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My First Existential Crisis: The Sweet Story Of An Angsty 'Square'

May 8, 2018
Originally published on May 8, 2018 3:07 pm

An unlikely literary hero is getting his turn in the spotlight. He's a little square, but full of personality --and he sprang from the imaginations of writer Mac Barnett and writer-illustrator Jon Klassen.

Barnett and Klassen are the award-winning, best-selling creators of a bunch of picture books, including Extra Yarn and Sam and Dave Dig a Hole.

Their latest book, Square, is the second in a trilogy about shapes who are just like us — they have thoughts, faults, even insecurities. (The first was book was called Triangle.)

Barnett and Klassen tell NPR about where their characters' personalities came from and writing about creative frustration.


Interview Highlights

On shaping the books' characters

Jon Klassen: If you start with Square, it stands to reason that you would put his eyes in the middle of his body because he's even on all sides, and so that makes some sense. But then if you take those same size eyes and try to put them on Triangle, there's not enough room because he's triangle. And so you move those eyes downwards on his body [because] there's more room in the bottom of a triangle, and right away he looks sneakier because his eyes are lower now. That's just sort of a symbolic thing.

And so we were getting information, whether we wanted it or not. We were sort of already getting characters. Yeah. And so Square in contrast to Triangle looked squarer — he looked like sort of a more straightforward, straight-laced guy. ... And these guys just sort of walked out and, like, we were having conversations within minutes of, like, "Well of course Triangle wouldn't do that," or, "Of course Square would react this way." It's been really fun that way.

Mac Barnett: We spent months talking about these characters just as characters before we even wrote the first story. ... And so we did feel like — this sounds very sad — but like they were our friends before we started making stories about them. So Square is, like, he's very solid. He follows routines. But there's that sense that, like, his routine I think is papering over some deep existential chasm, and terrible things always seem to happen to Square, which he doesn't handle particularly well, but then always seems to just sort of land right side up.

On writing stories that don't come with moral lessons

Klassen: I think that the sort of the approach we have is that characters make mistakes on kind of all sides in these books, and it doesn't mean that the reader can't be aware of those mistakes. I think we give the kids credit to realize that characters shouldn't have done certain things that they do — it's just that there's not usually a narrator saying, "And that was why he was wrong."

Barnett: I think good stories take on big questions. I mean, anyone who spends any time with kids knows that kids ask huge, complicated, difficult questions. What is life? What is death? What is love? What's right? What's wrong? And these questions don't have easy answers. They're complicated. They can't be reduced down. The only way that you can get the truth that's the answer to that question is with a story. That's what stories are good at: getting at complicated truths, not simple ones.

On telling stories about creative frustration

Barnett: I think creative frustration is something that shows up again and again certainly as a theme in my work. But you know, that's the experience. When we go to schools, kids always ask us that, too. You know, we come in to an elementary school and they present us as the professional authors and kids will raise their hand and ask us if we ever get stuck, you know, if we like making lots of drafts or if it's perfect the first time. And I think that kids make art, but they also have all the frustrations with making art that adults do.

Klassen: Well, also, they're presented with the final book and that's usually all they see. ... They're fascinated to hear that this took like a bunch of tries, and we might not even be happy with everything that they're holding. They're really interested to hear that those things are malleable.

Danny Hajek and Shannon Rhoades produced and edited this story for broadcast. Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

An unlikely literary hero is getting his turn in the spotlight. He's a little square but full of personality, and he sprang from the imaginations of these guys.

MAC BARNETT: My name is Mac Barnett, and I'm a writer. I write books for kids.

JON KLASSEN: I am Jon Klassen, and I am a writer-illustrator. I write and illustrate books for kids.

BARNETT: Ooh.

MARTIN: It sounded like you were trying to, like, one-up him there.

KLASSEN: Well, I am a one up on Mac. That's...

(LAUGHTER)

KLASSEN: It's just how the credits roll.

MARTIN: And these two have a lot of credits to their names. Barnett and Klassen are award-winning, best-selling creators of a bunch of picture books like "Extra Yarn" and "Sam & Dave Dig A Hole." They keep kiddos giggling and parents reading aloud again and again. We'll let them do the honors from a bit of their new book out today.

KLASSEN: Square...

BARNETT: Said Circle.

KLASSEN: You are a genius. I did not know you were a sculptor.

BARNETT: Ah, yes, said Square. What is a sculptor?

KLASSEN: A sculptor shapes blocks into art...

BARNETT: Said Circle. (Laughter) Yes, said Square. I see what you mean. But he did not really see what she meant.

MARTIN: (Laughter) This book from Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen is actually the second installment in a trilogy about shapes who are kind of just like us. They've got thoughts, faults, even insecurities. The first book was called "Triangle" and now comes "Square." And when it comes to shaping these characters, writer-illustrator Jon Klassen says they let the drawings lead the way.

