Why a Good Book Opens a Secret Door

Whenever you are we are already then

Many of the stories we read as children open new worlds to us. By cultivating this interior space we call imagination, we learn to weave together ideas we get with situations we face in the world. What is real? It depends on who we ask more than we'd like to admit.

Mac Barnett is the author of fifteen books for children. He was the executive director of 826LA, a nonprofit writing center, and founded the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, a convenience store for time travelers Image above.) It reminds me a lot of summer camp in Italy —we created entire worlds in a few weeks.

Thought his work, Barnett promotes how healthy doses of creativity do wonders for us —children and adults alike. He says, “Art can get us to that place, […] that place in the middle, that place which you could call art or fiction.” Barnett calls 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 are the ideal readers of literary fiction because they can get to that place more easily. But adults can re-learn from them how imagination and a willing suspension of disbelief enrich our lives. With his books Barnett wants fiction to escape and let the stories out into reality. He says:

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 fiction. For me, I kind of prefer the opposite. If I'm going to break down the fourth wall, I want fiction to escape and come into the real world. I want a book to be a secret door that opens and lets the stories out into reality.

His books do just that. Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem is the story of a boy and the pet whale that ruins his life (delivered to him in San Francisco.) Included with the book underneath the jacket cover is a special order form for a 30-day risk-free trial for a blue whale.

Delivered overnight

Apparently, FedUp delivers it overnight. When children order their free blue whale, they get a very dense letter from a Norwegian law firm. The letter says, “that due to a change in customs laws, their whale has been held up in Sognefjord, which is a very lovely fjord, and then it just kind of talks about Sognefjord and Norwegian food for a little while. It digresses.

In the letter is also a phone number to call the whale. One child, Nico, calls in to tell the whale all kinds of things that are happening to him in his life. Many writers would love to have and learn about this kind of emotional connection their stories have with readers. Blogs used to be that space in the middle when we started more than ten years ago.

The whale has a character-building role in Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio.

Anyone looking for a healthy dose of laughter midweek should watch the video of Barnett's talk below.


We can all use more imagination in our search for knowledge and inspiration. Curiosity is a manifestation of imagination. Former chief scientist at Xerox Corporation and director of the Palo Alto Research Center John Seely Brown says:

The real key is being able to imagine a new world. Once I imagine something new, then answering how to get from here to there involves steps of creativity. So I can be creative in solving today’s problems, but if I can’t imagine something new, than I’m stuck in the current situation.


Seely Brown co-founded the Institute for Research on Learning, is a visiting scholar and advisor to the provost at University of Southern California and independent co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge and was a trustee of the MacArthur Foundation until 2012.