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Mac Barnett and Marla Frazee on their children's book 'The Great Zapfino'

MAC BARNETT: (Reading) Behold the Great Zapfino.


That's Mac Barnett reading one of the very few lines from his children's book, "The Great Zapfino." It's the story of a circus performer whose act is called "The Leap For Life." And it's narrated by a ringmaster.

BARNETT: (Reading) Prepare to gasp as Zapfino dives 10 terrifying stories through the air, landing on a tiny trampoline. Zapfino will dodge peril and brave calamity in an impossible feat of derring-do. Watch in awe as Zapfino defies fate for your entertainment. Marvel as Zapfino makes his leap.

MCCAMMON: But Zapfino freezes. He cannot make the leap. Instead, he climbs back down the ladder. He leaves the circus. He goes to the airport, starts a new life with a new job in a new city and tries to overcome his fear. And all of this happens wordlessly. Here is Mac Barnett reading every single word he wrote after Zapfino balks and bolts.

BARNETT: (Reading) Zapfino. Zapfino. Behold the Great Zapfino.

And those are all the words. It's definitely the shortest manuscript I have ever written.

MCCAMMON: Seventy-three words in total, and nine of them are Zapfino. So how does someone illustrate a book like this? Mac Barnett and illustrator Marla Frazee discuss just that for our series, Picture This.

MARLA FRAZEE: I received a one-page manuscript that had, you know, what Mac just read, and then this sort of parenthetical - you know, notes about what may happen with Zapfino during that section. And that whole section was fascinating to me.

BARNETT: It's always an act of trust to hand over a picture book manuscript. But Marla and I have known each other for a long time. I have, like, so many memories of just, like, standing near a table full of snacks, like, the party sort of closing down around us as we just got lost in talking about what picture books we were reading, what picture books we loved as kids, what informed our work and how these things actually work. So Marla, before you started working, I feel like we had one long talk. You maybe wanted to test, like, how much freedom you had to ignore sentences that I had written in that art note, and my philosophy was, like, 100% freedom. We were in the same - we were on the same page about what we wanted to accomplish with this section, and how that was executed was totally up to Marla.

FRAZEE: One of the suggestions was that he sort of blended into more of a workaday life, donning, you know, a different kind of costume and a wig and going back and forth to a job. And one of the things I was thinking was that rather than have him adapt himself, I wanted to have him in his circus outfit be able to sort of blend in. I wanted him to remain Zapfino. And then when I was trying to figure out what he would do, I was real excited when I kind of came up with the idea that he could live on the top floor of this apartment building and be the elevator operator, which would mean he's taking all kinds of people up and down, up and down, up and down - for how long, we don't know, but maybe very long - and sort of just finding himself in that process.

BARNETT: I think you filled that in really beautifully, both with the job that you gave him, but also he has a range of experiences in that little box. He meets all kinds of people. He sees them at their best, at their worst. This is a book - like, it's 32 pages, but you can spend hours following the stories and looking at small details that she's filled into this world.

FRAZEE: When I read it, I really started to think about it as a comic book for young children, and I felt like it didn't need color. There was something about the anonymous nature of what Zapfino craved that felt like it should maybe proceed in black and white. And I did it with this black Prismacolor pencil on Dura-Lar. It's a very smooth and dark line on a kind of chalky film paper.

BARNETT: As an author who can't draw any of his own stuff, when it's going well, it's always when I'm surprised to see that book come back. It's really important that an illustrator is doing storytelling and not just decorating a text or executing the author's wishes. Marla wrote so much and added so much to this world and to Zapfino's character. It was just - it's such a wonderful, weird feeling to be surprised by a book that you wrote.

FRAZEE: Mac's books are - they're incredible, and this one felt sort of so personal to me because I remember, Mac, when we had our conversation before I started illustrating it, and Mac said something that was so incredible to me, which was you have been intrigued by characters who feel out of place in their own story. I wrote it down. I thought about it a lot. That was kind of what I held on to. Like, there it is. That's the nugget of this. You know, this is the heart of this book, because we all feel that way sometimes. Like, that is a feeling that probably characterizes my whole life more than any other. Like, I never have felt ready to do the thing I was supposed to do next. And I have to go through all kinds of acrobatics to get to the place of being able to do the thing.

BARNETT: Yeah, I think that protagonists who are uncomfortable in their books - that's always interested me, feeling a little out of step, a little alienated, even from the book that you're in. And failure, I think, is interesting to me over and over again. I love to write about characters not rising to the challenge, at least the first time they try something, and really spend time with them dealing with that.

FRAZEE: I think one of the things I appreciated so much about it is that it is brave to say, no, I'm not ready. You know, and that's not a story that's told very often to us as we're growing up.


FRAZEE: You know, and I think it's important.

BARNETT: What I really hope is that after these pages are closed, kids think about Zapfino, think about times that they've felt like Zapfino, and if they've read it with an adult, they can talk about what it means together. And that's such a special thing about picture books, too, is that so often they're read together. They're shared experiences. They're shared art experiences. A group of people all read the same thing. They all look at the same pictures, and they're knit together by that. And I'm so excited for those conversations, even though I never get to be a part of them (laughter). I just hope they're happening, and it's going well.


MCCAMMON: That was author Mac Barnett and illustrator Marla Frazee talking about their book, "The Great Zapfino." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.