The Boy and the Tree author Marleen Lammers with illustrator Anja Stoeckigt
‘My Favourite Children’s Book’ is a series that asks Tiny Tree authors, illustrators, and staff to discuss their favourite children’s book or series. Today The Boy and the Tree author Marleen Lammers writes about sharing the books of author Mac Barnett with her family, and thinking about what exactly children’s books should be.
“We all – even adults – crave the wondrous, surreal worlds that literature can invite us into…”
My favourite children’s book author is Mac Barnett. He’s an American writer who produces stories that are funny and original, with a welcome sprinkle of wacky. And my boys – before they became disinterested teens – agreed. Overwhelmingly, their favourite books were the good rhyming ones out there (and there aren’t that many), and Mac Barnett books. Any of them.
We enjoyed all of Mac’s books, but the ones we read to death were Extra Yarn, The Skunk, Telephone, and Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. These stories are all simple at their core. Telephone, for instance, is a reinvention of ‘Pass It On’; birds on a telephone wire pass on a message from a momma bird to her son, and the message gets increasingly distorted and – in Mac Barnett style – absurd. In Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, two boys decide to dig a hole in order to find ‘something spectacular.’ In the tunnel system they dig, they narrowly miss increasingly enormous diamonds, but the somewhat puzzling ending (I won’t give spoilers!) works out as spectacular enough.
Mac’s writing style is perfect; succinct and effortlessly funny. He also does what all picture book writers should do; leave a lot of storytelling over to illustrations. Most of Mac’s books are illustrated by Jon Klassen, whose visuals match the quirky storytelling.
The sweet spot that Mac manages to hit with his stories is that imaginative space that seems so easily accessible for kids; a world where the bizarre and absurd need no explanation. In his popular TED Talk ‘Why a Good Book is a Secret Door,’ Mac points out that we all – even adults – crave the wondrous, surreal worlds that literature can invite us into (think of the popularity of J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien), and that children’s books lend themselves perfectly to this. “I want a book to be a secret door that opens and lets stories out, into reality,” he says. “And that’s what I try to do with my books.”
“Are lessons of some sort desirable – or even needed – in picture books?”
There’s no moral undertone to Mac Barnett’s books. This stands out in the current children’s book scene, which feels somewhat dominated by stories that educate kids in some way, whether it’s focused on environmental or human rights issues, various aspects of mental health, or diversity themes. As I write stories myself, I’m not always sure where to sit on this spectrum. Are lessons of some sort desirable – or even needed – in picture books? Or should stories just entertain, so that those early childhood books become a place to escape to, a way to boost imagination, and hopefully the start of a life-long love for reading?
I think Roald Dahl was of the latter mindset. “I have a passion for teaching kids to become readers, to become comfortable with a book, not daunted,” he said. “Books shouldn’t be daunting, they should be funny, exciting, and wonderful.” And judging by the worn-out Mac Barnett books on our bookshelves, my boys agree.
Marleen Lammers is the author of The Boy and the Tree (illustrated by Anja Stoeckigt). The Boy and the Tree is a picture book all about using your imagination to go on adventures. The Boy and the Tree is available now from all good bookshops.