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Phone Calls With Whales: The Power of Fiction in Children's Lives

A TED Talk by children's author Mac Barnett, released this week and entitled "Why a Good Book is a Secret Door," is a pleasant reminder of the joy that comes with childhood and the importance of encouraging a sense of wonder in young children.

"My name is Mac," begins Barnett. "My job is that I lie to children." Barnett is the author of several picture books, including Caldecott Medal Honor book Extra Yarn. Throughout the talk, he uses his experience with childrenboth as a writer and in other contexts—to demonstrate the importance of absurdity in young lives.

Barnett is also the former director of 826LA, the Los Angeles branch of 826 National, a non-profit organization devoted to providing free writing tutoring and workshops for K-12 students. 826's eight locations are notable for sharing their spaces with fanciful stores. In LA, for example, the tutoring center is located behind a shop selling supplies and artifacts relating to time travel. Barnett considers the whimsical nature of the storefront as integral to the work done by 826 chapters, saying that the brilliance of the setup is that "the joke isn't a joke ... You can't find the seams on the fiction. It's this little bit of fiction that's colonized the real world."

The 17-minute talk alternates between moments of goofiness and touching forays into serious topics. Barnett covers a range of subjects, from the story of how a little girl grew a cantaloupe in a week to the feature in his first book that has children leaving voicemails for Norwegian whales.

A recent study showed that reading fiction teaches empathy, and there is certainly something to be said for allowing students to read whatever they want. In the context of a discussion about education that often gets bogged down in details and administration, though, Barnett's talk provides a very human reminder that giving children bookseven (or perhaps especially) silly onescan be beneficial in more ways than one.

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