Mac Barnett, children’s book author and self-proclaimed liar to children, opens his TED talk with a quote by 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 listened to a podcast of Barnett’s TED talk in the car recently. It was one of the most endearing TED talks I’ve heard in a long time, full of humor and sincerity and passion for his subject. When I wasn’t laughing out loud, I was smiling ear to ear. That he poked fun at Venn diagrams had me hooked on his sense of humor, but I also connected deeply with what he was saying. Art, books, stories, myths–they get us to a place somewhere between truth and lies, a place he calls wonder, a place where some semblance of the truth causes us to suspend our beliefs and embrace the story and the characters. We know they aren’t real; but we know that they are real. Stories are a doorway for us to enter into worlds where our understanding of truth can be beautifully and artfully molded. But as Barnett explains during his lively presentation, these doorways should not just be to allow us to enter; they should allow the fiction to escape and come out into the real world. He says that kids are the perfect audience for literary fiction.
Coincidentally, Barnett discusses his first job at a pirate supply store, a front for a publishing company and writing center located in a San Francisco district zoned for retail, because pirates happen to be the center of my own lies! The importance of art and authors and the work being done on Valencia Street in San Francisco merits discussion, especially in this time of academic rigor, a monoculture of standards, and the reduction of free play and creativity. But that is for another post. My story begins with a normal childhood obsession with all things pirates.
I think my son was around 4 when I began the myth I had been a pirate. His fascination with pirates, with treasure, and with the concept of exploration and discovery, led to treasure walks around our village. In his four-year-old mind, X naturally marked the spot so I would wrap pennies in white paper and mark the outside with a bold, red X. These I would carry in my pocket while we walked. It was easy to distract him while I tossed a wrapped penny into our path, or set one on a nearby wall or tree stump. It was also easy to direct his attention to these treasures should he miss one. He was four; the myth was simple!
His infatuation with the small treasures that seemed to appear all over our village piqued his curiosity and he began adding his own elements to the story, deciding that our house was inhabited by ghost pirates that he claimed must be the ones leaving the treasures because they knew how much he loved treasure. He questioned me constantly, and my mundane adult answers simply did not interest him. He ignored them and kept asking. So I told him a lie. I told him I used to be a pirate, and while I couldn’t be 100% sure, it was most likely that there were pirate spirits visiting us from members of my old crew. It was at that point that pirate messages began appearing under his pillow or taped to his bedroom door, always written in scrawling pirate script on torn pieces of paper, which I dutifully translated for him.
All of this culminated in a pirate treasure hunt for my son and a few of his friends. My son received a note in advance notifying him that he would soon receive a map by mail for him and his friends so they could locate treasure of their own. Years earlier, in my artist life before children, I had cast handmade flax paper, which was still stored in my studio. On this, I drew a map of our village in India ink, designating spots of interest that would be part of the treasure hunt. I antiqued the paper and mailed this to my son along with instructions for him and his friend to meet at a certain time, in a certain place. This, of course, was our house, and the parents of the children were informed of the ploy in advance.
That morning, I left my son home while I went out and hid clues and small treasures at different locations around town. The children were given an initial clue, which upon solving would take them to a location in the village, where they would find a small treasure and yet another clue. There were gold coins in front of the bank, Jolly Roger flags by the flagpole at the school, a key at a local business, small shovels at the ice cream shop called Get the Scoop, and the final clue was from the village major who lived across the street from our house. He directed them across the road to follow the dotted line to the treasure.
My husband had secretly built a wooden treasure chest, which we filled with trinkets, fake coins and gems, as well as inexpensive compasses and telescopes. While we were out following clues, he buried the chest in a predesignated location and marked the spot with an X. The children were thrilled to see a dotted line painted across our lawn. They ran to follow it to the X, and immediately began excavating the earth underneath. The key they had obtained while clue following fit into a large cast iron padlock that I had found on Amazon, and that now securely locked the chest.
My son talked about this adventure for months, asking more questions, and being easily satisfied with quick answers, such as “What was your ship called?”
“It was the Magnificent.”
His interest in pirates slowly dwindled. His fifth birthday party was pirate themed, but his intense interest in the notion of his mom as a pirate died away. He still has the chest and the lock, where he keeps his own treasures, but the cheap items from the treasure hunt gradually lost their appeal. It was obvious they were fakes and I didn’t expect the truth of the myth to last for long. There even came a time when he asked me if his dad had built the chest, a fact which I wholly denied! For a while, there was little talk about pirates, and very few questions.
My son will be eight in January, and it makes sense that he doesn’t believe. But for some reason, he has rekindled his interest in my life as a pirate. He doesn’t believe (he can’t believe, right?); but he does believe. He wants to believe. I answered his question about my pirate name. I told him my pirates never use their real names. I was Mavis Dae. He asked why I don’t have any treasure. I told him pirates forfeit their treasure if they choose to go back to civilian life. He inquired about an old brass key we have in our house. I have no idea where it came from or what it’s for, but when I told him this he would not accept it. So I told another lie. I told him that when pirates hide their treasure they deliver the key to a retired pirate who has no knowledge of the location of the treasure is hidden or what it contains. I also told him that the map is delivered to yet another retiree, and that only the captain knows the identities of the two and that one day pirates might come looking for the key on behalf of their captain.
My son wants to hear stories about those pirate days of my life. He laughed when I told him how I had once tied the leather bootlaces of a pirate captain while he slept so I could raid his cabin, and how he fell flat on his face when he awoke to find my thieving and tried to stand up. My son keeps my pirate secret, but is thrilled to tell the story when I give him permission to tell it to a trusted friend. He still laughs when he tells the bootlaces story. I’m not sure if he really believes, but I know that choosing to believe and being part of this reality is more fun than not believing. And I will keep going with the myth, with keeping the doorway open for as long as he wants it that way. Because why shouldn’t children have the opportunity to believe in fiction, to embrace the magic that stories create?
In the words of Barnett, “It’s a little bit of fiction that has colonized the real world.” I hope that even when my son is grown, that the treasure chest his father built will still contain a little bit of the magic that helped shape his childhood.