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Children's book duo Mac Barnett, Jon Klassen share how friendship affects writing

Posted 10:48 a.m. Thursday

Children’s book author Mac Barnett and illustrator Jon Klassen are friends first, co-workers second.

“Jon and I became friends before we started making books together, which is not the way it usually goes,” Barnett explained in an interview with the Deseret News. “Most of the time, the authors and the illustrators don’t know each other and they don’t get to talk to each other, but Jon and I became friends first because we met at a book party and we both loved the same books growing up.”

“We could just say party,” Klassen interjected with a laugh. “We didn’t have to say a book party. Doesn’t (party) make it sound cooler?”

“Party sounds a lot cooler than book party,” Barnett agreed, matching Klassen’s humor. “Can we change ‘book party’ to ‘cool party’?”

It only takes a minute talking to the writer-and-illustrator duo to see they have a quick wit and strong rapport — traits that shine through in their books. Barnett, a New York Times best-selling and Caldecott Honor-winning writer, and Klassen, a Caldecott Medal-winning writer and illustrator, recently released their fourth children’s book together, “The Wolf, the Duck & the Mouse” (Candlewick, ages 4-8).

In the world of children’s books, publishers tend to prefer that authors and illustrators work independently of one another — a process Barnett and Klassen said works, except on books they create together.

“I’m friends with a couple other illustrators that I’ve done books with, but with none of them do I have a process like the process Jon and I have, which really is a lot of conversation,” Barnett said. “I feel like we work really closely on these things.”

“I think when I’m working on a story by myself, there’s stuff that I’ll nix as soon as I think of them because I’ll think, ‘I can’t write that’ or ‘I don’t know how that would be fleshed out or where I’d take it, so I have to do something else,’” added Klassen, who is known for his hat books, “I Want My Hat Back,” “This is not My Hat” and “We Found a Hat.” “But I think, from my end anyway, Mac gives you that bravery to say, ‘Mac can pull this off. Let’s try this cool idea I couldn’t pull off,’ so you definitely do get books you wouldn’t get on your own.”

“The Wolf, the Duck & the Mouse” tells the story of a mouse and a duck that are eaten by a wolf and find that life inside the beast isn’t so bad afterall. But when a hunter threatens the wolf, the mouse and the duck must find a way to protect their comfortable home.

Barnett said he noticed at the end of writing “The Wolf, the Duck & the Mouse” that both he and Klassen have written other books individually that involve characters being eaten by animals.

“I have no idea why that’s a preoccupation of mine. It probably is not something terribly favorable about my psychology, but I’m glad to be working it out with Jon,” he said with a laugh. “I feel like this book is group therapy.”

Barnett, whose other work includes titles such as “Extra Yarn” with Klassen, “How This Book was Made” and co-authoring “The Terrible Two,” said he initially started writing children’s books because he liked how children see the world. Adults, he said, tend to push aside things they don’t understand, while children approach life differently.

“But kids when they come across something they don’t understand, they try to understand it,” he said. “I think that makes them really brave readers and a great audience for real stories that try to get interesting places.”

Klassen said his road to children’s books wasn’t as direct as Barnett’s.

“I worked in animation for a while,” he said, “but all the animation I was really drawn to, no pun intended...”

“Oh!” Barnett interjected.

“Yes, thank you. Thank you very much,” Klassen joked. “I left it quiet for a minute to see if anyone got that. But (the animation he liked) always looked like children’s book illustrations from about 30-40 years ago.”

After a while, he got a contract to illustrate a children’s book while still working at an animation studio.

“I didn’t know it until I’d gotten the (illustration) job, but as soon as I was doing it, it just made so much sense, all these different things I’d been thinking about, and it was just a really good fit,” Klassen said.

As for getting people to read their most recent project?

“Jon and I are very uncomfortable salesmen,” Barnett said. “Jon, you get a set of steak knives if you sell this book right now.

“I mean, that’s what I would tell them,” Klassen responded. “We could just use that. A set of steak knives come with the book.”

“The children’s books comes with a set of steak knives.”

“I would actually rest on that.”

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