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  • Hi everybody. So my name is Mac.

  • My job is that I lie to children,

  • but they're honest lies.

  • I write children's books,

  • and there's a quote from Pablo Picasso,

  • "We all know that Art is not truth.

  • Art is a lie that makes us realize truth

  • or at least the truth that is given us to understand.

  • The artist must know the manner whereby

  • to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies."

  • I first heard this when I was a kid,

  • and I loved it,

  • but I had no idea what it meant.

  • (Laughter)

  • So I thought, you know what, it's what I'm here

  • to talk to you today about, though,

  • truth and lies, fiction and reality.

  • So how could I untangle

  • this knotted bunch of sentences?

  • And I said, I've got PowerPoint. Let's do a Venn diagram.

  • ["Truth. Lies."] (Laughter)

  • So there it is, right there, boom.

  • We've got truth and lies

  • and then there's this little space,

  • the edge, in the middle.

  • That liminal space, that's art.

  • All right. Venn diagram. (Laughter) (Applause)

  • But that's actually not very helpful either.

  • The thing that made me understand

  • that quote and really kind of what art,

  • at least the art of fiction, was,

  • was working with kids.

  • I used to be a summer camp counselor.

  • I would do it on my summers off from college,

  • and I loved it.

  • It was a sports summer camp

  • for four- to six-year-olds.

  • I was in charge of the four-year-olds,

  • which is good, because

  • four-year-olds can't play sports, and neither can I.

  • (Laughter)

  • I play sports at a four-year-old level,

  • so what would happen is the kids would

  • dribble around some cones, and then got hot,

  • and then they would go sit underneath the tree

  • where I was already sitting — (Laughter) —

  • and I would just make up stories and tell them to them

  • and I would tell them stories about my life.

  • I would tell them about how, on the weekends,

  • I would go home and I would spy for the Queen of England.

  • And soon, other kids

  • who weren't even in my group of kids,

  • they would come up to me, and they would say,

  • "You're Mac Barnett, right?

  • You're the guy who spies for the Queen of England."

  • And I had been waiting my whole life for strangers

  • to come up and ask me that question.

  • In my fantasy, they were svelte Russian women,

  • but, you know, four-year-olds

  • you take what you can get in Berkeley, California.

  • And I realized that the stories that I was telling

  • were real in this way that was familiar to me

  • and really exciting.

  • I think the pinnacle of this for me — I'll never forget this

  • there was this little girl named Riley. She was tiny,

  • and she used to always take out her lunch every day

  • and she would throw out her fruit.

  • She would just take her fruit,

  • her mom packed her a melon every day,

  • and she would just throw it in the ivy

  • and then she would eat fruit snacks

  • and pudding cups, and I was like, "Riley,

  • you can't do that, you have to eat the fruit."

  • And she was like, "Why?"

  • And I was like, "Well, when you throw the fruit in the ivy,

  • pretty soon, it's going to be overgrown with melons,"

  • which is why I think I ended up

  • telling stories to children and not being a nutritionist for children.

  • And so Riley was like, "That will never happen.

  • That's not going to happen."

  • And so, on the last day of camp,

  • I got up early and I got a big cantaloupe

  • from the grocery store

  • and I hid it in the ivy,

  • and then at lunchtime, I was like,

  • "Riley, why don't you go over there and see what you've done."

  • And — (Laughter) —

  • she went trudging through the ivy, and then her eyes

  • just got so wide, and she pointed out this melon

  • that was bigger than her head,

  • and then all the kids ran over there and rushed around her,

  • and one of the kids was like, "Hey,

  • why is there a sticker on this?"

  • (Laughter)

  • And I was like, "That is also why I say

  • do not throw your stickers in the ivy.

  • Put them in the trash can. It ruins nature when you do this."

  • And Riley carried that melon around with her all day,

  • and she was so proud.

  • And Riley knew she didn't grow a melon in seven days,

  • but she also knew that she did,

  • and it's a weird place,

  • but it's not just a place that kids can get to.

  • It's anything. Art can get us to that place.

  • She was right in that place in the middle,

  • that place which you could call art or fiction.

  • I'm going to call it wonder.

  • It's what Coleridge called the willing suspension of disbelief

  • or poetic faith,

  • for those moments where a story, no matter how strange,

  • has some semblance of the truth,

  • and then you're able to believe it.

  • It's not just kids who can get there.

  • Adults can too, and we get there when we read.

  • It's why in two days, people will be

  • descending on Dublin to take the walking tour

  • of Bloomsday and see everything that happened in "Ulysses,"

  • even though none of that happened.

  • Or people go to London and they visit Baker Street

  • to see Sherlock Holmes' apartment,

  • even though 221B is just a number that was painted

  • on a building that never actually had that address.

  • We know these characters aren't real,

  • but we have real feelings about them,

  • and we're able to do that.

  • We know these characters aren't real,

  • and yet we also know that they are.

  • Kids can get there a lot more easily than adults can,

  • and that's why I love writing for kids.

  • I think kids are the best audience

  • for serious literary fiction.

