AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
'Tis the season to ponder a Christmas mystery.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP ON THE HOUSETOP")
GENE AUTRY: (Singing) Up on the housetop, reindeer pause. Out jumps good, old Santa Claus. Down through the chimney with lots of toys.
RASCOE: How does Santa go down the chimney? Does he cinch up his belt or shrink himself down to the size of a mouse or stretch like taffy and step in one leg at a time? Mac Barnett set out to answer these very questions in his new children's book, aptly titled "How Does Santa Go Down the Chimney?" It's illustrated by his frequent collaborator and friend Jon Klassen. They talk on the phone every day.
MAC BARNETT: Jon and I are a little weird. We were friends before we started working together. Did we meet, like, 13 years ago, Jon? Is that true?
JON KLASSEN: Probably. Probably, it's in the teens now. Yeah.
BARNETT: We met at a book party. Jon doesn't like it when I say a book party.
KLASSEN: Just say party. It sounds so much cooler if you omit the book part. I mean, no, that's not true. There's some cool book parties, I'm sure.
BARNETT: We met at a pool party.
KLASSEN: (Laughter). It was a book party.
BARNETT: I knew Jon's work. I had seen some illustrations he had done. We were both at the very beginnings of our careers. So I just - I beelined for Jon as soon as he walked into the party.
KLASSEN: Mac came out of this crowd. And I didn't know anybody at this book party. And he comes out of the crowd with, like, a glass of wine, maybe two glasses of wine, maybe one for me, Mac? Maybe that's right.
BARNETT: Yeah, I think that's right.
KLASSEN: And then he's like, I heard you like "Frog And Toad." And I just said, I love "Frog And Toad." And he goes, all right, well, let's go talk about "Frog And Toad." And that was the story of the rest of the party and basically the story for the last 13 years - is just us talking about "Frog And Toad," among other things. Yeah.
BARNETT: I'm Frog. Jon's Toad.
KLASSEN: Yeah, that's right.
RASCOE: For our series, Picture This, Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen finally, finally reveal Santa's biggest secret.
BARNETT: So how does Santa go down the chimney? You know, Jon and I - I think here, we attempt to answer a giant Christmas question. And ultimately, we fail to answer it. I'll just say that right from the start.
KLASSEN: It is strange that there's no definitive answer to this, considering this is a guy who does this every year. And, like, there's no other really definitive text on this.
BARNETT: We know a lot about what Santa gets up to. We know where he lands. We know how he gets to the house - right? - the flying reindeer. We know where he lives, where he works on his presents. But it's that last moment - you know, it's just - and I know this a little bit from from just being somebody who enjoys the mail. And I send a lot of things via the mail and UPS and FedEx. And, you know, I have no - we all know my favorite is the mail. It's that last mile. It's always the last mile of a delivery. That's the hard part, right? And this is a classic last-mile problem.
KLASSEN: We've also found that kids don't really mind if you don't answer their questions directly. Picture books are really good at that, at sort of bringing up questions and then, you know, hypothesizing answers. But kids are super comfortable with not getting a direct one. And they'd better get used to it, too, because grown-ups don't have most of the answers.
BARNETT: So this felt like a chance to set up this problem and to propose a bunch of possible ways Santa could go down the chimney and basically put Santa through the wringer in the pictures. And it kind of works like a comic strip, right? I mean, Jon, you want to talk about "The Far Side?"
KLASSEN: (Laughter). I always want to talk about "The Far Side." A lot of "Far Side" comics - most of them, the moment that he chooses to draw is either before the thing is about to happen or after it's happened. It's never, like, the explosion. It's never the actual event that's the funniest part. It's always the person just about to do it or the thing having already happened. And so the cover, even, of our book is like that. It's Santa, just staring at a chimney, being like, right, I have to do this. I've been told I do this. I have to figure this out. Those moments of him just staring at his assignment were the funniest for me. Or just having done it already and just messed himself up in various ways. We're just - they were very funny moments to draw.
BARNETT: One of the questions it wonders about is, what happens when your suit gets all sooty? Because chimneys are filthy. And, you know, Santa can't have that. Maybe he does laundry down in your basement.
KLASSEN: Yeah. It fits his personality, too. Here's a person who's probably very regimented - right? - about his time. And he's very much in control of all of this.
BARNETT: That's right. You got a good time management. And this is his big night.
