He’s won the top prizes for children’s literature, including the Caldecott Medal in the United States, the Kate Greenaway Medal in the United Kingdom and the Boston Globe Horn Book Award. 

Jon Klassen

Boulder Ghost by Jon Klassen.

Yet in Winnipeg, few people know of Jon Klassen, the 33-year-old children’s author and illustrator from right here in the city.

On Saturday at 2 p.m. Klassen will launch Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, the ninth book he has illustrated, at McNally Robinson. 

“It’s half the illustrations and half the words that kind of tell the story,” Klassen said of the book, which was written by Mac Barnett. “The real story’s kind of somewhere in the middle of the two.”

In the book, two boys dig a hole and find “nothing at first, but something very strange happens at the end,” according to Klassen, who now lives in Los Angeles. 

The illustrations depict a large diamond below where the boys are digging, making what the characters are missing obvious to the reader.

“[Kids] end up yelling a lot at us when we’re presenting [the book] to them,” Klassen said, referring to himself and Barnett. “I’m not sure if it’s like, all in fun or if they’re genuinely upset but either way, it gets a reaction.”

Klassen said his book launches include showing the audience different versions of the book and illustrations that he considered before making final decisions. At this particular launch, Klassen might talk about the dog from Sam and Dave Dig a Hole.

“He wasn’t there the whole time,” Klassen said of the dog. “All along the way, of course, a dog would know the things you’re missing just because I guess they can smell jewels in the ground.”

Klassen laughed before noting that he followed that logic and chose to include the dog readers now see in the book.

I Want my Hat Back (2011) and This is Not my Hat (2012) each put Klassen on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 40 weeks, but Klassen still can’t believe the success of his work.

“I was surprised when I sent [work] to my agent and he liked it and then I was surprised when a publisher even looked twice at it,” he said, noting that he is still surprised when anyone buys his books.

Jon Klassen

An image by Jon Klassen that he posted to his blog at jonklassen.tumblr.com

Something that might surprise Klassen’s fans is the simple tools he uses to bring those books to life, including Laurentien pencil crayons, pepper and dirt.

“It doesn’t turn illustration into this weird, mysterious sort of magic thing that you can do. You just show [kids] the tools that they can use that they already know,” he said.

A computer is used to assemble his illustrations and get colours that are not available using crayons, but he said he mostly sticks to the aforementioned tools.

To hear Klassen read from Sam and Dave Dig a Hole and get your own signed copy of the book, visit McNally Robinson at 1120 Grant Avenue on Saturday afternoon.