Books·In Conversation

Jon Klassen of I Want My Hat Back fame talks about the art of the picture book

The award-winning Canadian children's illustrator and author spoke with CBC Books about his writing life and how his unique art style came to be.

The Canadian children's illustrator and author's latest book is The Rock from the Sky

Jon Klassen is a Canadian author and illustrator. (Steven Siewert)

Jon Klassen is a Canadian author and illustrator now based in Los Angeles. Klassen is one of the most sought after illustrators in North America; his books include the Hat series — I Want My Hat Back, This is Not My Hat and We Found a Hat and he has also frequently collaborated with American author Mac Barnett on books like Triangle, The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole and Circle

His long list of prestigious honours includes the American Caldecott Medal and CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal (both for This Is Not My Hat, which he wrote and illustrated), as well as the Governor General's Literary Award for children's literature — illustration for Cats' Night Out, which was written by Caroline Stutson. In 2018, it was announced that Klassen was selected to become a member of the Order of Canada for "his transformative contributions to children's literature." 

Klassen's latest children's book, The Rock from the Sky, marks his first solo project since 2016. It's an ambitious book that is longer than a typical picture book and includes weighty themes of anxiety, confirmation bias and isolation. 

He spoke with CBC Books about his art, his career and his unique approach to children's literature. 

When did you decide that being a writer and illustrator was something you wanted to do as a career?

It came about in a surprising way. I had always thought I was going to work as an animator, or at least in animation. That's what I went to school for. I was focused on that idea.

I wanted the job — the idea of going to a studio and working all the time on something was great. I did that for a number of years, mostly as a designer. But the more I worked, the more I started finding ways of doing things that I wanted to do on my own. The whole point of animation, for me, was to be working as a cog in somebody else's thing. I had wanted to be the best cog I could be.

But then slowly but surely, I started to find out that I had specific things I wanted to do in different ways — my own specific stuff.

There's a thing in my books that isn't really allowed to happen in animation — in my books I like to skip the action pretty often.

I started working on my own books in the evenings. Right away, it clicked with the way I like to tell stories and the way I like to draw. There's a thing in my books that isn't really allowed to happen in animation — because in my books I like to skip the action pretty often. 

If there's a big, high moment of action, I'll turn the page on that. I won't show it. We'll start to show the drawing, and then you'll turn the page and it will be over. The picture book form isn't great at showing high action. It's a still medium. But in animation, that's the whole point — it's a moving, bombastic thing.

I found working on books was exactly what I wanted.

You grew up in Toronto and the southern Ontario area. What were some of your influences growing up?

I grew up with my dad's picture books. His parents had kept all his picture books when he was little. Other than that, we didn't have a ton of books around the house, but we had this massive shelf of all these old Dr. Seuss and P.D. Eastman books.  We would also go to my grandparents' house in Niagara Falls pretty often. While there, I would pull down piles of old children's books and sit with them. I remember sitting on the bed past my bedtime, just pouring over these books.

My interest in animation coincided with Disney animation becoming popular again. So there were films like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Lion King. We watched these movies and they also had these special features where they would show animators at desks drawing these characters and I would be like, "Holy cow, it's a job." 

I grew up with my dad's picture books. His parents had kept all his picture books when he was little.

I warmed to that style and the economy that was in that style. There was an intellectual side of it that appealed to me — it looked designed. And then, years and years later, I was like, "Wait a minute, I like that older stuff because of those books I used to read." That's why I liked it. I just kept sort of inching toward it without ever looking up to see what it is I was headed toward. 

When I got into creating picture books, I was like, "I haven't been clear with myself. I've been inching toward this for ages and not even understanding why." It was really interesting. 

Canadian Jon Klassen worked as a concept artist and illustrator on films such as Coraline and Kung Fu Panda 2. (Dreamworks Pictures)

You also worked on animated films like Kung Fu Panda 2 and Coraline. What was that like?

It was great. I was on Coraline as a set designer. Then Kung Fu Panda, I was doing the same sort of thing — film set painting, set design, props and things like that. 