KLASSEN: Right. He's very particular about this. And so it wouldn't take too many chimneys before he's like, all right I got to get this under control again. And it suits him that he would stop every 4 or 5 houses to do a quick load of laundry.
BARNETT: Can't be every house.
KLASSEN: I mean, it depends, too, about, like, chimney usage. You know, is this a street that, like, a lot of older houses - they don't like you to use the chimneys anymore? So he's probably getting away with it there.
BARNETT: Yeah, yeah. Gas fireplace - you're going to be fine.
KLASSEN: Right. Well that's a whole other problem. But yeah.
KLASSEN: I like the laundry page because on most of the other pages, Santa has some sort of magical quality about him because he's Santa. But on the laundry page, he's just a guy in your basement, you know, waiting for his pants to dry. He's just sitting on an upturned basket, just with a newspaper, just waiting.
BARNETT: He's got the classic heart boxer shorts, too, which is - I like to see that.
KLASSEN: I think he might even have a tattoo on his arm. I can't remember if we kept that or not.
BARNETT: Yeah, he does. He has an anchor.
KLASSEN: An anchor. That's right. Oh, that's great.
KLASSEN: I'm so smart.
KLASSEN: The pictures in this book - for some reason, my interest was in a lot of big, black negative space above Santa's. There's something about snowy nights. I grew up in Ontario in Canada, and it was just - that was - the sky felt bigger in the wintertime, for some reason, against all this white kind of graphic blanket. And so balancing out black with the bright colors of his costume and the white of the snow and everything - a lot of the exterior illustrations look like that. And then the interiors are very washy and warm.
I had a paper route when I was growing up, and what that means is that you end up standing in a lot of entryways waiting to get paid or waiting to deliver the paper properly or something. And in Niagara Falls, where this was, it was just a lot of sort of old, sort of tiled, warm entryways. And in the Christmastime, it's all lit with Christmas lights. They just string them around the doors and the windows and everything. And so just washy, warm Christmas lights with, you know, Santa creeping under your door as a flattened envelope or something like that - whatever the page is.
BARNETT: (Laughter). I think that's maybe my favorite solution. And it says, (reading) if you've got a mail slot, I bet Santa folds up like a letter and has a reindeer pop him through. And I bet the stamp on Santa is one of those Santa stamps, too.
Yeah, I think that just appeals to, like, my tendency toward endlessly recursive images. I just loved, like, a Santa envelope, and he's got Santa on himself.
KLASSEN: There's something Wile E. Coyote-ish about Santa in this whole book. He's trying out these tricks. He has this goal, and he's trying to do it. And, like, he just keeps running into problems, either practically speaking or just that we give up on him.
BARNETT: I remember when you sent me really early on a picture. And, you know, after we've put Santa through these various kind of humiliating scenarios, then finally, we say, maybe Santa can turn into fire. And there Santa is, just become this giant flame. And for the first time, he is so psyched. He's loving being in the book, finally. And then the book says, but probably not.
KLASSEN: You know, you'd expect that a book like this, which is mostly a joke book - I thought of it as a joke book, like one of those old kind of '50s and '60s kid joke books where you just do a bunch of different scenarios and one-off illustrations. But what really nailed it for me and what I wanted to make sure that we landed was the ending. You land it in a way that's very gentle and soft and actually very sweet about Christmas and our memories of it and how our - how we feel about that night and the morning after and all of that stuff. And it just made the book feel much bigger.
BARNETT: This book just confirms how magical Santa is. I think we don't want to know how he does it. We don't want to know how the magician does the trick. The mystery, the wonder, the impossibility is the point. It's beautiful to kind of face the impossible that way. I love that Santa makes us do that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP ON THE HOUSETOP")
AUTRY: (Singing) Up on the housetop, click, click, click. Down through the chimney with old St. Nick.
RASCOE: That was Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen wondering, "How Does Santa Go Down The Chimney?" If anyone listening can figure it out, we would still like to know. Our series Picture This is produced by Samantha Balaban.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP ON THE HOUSETOP")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Ho ho ho.
BARNETT: Jon, it's good to talk to you.
KLASSEN: Yeah, yeah.
BARNETT: This probably takes care of our phone call for the day.
KLASSEN: Oh, does that mean I shouldn't call you after this? Is that a subtle way of saying don't call?
BARNETT: No, we can do that. No, we can still talk. No, I'll talk to you after this, too.
KLASSEN: All right.
(SOUNDBITE OF GENE AUTRY SONG, "UP ON THE HOUSETOP")
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