trailers, and now they all say 'vam-peer' thanks to that one for Fat Vampire. Also they want to put on masks and hit each other, but I said no.)
Adam: I think so much of it comes down to editing. You have to be really deliberate about the timing. But beyond that it's such a gut instinct kind of thing–as soon as you try to codify what's funny and what isn't you kill the patient.
Paula: Speaking of which, people are always asking authors about possible film adaptations of their books. Has there been any discussion of a Brixton Brothers movie, or an adaptation of Smekday, or Cold Cereal?
Adam: There have been some nibbles on Cold Cereal, and Dreamworks optioned the rights to Smekday a few years ago. At the time of this writing I can't say whether they'll go ahead with it or not, but I'm hoping to have news one way or the other soon.
Mac: "There have been some nibbles on Cold Cereal." Har har. Give me a break, Adam. Are you using this interview to audition for Variety?
Adam: Don't get shirty, or I'm going to ankle it back to Chitown.
Paula: Arte Johnson reads the Brixton Brothers books on audio, and he is fantastic at it. How on earth did you score that? And isn't he two hundred years old? I remember thinking he was ancient when Ruth Buzzi was whacking the crap out of him on Laugh-In, and that show went off the air in 1973! Huh. Look how old I am.
Mac: I actually auditioned for that audiobook but they decided Arte Johnson would be better, and I sure think they were right about that. I used to watch Laugh-In on Nick at Nite, and I had a real thing for Goldie Hawn.
Paula: I was a seven-year-old girl when I watched Laugh-In, and even I had a thing for Goldie Hawn.
Paula: How old are you?
Adam: I was born the year Ruth Buzzi stopped whacking Arte Johnson on Laugh-In.
Mac: I was born nine years after Adam.
Paula: No, really?
Adam: You're incredulous because I look so great, right? My secret is never going outside.
Mac: I think she's incredulous because I am younger than you, Adam, but so much wiser.
Paula: You boys wait til you crack 40, and you'll find you stop believing in younger people too.
Paula: Julius Caesar is said to have pitched a little tantrum at the age of 33, when he realized he had not yet accomplished as much as Alexander the Great had at the same age. Whose career do you hold up as a yardstick against which to measure your own? (Don't say Sendak, everyone always says Sendak.)
Adam: I try not to do this at all, but I used to have a real problem comparing myself to Tony Diterlizzi. He and I both started our careers working for the same fantasy game companies–I was actually hired as his replacement on a particular project. He was always a more popular artist on those games than I was. We got to know each other, and discovered we shared a love of kid's books. He got a picture book deal before I did, and when I finally followed him into the business I had to watch him win a Caldecott honor. We both started writing novels, but his were the bestsellers. It just always felt like I was trailing.
Eventually I stopped keeping score and found solace in just knowing that I was making the books I wanted to make, how I wanted to make them.
Mac: I actually measure myself against Alexander the Great, too. It's becoming increasingly clear to me that I've made a terrible career decision.
Is Mac indeed traveling a poorly-chosen career path? Should Adam really be proud of his toilet paper shirt? And do you think he'd make me one in my size? Pick up Chloe and the Lion and decide for yourself. My gigantic thanks to both of these creative and good-humored gents for taking the time to answer my silly questions. I look forward to the next Brixton Brothers book (due in October) and the second installment of the Cold Cereal Saga!