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

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

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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. 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.” 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.

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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.” 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.” And that ended up being a better joke than slushies, so we just left it there forever.

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