A circus performer has to overcome his fears in Mac Barnett’s The Great Zapfino: NPR

The Great Zapfino, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Marla Frazee
The Great Zapfino, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Marla Frazee

The Great Zapfino is a circus artist whose work is called “The Leap for Life”. When the book opens, he climbs up a ladder, preparing to jump from a great height onto the trampoline. But when the ringmaster promotes Zapvino’s horrific 10-story dive, Zapvino gets spooked. He can’t do the jump.

Instead, he climbs the ladder again, goes to the airport and starts a new life in a new city, with a new job – away, away from the circus – and tries to conquer his fear.

And all that, everything that happens after Zapfino climbs to the bottom of the ladder, happens without words.

Mac Barnett wrote 73 words in total for Great Zapvino And nine of them are from Zapvino.

“It’s definitely the shortest manuscript I’ve ever written,” says Barnett.

In addition to the book’s few words, Barnett also wrote one page of notes – what he calls an “emotional outline” – with some suggestions for what might happen to Zapfino after he escapes from the circus, and how the former acrobat might eventually gain some stability. Barnett left illustrator Marla Frazee to fill in the details.

“This whole section has been great for me,” Frazee says. “There was this whole middle of bewilderment.”

Great Zapvino

Beach Line Books

Hide caption

Caption switch

Beach Line Books

Barnett says getting past the middle of the story has been a huge trust, but he and Frieze have known each other for more than a decade.

“Marla and I are obsessed with the picture book,” Barnett says. “I have a lot of memories like standing near a table full of snacks, talking to Marla for an hour or more, the party closing around us because we got lost in talking about the comic books we were reading, what comic books we liked when we were kids, and what a source Our inspiration for our work and how these things actually work. The magic of shape.”

In addition to being a painter, Marla Frazee She is also an author and illustrator of her children’s books, including Roller coasterAnd The chief childAnd Boot and boot. Recipient of the Caldecott Medal the whole world And A couple of boys had the best week ever.

Mac Barnett He himself is a two-time winner of Caldecott Honor extra yarnAnd Sam and Dave dig a hole – Both illustrated by John Claassen.

Barnett and Frazee say they were excited to finally be working with each other.

“I remember one of Mac’s books…I was so jealous that I didn’t get the chance to be an illustrator,” Frazee says. “Then when I saw that text, I jumped at it.”

The Great Zapfino, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Marla Frazee
The Great Zapfino, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Marla Frazee

When they started working on great zapvino, There was a long discussion between Frazee and Barnett. “It was an emotional and philosophical talk about how the book worked and how the book felt, rather than about any kind of technical stuff,” Barnett says. It also gave her the freedom to ignore all his notes and suggestions.

“We were on the same page about what we wanted to achieve, and how to implement that was entirely up to Marla,” Barnett says.

One such suggestion: get Zapfino to integrate into everyday life after leaving the circus. Frazee disagreed. “I wanted him to still be Zapvino,” she says. But where could Zapvino go in circus costume and still be fit?

Frazee immediately thought of Venice Beach, California. I recently saw a photo of three kids surfing the beach boardwalk in ponchos, and I knew right away that Zapvino would hook up with her. The other thing Frase had to decide: Zapvino’s job. Since standard children’s books are only 32 pages long, I knew it would be inconvenient to waste valuable real estate as Zapfino commutes to and from work.

“I was really excited when I came up with the idea that he could live on the top floor of this apartment building and be the elevator operator. Which means he doesn’t have to move back and forth very far,” Frazee says.

As an elevator operator, Zapfino meets all kinds of people: happy families, the rich, the poor, children, people who fight, the elderly, people who are nice to him, people who are not, people with their dogs. He rides the elevator up and down all day, every day, maybe for years – he encounters a vast sea of ​​humanity and has all kinds of experiences.

“He just finds himself in that process and gets over the fear,” Frazee says. “Which is really what I think the book is about.”

I imagined Great Zapvino As a graphic novel for young children – Zapfino’s repeating panels in the elevator car help show the passage of time. And I decided to make it clear without color. “There was something about the anonymous nature of what Zapvino craved that he felt perhaps should continue in black and white,” she says.

I used a black colored pencil on Dura-Lar to get a smooth, dark line on velvety smooth paper.

The Great Zapfino, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Marla Frazee
The Great Zapfino, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Marla Frazee

When he first saw Frazee’s drawings, Mac Barnett was gasping. “Marla wrote a lot and added so much to this world and to the character of Zapvino,” he says. “It’s a wonderful and strange feeling to be surprised by a book that I have written.”

For her part, Frazee says she was grateful for the creative space in this book. “It just felt so personal to me,” she says.

During their previous conversation about the book, Frazee says she asked Barnett where this story about Zapfino came from. Barnett told her he was interested in writing about a character who feels out of place in his own story.

This idea is what stayed with Frazee. “I wrote it,” Frazee says. “I thought about it a lot.” “Because we all feel that way sometimes.”

“It’s a feeling that probably characterizes my whole life more than anything else,” she says. “Like, I never really 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 that thing.”

Although most kids are probably familiar with the feeling – figurative or real – of standing on the edge of a high dive, not being able to jump. It’s unusual, at least in children’s books, for the main character to fail to do the one thing he’s supposed to do. For this reason, Barnett explains, the narration paused.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” he says. “No one was ready for Zapfino to do what he did.” There may have been a script for another entire book written, where Zapfino does the exciting thing we all expected him to do, but he flips the script, and now we have to watch the rest of his story unfold in silence.

“I like to write about characters who don’t rise to the challenge, at least the first time they try something,” Barnett says. “And I think failure is interesting to me over and over again.”

Zapfino, of course, is able to get over his fears by the end of the book. But Marla Frazee and Mac Barnett both hope kids – and adults – will learn from Zapfino that it’s okay to fail, and not to do what everyone expects of you.

“It’s kind of brave to say ‘No, I’m not ready,'” Fraze says. And I think it’s important.”

The Great Zapfino, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Marla Frazee
The Great Zapfino, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Marla Frazee

This interview was produced and edited by Samantha Balaban and Melissa Gray for broadcast.