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Writers on Writers: Yiyun Li Watches Mac Barnett Create a Mystery

Mac Barnett and four scrappy kids are going to get to the bottom of whatever's going on around here.

A few days ago, four children—two in fifth grade, two in second—found a cell phone under a redwood tree in their school yard. There was only one number stored on it, which the children dialed, hoping to locate its owner. They heard a series of beeps, but no one picked up. Then, over the next few days, mysterious things started to happen: Cars trailed their parents’ vehicles on the way to and from school; a suspicious man with dark glasses took a stroll around their neighborhood; a stranger beckoned to the friends through the school fence, asking to talk to them. What had their dialing unleashed?

In their world, the friends had unwittingly discovered a group of criminals who were about to destroy civilization. If the kids didn’t thwart the dastardly scheme, chaos and injustice would descend on all humanity. But in the real world—that is, in a calm, villain-free frozen yogurt shop in Oakland—this is just the latest creation from the mind of Mac Barnett, who is sitting with me, my two kids, and their two friends, brainstorming a live-action book. I’ve arranged this hangout so that the kids can meet their favorite author and watch as Barnett invents—right on the spot—an adventure starring them.

Barnett is the author of the Brixton Brothers series (if you don’t know about them, ask any kid under the age of 12) and a number of picture books for younger children (Guess Again! used to be our household favorite). In person, he is funny and enthusiastic and speaks with a twinkle in his eye. As a mother and a writer, I find Barnett’s books excitingly real. There is no magic solution to any problem: The characters stumble through their dilemmas just as every one of us does. The world is a difficult yet good place, and there is no need for the typical rose-colored lenses that other children’s books put on situations in order to fend off the bad stuff.

Today, in Barnett’s impromptu story, what are most impressive are not only his improvised plot lines, but also his astute observations about the children’s personalities as he assigns them different roles. Maya, the thoughtful fifth grader who has just interviewed Barnett with a long list of questions, is the brain of the group; Vincent, the long-haired boy with a contrarian take on everything, is the party pooper, the one who doesn’t believe in the group’s ability to save the world and who’s therefore destined to be abducted by the evil force; Carter, the sunny, chatty second grader, beguiles their enemies with his innocence while secretly taking apart their advanced electronic devices; and James, the quiet second grader who seems distracted by the swirling patterns his frozen yogurt makes in the bowl, is actually contemplating how to hack into the criminals’ computer system.

Voilà. A new book is born.

To catch the secret of Barnett’s sorcery is not an easy task for the children, though they ask great questions trying (certainly better than my boring “interviewer” ones). Do you play video games? Do you watch television? Is your writing influenced by Tintin? What’s your biggest fear? His answers: Yes; yes; yes; and he has three biggest fears, actually—being kidnapped, being buried alive, and snakes.

And now, the children’s most important question of all: Who was your first crush? “Holly Rash,” Barnett replies, and swears that it’s her real name. But is there a real Holly Rash, or is this another Barnettian figment? Who can say? All I know is that as a parting gift, Barnett wiggles his ears at the children, as if to suggest that he might disappear in a flash—and that the whole day has just been another magnificent piece of fiction.

Yiyun Li is the author of the short story collections Gold Boy, Emerald Girl and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and the novel The Vagrants. Her next book, Kinder Than Solitude, will be published by Random House in march 2014. She lives in Oakland.

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Originally published in the June 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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