  • When I was a kid,

  • I was obsessed with secret door novels,

  • things like "Narnia,"

  • where you would open a wardrobe and go through to a magical land.

  • And I was convinced that secret doors really did exist

  • and I would look for them and try to go through them.

  • I wanted to live and cross over into that fictional world, which is

  • I would always just open people's closet doors. (Laughter)

  • I would just go through my mom's boyfriend's closet,

  • and there was not a secret magical land there.

  • There was some other weird stuff that I think my mom should know about.

  • (Laughter)

  • And I was happy to tell her all about it.

  • After college, my first job was working

  • behind one of these secret doors.

  • This is a place called 826 Valencia.

  • It's at 826 Valencia Street

  • in the Mission in San Francisco,

  • and when I worked there, there was a publishing company

  • headquartered there called McSweeney's,

  • a nonprofit writing center called 826 Valencia,

  • but then the front of it

  • was a strange shop.

  • You see, this place was zoned retail,

  • and in San Francisco, they were not going to give us a variance,

  • and so the writer who founded it, a writer named Dave Eggers,

  • to come into compliance with code, he said, "Fine,

  • I'm just going to build a pirate supply store."

  • And that's what he did. (Laughter)

  • And it's beautiful. It's all wood.

  • There's drawers you can pull out and get citrus

  • so you don't get scurvy.

  • They have eyepatches in lots of colors,

  • because when it's springtime, pirates want to go wild.

  • You don't know. Black is boring. Pastel.

  • Or eyes, also in lots of colors,

  • just glass eyes, depending on how you want

  • to deal with that situation.

  • And the store, strangely,

  • people came to them and bought things,

  • and they ended up paying the rent

  • for our tutoring center, which was behind it,

  • but to me, more important was the fact

  • that I think the quality of work you do,

  • kids would come and get instruction in writing,

  • and when you have to walk this weird, liminal, fictional space like this to go do your writing,

  • it's going to affect the kind of work that you make.

  • It's a secret door that you can walk through.

  • So I ran the 826 in Los Angeles,

  • and it was my job to build the store down there.

  • So we have The Echo Park Time Travel Mart.

  • That's our motto: "Whenever you are, we're already then."

  • (Laughter)

  • And it's on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.

  • Our friendly staff is ready to help you.

  • They're from all eras,

  • including just the 1980s, that guy on the end,

  • he's from the very recent past.

  • There's our Employees of the Month,

  • including Genghis Khan, Charles Dickens.

  • Some great people have come up through our ranks.

  • This is our kind of pharmacy section.

  • We have some patent medicines,

  • Canopic jars for your organs,

  • communist soap that says,

  • "This is your soap for the year." (Laughter)

  • Our slushy machine broke

  • on the opening night and we didn't know what to do.

  • Our architect was covered in red syrup.

  • It looked like he had just murdered somebody,

  • which it was not out of the question

  • for this particular architect,

  • and we didn't know what to do.

  • It was going to be the highlight of our store.

  • So we just put that sign on it that said,

  • "Out of order. Come back yesterday." (Laughter)

  • And that ended up being a better joke than slushies,

  • so we just left it there forever.

  • Mammoth Chunks. These things weigh, like, seven pounds each.

  • Barbarian repellent. It's full of salad

  • and potpourrithings that barbarians hate.

  • Dead languages.

  • (Laughter)

  • Leeches, nature's tiny doctors.

  • And Viking Odorant, which comes in lots of great scents:

  • toenails, sweat and rotten vegetables, pyre ash.

  • Because we believe that Axe Body Spray

  • is something that you should only find on the battlefield,

  • not under your arms. (Laughter)

  • And these are robot emotion chips,

  • so robots can feel love or fear.

  • Our biggest seller is Schadenfreude,

  • which we did not expect.

  • (Laughter)

  • We did not think that was going to happen.

  • But there's a nonprofit behind it,

  • and kids go through a door that says "Employees Only"

  • and they end up in this space

  • where they do homework and write stories

  • and make films and this is a book release party

  • where kids will read.

  • There's a quarterly that's published

  • with just writing that's done by the kids

  • who come every day after school,

  • and we have release parties

  • and they eat cake and read for their parents

  • and drink milk out of champagne glasses.

  • And it's a very special space,

  • because it's this weird space in the front.

  • The joke isn't a joke.

  • You can't find the seams on the fiction,

  • and I love that. It's this little bit of fiction

  • that's colonized the real world.

  • I see it as kind of a book in three dimensions.

  • There's a term called metafiction,

  • and that's just stories about stories,

  • and meta's having a moment now.

  • Its last big moment was probably in the 1960s

  • with novelists like John Barth and William Gaddis,

  • but it's been around.

  • It's almost as old as storytelling itself.

  • And one metafictive technique

  • is breaking the fourth wall. Right?

  • It's when an actor will turn to the audience

  • and say, "I am an actor,

  • these are just rafters."

  • And even that supposedly honest moment,

  • I would argue, is in service of the lie,

  • but it's supposed to foreground the artificiality

  • of the