Feature animation is all about high action. I don't want any involvement in that, but I enjoy setting the mood or setting the stage for things to happen. I don't think the things that show high action are bad or that those are the only kind of stories we should tell. I like them, but my best job is to set a mood, set a stage or design something for that to happen inside it.

My solo books on my own have almost no background in them. I think I can only focus on one at a time.

When I finally got to do my own books, I erased all the backgrounds. My solo books have almost no background in them. I think I can only focus on one at a time. If there's a background, that's the story. But if there's a character, that's the story. I have to make that as clear as possible.

Jon Klassen is a big name in the world of children’s picture books. His bestselling titles include I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat. While the award-winning author and illustrator has been named to the Order of Canada, he says you don’t need to be good at drawing to do what he does. Klassen joined Tom Power to talk about his latest book, The Rock from the Sky, and shared a simple trick he uses to tell stories with pictures. 17:42

How would you describe your style?

Tone is tough to manage in a conscious way. Tone feels like the wave that you wait for. You're sitting out there, on your author's surfboard, and the tone is the thing that comes along and carries you through the thing. Then when it goes away, it goes away — and you don't know what it meant or what the rules were. As soon as you begin to dissect it, you're like, "Ah, I wrecked it."

Tone is tough to manage in a conscious way. Tone feels like the wave that you wait for.

When people hear descriptions of my books, they might not think it's for them. It might sound too mean-spirited or sarcastic. I'm very sensitive to that — I don't want to make mean-spirited books or books that feel older than their intended audience. 

But my hope, and the things I'm interested in when I see other people that do this, is that the tone actually carries it through. You're allowed to do things because tonally you made something that forgives it or gives you permission for it.

(The Rock from the Sky. Copyright © 2021 by Jon Klassen. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.)

That said, with The Rock from the Sky, what messages did you wish to convey?

I don't know if you start with messages. If it feels like you're starting with a thing you want to teach them or pass on to children, I think everyone gets suspicious of that, including the kids. 

I try to focus on tension more than anything else. We're dealing with children who are as young as two and three — the book needs to grab them or they are going to walk away. You are trying to maintain tension and satisfy the audience's expectations — or try to do something interesting at the end. 

You don't want to promise something and then trick the audience. I'm not into that.

You don't want to promise something and then trick the audience. I'm not into that.

(The Rock from the Sky. Copyright © 2021 by Jon Klassen. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.)

So what did you want to accomplish?

The Rock from the Sky is about being out of control — and feeling like things are coming for you in an existential way. That's how it felt to me at least. There's a weird connection I have between how sarcastic or dry I am in a book and how furious I was, in a broad way, at the time.

A lot about this book is about being out of control — and feeling like things are coming for you in an existential way.

The first book, I Want My Hat Back, was done not too long after the financial crisis. We were finding a lot of stuff out about what went down. I was furious! That's sort of what that book was about. It's this weird wish fulfilment where you just want to eat that problem and disappear it. It was this idea of overdone consequences because you're just so mad.

The next two Hat books were less sarcastic tonally and less dry.

And with The Rock from the Sky, I went all the way back. I was like, "You know what? We're going to take 12 pages to make the sun go down! That's how angry I am."

I don't think that kids necessarily pick up on anybody being angry. But maybe they do; I was pretty sensitive when I was a kid.

You've won a host of awards and you have been appointed to the Order of Canada. How are you defining success?

You want to say awards don't offer validation, but it's hard to know where you would even be at without them!

The Rock from the Sky is a very weird book. I don't pretend to think that it would have gotten past a publisher as a first book. I had to build up some trust in that one — and we'll see how it goes.

I think that with my books, at least early on, I was getting some gas out of feeling like a bit of an outsider. I was coming from animation. I didn't know the world that much. I was doing these books that were, at least in certain circles, rubbing people a weird way. There were moral arguments being made — and characters acting badly. 

The Rock from the Sky is a very weird book. I don't pretend to think that it would have gotten past a publisher as a first book.

I never felt provocative. That's never been my speed or anything. But I think in retrospect, I was getting some gas out of feeling like a bit of an outsider. 

But for me, success is finding a balance between moving forward in the work — but also feeling safe. 

Jon Klassen's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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