KLASSEN: Like, if you start with Square, it stands to reason that you would put his eyes in the middle of his body because he's even on all sides. And so that makes some sense. But then if you take those same size eyes and try to put them on Triangle, there's not enough room because he's Triangle. And so you move those eyes downwards on his body so that there's more room in the bottom of a triangle. And right away, he looks sneakier because his eyes are lower down.

MARTIN: Yes.

KLASSEN: It's just sort of a symbolic thing. And so we were getting information whether we wanted it or not. We were sort of already getting...

MARTIN: Their personalities.

KLASSEN: ...Character - yeah. And so Square in contrast to Triangle looked squarer. He looked like sort of a more straightforward, straight-laced guy.

MARTIN: Like, more earnest.

KLASSEN: Yeah, exactly. Like, we were having conversations within minutes that had been like, well, of course, Triangle wouldn't do that, or, of course, Square would react this way.

BARNETT: Yeah.

KLASSEN: It's been really fun that way.

BARNETT: We spent months talking about these characters just as characters before we even wrote the first story about them.

MARTIN: Oh, really?

BARNETT: Yeah. And so we did feel like (laughter) - this sounds very sad but, like, they were our friends before we started making stories about them. So Square is - like, he's very solid. He follows routines. But there's that sense that, like, his routine, I think, is papering over some deep, existential chasm.

MARTIN: Right.

BARNETT: And terrible things always seemed to happen to Square, which he doesn't handle particularly well but then always, like, seems to just sort of land right side up.

MARTIN: What I have loved about your books - there is not a prescribed morality in your stories. There are often in children's books these very strict rules about how you're supposed to live your life. And it's very clear who the good guys are and very clear who the bad guys are. But that is what has been refreshing about your stories is that there's - it's just messier.

KLASSEN: (Laughter) Yeah. I think that the - sort of the approach we have is that characters make mistakes on kind of all sides in these books. And it doesn't mean that the reader can't be aware of those mistakes. I think we give the kids credit to realize that characters shouldn't have done certain things that they do. It's just that there's not usually a narrator saying, and that was why he was wrong.

MARTIN: Right.

BARNETT: I think good stories take on big questions. I mean, anyone who spends any time with kids knows that kids ask huge, complicated, difficult questions. What is life? What is death? What is love? What's right? What's wrong? And, like, these questions don't have easy answers. They're complicated. They can't be reduced down. The only way that you can get the truth that's the answer to that question is with a story. That's what stories are good at, getting at complicated truths, not simple ones.

MARTIN: It seems you also like to tell stories about unmet expectations.

BARNETT: That's - yes.

MARTIN: (Laughter) That - I mean, "Sam And Dave Dig A Hole" - that's the whole deal is that these guys are so close to this treasure and can't quite seem to get there. And even poor little Square just can't seem to achieve what he's looking for. What's interesting about that idea in a children's book of all things?

BARNETT: Well, I think creative frustration (laughter) is something that shows up again and again certainly as a theme in my work. But, you know, that's the experience - when we go to schools, kids always ask us that, too. You know, we come into an elementary school, and they present us as the professional authors, and kids will raise their hand and ask us if we ever get stuck, you know, if we like making lots of drafts or if it's perfect the first time. And I think that kids make art, but they also have all the frustrations with making art that adults do.

KLASSEN: Well, also they're presented with the final book, and that's usually all they see. And so someone who makes that just must sort of generate that one book and that's it, right? They're fascinated to hear that this took, like, a bunch of tries, and we might not even be happy with everything that they're holding. Like, it's - they're really interested to hear that those things are malleable.

MARTIN: Who do you try your stuff out on? Do you have kids? Who do you read your drafts to see if it's going to work?

KLASSEN: I have an 11-month-old, and so far, it's been pretty disappointing the level of feedback that he seems to give me. I can't use much of it.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Right.

KLASSEN: We don't really - I don't think - we road test these things a little bit when we're on tour for other books. Sometimes we'll dig out something that hasn't - you know, we're working on just to see how it goes over. But that's tricky too because kids, when you ask them for feedback, they want to give feedback. They sort of - they want to be helpful, and they've been asked for points and notes and they're so excited they'll just talk about stuff that might just be fine. That's just people in general. That's why it's hard to get feedback on this stuff because everyone kind of wants to help out. And so it is - I don't know. Mac, what do you think? But I think most of the time you have to go with your gut and just kind of hope that once it's out, it's going to work.

BARNETT: Yeah, ultimately. It's sort of something you create alone in a room, and it definitely has an audience. You want it to be relevant to kids' lives, but we do bring so much to these characters. And that's the weird thing about picture book making is that, like, I finish this text that has all these holes in it and then Jon fills in some of those holes with pictures. But a good book should still have gaps for the reader to come in and interpret this stuff.

MARTIN: Well, Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, their new picture book is called "Square." You guys, thank you so much for talking with us.

BARNETT: Oh, thank you for having us.

KLASSEN: Yeah, this is great.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEY PECORARO'S "THE SEA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.