Books·My Life in Books

The 8 books Jon Klassen would love to illustrate

The children's author and illustrator shares the literary works that make him want to put pen to paper.
Jon Klassen is the award-winning author and illustrator of I Want My Hat Back. (Steven Siewert)

Jon Klassen is the award-winning author and illustrator of I Want My Hat Back, This Is Not My Hat and We Found a Hat. He most recently provided the spine-chilling illustrations for Kenneth Oppel's YA thriller The Nest, which is currently a finalist for the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award.

Below, Klassen divulges the eight literary works he would love to get his illustrator hands on.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

"'The Turtle Chapter' at the beginning of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Any book that devotes a whole chapter to a turtle crossing a road would be on my list - and this is Steinbeck writing about a turtle crossing the road, so come on. I keep thinking there might be a way to make a picture book out of just that chapter on its own. It really stands on its own with a beginning, middle and end — with the turtle coming to the road, crossing the road and finally getting to the other side. It really gets at the turtle's speed of life, and there's so much dignity in it.

"Plus, I kind of desaturate colours on my own, so the Dust Bowl setting might meet me in the middle that way."

Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy

"The story and the setting of Cormac McCarthy's Outer Dark are like a fairy tale, and all the locations are so full of opportunities. It's a small cast and they move through turn-of-the-century Appalachian forests and villages and rivers and hills and swamps, and there's a Tinker pushing a cart of pots and pans and demons running through the fields. It's like a checklist of Things That Would Be Fun To Draw. I'd probably skip illustrating the ending, though."

The Little Trilogy by Anton Chekhov

"I don't have a great memory of the first and last of the stories in The Little Trilogy by Anton Chekhov, but I still think about 'Gooseberries,' the middle one, a lot. I loved how the two old men talked to each other and you can just see them all small in this huge stormy Russian countryside at the beginning and then all cozy when they get inside the house. They're like Frog and Toad.

"What the story is getting at seems to change for me every time I read it so the illustrations would have to be kind of light to allow for that, but I'd be so nervous illustrating Chekhov that that probably wouldn't be a problem anyway."

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

"I don't like drawing people, so that's a good reason for me to work on it right there. Also, this book was just so relaxing to read and consider.

"I was illustrating a book called House Held Up by Trees by Ted Kooser around the same time this book came out. They both had descriptions of how a house falls apart over time once it is abandoned and it involved so much of what I liked to draw and think about. It would be neat to apply the same kinds of drawings to the Brooklyn Bridge and just pavement in general, like this book talked about."

A Wilderness of Error by Errol Morris

"Errol Morris is a big hero of mine and I admire his writing as much as his films. A Wilderness of Error is about a murder case and there are pictures and lots of maps and diagrams in it already, but I think it would be neat to try and do for illustration what his films (The Thin Blue Line in particular) have done for re-enactment footage. Choosing what to leave out and how much drama to inject and how much you want to try and manipulate the audience for effect are problems that illustrators deal with, and they seem to be some of the same problems he is solving in his films. I don't have the skill or the interest to draw things realistically, but I think that might make it even more interesting."

Dominic by William Steig

"William Steig illustrated Dominic already, of course, and I would never, ever actually redo it. It's blasphemous to even think it, and if any publisher actually offered I would be so mad at them. But this book is very special to me, and it goes to so many different great places and there are so many amazing moments. I would end up choosing none of the high-action moments and all of the quiet reflective ones to illustrate because he was the best at that. I probably couldn't even draw the ending because I'd be crying too hard."

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

"I can still remember how excited I got when I read Beckett's Waiting for Godot for the first time, especially the setting. 'A country road. A tree. Evening... ' and that's it. That knocked me out. The way it sounded and how clean the whole thing was even though it was so blurry too.

"I think my interest in it would be to watch time pass in the same spot and have these different things come into it, treat the illustrations like a stage instead of a moving camera and have the figures move around and find little homes in the places you've set up from the beginning.

"Also, the neat thing about illustrating something is that you get to sort walk over and stand with the author for a minute and pretend you completely understand what they wrote."

The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories by Sinclair Ross

"'The Painted Door,' a short story in the collection The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories by Sinclair Ross. I actually tried to make an illustration for this story once, a while ago, and I got so excited by a stand of trees dividing the two houses that wasn't even in the story that I kind of wandered off in there and forgot why I'd started.

"I read it when I was really young and it creeped me out terribly, but snowy Canadian landscapes and people taking all night to go from one farmhouse to the next is everything this nostalgic expat could ask for."


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