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Transcript: Mac Barnett on Why a good book is a secret door at TED Talk

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Mac Barnett at TED Talks

The following is the full transcript of Children’s book author Mac Barnett’s TED Talk titled ‘Why a good book is a secret door’ at TED Talk Conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Mac Barnett on Why a good book is a secret door at TED Talk


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 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.

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.”

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.

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. 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 — 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.

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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 — 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?”

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.

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