News and Music Discovery
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

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

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 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.