By Michael Berry
Mac Barnett has a joke up his sleeve, and he knows how to use it.
Sporting a scruffy beard but still looking boyish in white sneakers, dark jeans, denim jacket, and green sweater, the 35-year-old Oakland writer is spending part of his Saturday morning as the guest of honor at GoldenBug Shoes on College Avenue, where a crowd of fidgety youngsters and their parents wait to be entertained. The event is a "friendraiser" for My New Red Shoes, a Redwood City-based nonprofit that provides fresh-out-of-the-box sneakers and clothing gift cards to homeless kids in Oakland and throughout the Bay Area.
Barnett is the author of more than 30 books for young readers, including The Wolf, the Duck and the Mouse, I Love You Like a Pig, and Extra Yarn. Pretty much all of them—from his 2009 debut Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem to Mac B., Kid Spy: Mac Undercover, the start of a new action and adventure chapter-book series—are designed to keep kids reading while giggling, snorting, and generally cracking up.
Zany, droll, and versatile, Barnett is also prolific, with three books to be published in 2018. They include: The Terrible Two Go Wild, written with Jory John and published in January; Square, the second picture book in the Shapes Trilogy, with frequent collaborator Jon Klassen and due in May; and Mac Undercover scheduled for September.
At GoldenBug, Barnett reads three of his picture books and, for the first time, gives a public performance of Square. After answering audience questions and signing books brought by kids and their parents, he takes a moment for an impromptu conversation.
In discussing his forthcoming work, he sounds excited about Mac Undercover.
"It's my memoir of growing up and how I was a spy for the Queen of England," Barnett said. "A lot of these stories have finally been declassified, so I'm legally allowed to share these things."
Most accounts of Barnett's biography omit the clandestine operations on behalf of Her Majesty. Rather, the record indicates that the author grew up in Castro Valley and Oakland, where he attended Bishop O'Dowd High School.
After enrolling at Pomona College in Southern California, Barnett practiced his storytelling skills as a Berkeley summer camp counselor. Inspired by the presence of Jon Scieszka's The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales in the camp library, he regaled the kids with improvised accounts of his own, improbable adventures as a super spy.
Storytelling came so naturally that when back at Pomona, he signed up for a creative writing class taught by David Foster Wallace of Infinite Jest fame.
"Lots of the things we know about Wallace's writing—his fascination with rhetoric, his obsession with grammar and usage—came out a deep sense of obligation to his audience," Barnett explained. "In class, Wallace continually emphasized a writer's responsibility to the reader. That stuck. All my work starts with respect for children—their intelligence, their emotional lives, and especially for their time and attention."
Under Wallace's tutelage, Barnett devised a manuscript that he mentioned to some college friends, one of whom surprisingly turned out to be the daughter of Jon Scieszka, the author of The Stinky Cheese Man. (It never occurred to him that Casey "Shess-Kuh" might spell her last name "Scieszka.")
After college, Barnett interned at McSweeney's and worked at Dave Egger's nonprofit 826 Valencia in San Francisco's Mission District, tutoring kids in writing and helping them with their homework. He was later the executive director of 826LA in Southern California. The Echo Park branch was fronted by a Time Travel Mart, where visitors could buy time travel accessories, such as robot emotion chips, woolly mammoth chili, chain mail, and powdered horse milk.
Now, he lives near the Rockridge district, and says he is glad to be back in Oakland.
"I'm aware that people move here from all over the country," he said, "but I have the intense connection that comes from growing up here, too."
He admitted, "I dressed up as Peter Pan and worked at Children's Fairyland in fourth grade." Alice from Wonderland was, he said, his first girlfriend. "She kissed me on the ear!"
In regards to his current residence, he said, "I love my block. There's a bakery, a vegetable market, a butcher shop, a flower shop, a sake bar. I tend to be a hermit, but I'm also liable to go stir crazy, so little strolls, where I can wave hello to my friends on the block, have become vital."
Barnett will embark on a UK tour in June, attend the mammoth Hay Festival in Wales, make stops in Scotland and in England, and wrap things up in Amsterdam ("Which I do know is not in the UK," he says).
A prankster at heart, Barnett conducts elaborate ruses when he's on tour for an installment of The Terrible Two. He enlists members of the school's administration to pull one over on the unsuspecting students.
He drops into character to relate how school principals set the pranking trap: "I read this book. It's about pranking, pranks at school, pranks on principals. That's not funny. That's not appropriate. So, the author visit is canceled. Since you're all here I contacted a local pediatrician, and he's going to talk to you about healthy eating choices."
Barnett then comes out in a lab coat, glasses, and a mustache and launches into a long, boring disquisition on nutrition. Eventually the Big Reveal arrives. "And that's a lot fun," Barnett said.
In February, Barnett traveled to Yosemite to receive the California Young Reader Medal for Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, illustrated by Klassen, the book already a 2014 Caldecott Medal winner. Kids across the state voted for the book, a clever tale of two treasure seekers who narrowly miss hitting a mother lode of valuables as they tunnel their way to what might be home or a different place entirely.
Barnett said the medal meant something special to him. Sam and Dave has an ambiguous ending, and the author appreciates his young audience's ability to handle it.
"It was a confirmation of the reason I got into this [work] in the first place," Barnett said. "Which is that kids are the best audience you could write for."