Jon Klassen’s debut picturebook, I Want My Hat Back, has won an international audience of fans since its publication in 2011 with its deadpan humour, dark sensibility and distinctive visual style. His most recent picturebook, This Is Not My Hat, published this week, offers a similarly irresistible tale of the theft of another oh-so-desirable hat and the owner’s relentless quest for justice. I was delighted to have the opportunity to discuss the pacing and power of visual narrative with this award-winning illustrator.
You worked extensively in the film and animation industry before this new career as a children’s illustrator. Did you draw on any experiences or skills from that arena when creating these books?
The importance of story more than anything. Animation involves 12 drawings a second and to put so much work into the time, you have to be sure the story is going to work. You know when it’s clicking and moving properly and you’re very aware of the visual rules of narrative. I Want My Hat Back was written as a kind of play and the animal characters are all really bad actors. I treated these books as mini-operas and gave all this operatic weight to the story. It’s like the bear is reading his part: he has tunnel vision and he’s not listening to the answers.
Reading the book was like experiencing a pantomime. I know I kept finding myself talking at the page and the characters! How did you approach encouraging the reader to interact with and to invest emotion in the story?
In a way, it’s a story about empathy or lack of empathy. The idea with the rabbit was capturing indifference. The characters’ expressions barely change with just some movement of their eyes. If the rabbit is too characterised, then he becomes too cute. If he shows no reaction, then it’s okay to want consequences for him. When you’re a kid and you’re being picked on, this is the big question: what do you do when you actually find the person who’s done something wrong to you and they’re indifferent? Amoral. They’re blank. The bear can’t talk to the rabbit and can’t reason with him. So the only thing he can think of doing is to eat him. I’m not endorsing it but it’s what you can feel like doing! I like the fact that the hat abstracts the idea. The object doesn’t need to be a hat, it could be anything. We just need a motor for the story. In This Is Not My Hat, the morality is slightly more overt because the fish states his case: ‘I know it’s wrong to take the hat but I’m going to do it anyway.’ You don’t know whether you’re supposed to be rooting for him or not. The reader has been with him all the time and that’s a more complicated emotional scenario: are you going to feel bad when or if he’s caught?
There has been an interesting debate about the ending of I Want My Hat Back and whether there’s enough of a ‘cautionary tale’ approach to punishing bad behaviour. In the animals’ dialogue, you use a lot of full stops but no exclamation marks. Was the use of minimal statements deliberate?
Very much. It’s all about context. There doesn’t need to be exclamation marks. Let the pacing do the work. I backloaded the drawings so the bear doesn’t necessarily look murderous and instead the reader adds the intensity. I’ve received some letters from children telling me that their teachers have said I made a mistake when I used a full stop for when the rabbit denies taking the hat, but I didn’t make a mistake. The use of red throughout the book does sufficient amount of work instead of words or punctuation. When we were working with the international editions, they couldn’t give us all the colours so they wanted to use red a lot more. In the editorial suggestions, one of the big changes was that when the bear gets his hat back, his hat would change to red. This really affects the story because now what you have is a tale of a magic hat which turns people who wear it evil and you know this because their text turns red. We didn’t let this change happen because it would have produced a completely different ending and shifted the blame from the bear to the hat instead.
In a way, I Want My Hat Back is a different story for every reader because everyone fills in the ending in their own way. So did these international editors want the audience to be directed more explicitly?
The people who disagree with the ending of I Want My Hat Back or who don’t like it tend to think that books should have an overt, didactic moral, one which the characters themselves are aware of. They want the bear to be saying, ‘I shouldn’t have killed that rabbit’, or at least the rabbit to apologise: ‘I’m sorry.’ I think the book does have certain ideas about morality but not ones that the characters are necessarily aware of. As the reader, you’re part of that process. When I was little, I didn’t need books to name those lessons so I don’t use a narrator or a verb like ‘she whispered’ or ‘she said angrily’. It frees things up and you have to look to the pictures and the font colours for emotions. You want the book to be the least intimidating thing possible, visually. It’s like when you go around an art gallery and you see a big shape across the room and you’re drawn to it. You don’t have to understand what the artwork is just like you don’t know what the story is initially. But this is a hard argument to make, especially in the United States, where they think that if it happens in a book, then the author has endorsed what goes on there.
A lot of children’s books are loud but I love the idea of a quiet place; that’s what a lot of my work is about
Although both books are morally charged with an almost fairy-tale quality, you seem to be doing a lot more ‘showing’ but not ‘telling’ what the reader should take from them. You’re trusting the child reader to fill in gaps. Did you deliberately leave the stories open-ended?
A lot of my stories end with you going back to the place where you started and giving new context to that so you see it in a different way. It’s like what Bruno Bettelheim says about fairy tales in The Uses of Enchantment: when children read fairy tales, they can get very attached to certain ones. They don’t know why and can’t explain why but they’re working something out through the story as a kind of therapy. The author can’t own that and the child reader can’t own that but it’s a connection that happens. It’s like theatre. If it’s a complete vacuum, the audience can’t do anything with it. You have to give the reader just enough. I really like that idea: you don’t write a story because you know what the reader’s problem is. Instead the reader makes the story and their relationship with the story their own.
Both books give a great sense of place and a feeling for the forest or marine environment which the characters inhabit. But with so few background details, how did you achieve that effect?
I’m from Ontario in Canada where the landscape is muted and not dramatic, with scrubby unromantic forests. But I like the idea that stories happen there too, that stories happen everywhere. The places in the books aren’t bleak necessarily but they’re not sweeping either. You want to achieve a lushness and for it to feel thick but not overly pretty. I had never worked on or drawn characters before so the animals in I Want My Hat Back appear pretty stiff. They turned into landscape features like rocks and trees. That’s why there are no details of background. The characters have to be the mood and also set the mood. Otherwise, it would be repetition and a double beat.
It’s interesting that you used a sound metaphor and not a visual one. If you gave a soundtrack to your books, what would it be like?
I like the idea that these books are quiet, especially in This Is Not My Hat with the ambient noise of being underwater. A lot of children’s books are loud but I love the idea of a quiet place; that’s what a lot of my work is about. Everyone, quiet down! At the same time, both books are chase stories so the soundtrack would have to be the chase music from Psycho, with those frantic violins: guilty-sounding music which makes you feel like you’ve done something wrong!
Would you describe the imagination as a quiet place?
I don’t know. When I think about mood, I think of a quiet place and I have that as a goal. Some illustrations you can hear, not like in the sense of music or a sound, but hearing what it would feel like to hang out there. The more you busy the page up, the less clear that feeling is and it becomes clutter. You need less detail nearly all of the time.
You’ve done a lot of collaborative work in animation, music videos, book trailers and illustrating other authors’ work. Do you enjoy the collaborative process? Are there particular people you would like to work with?
Very much, especially in animation work. I enjoyed working on visual development and drawings for sets and props for the film of Coraline. I like getting authors’ text and seeing what it does to me and for me. I’m not as familiar with children’s books as I am with the world of animation, but William Steig would be my favourite writer. I think his work is pure magic. He does this illusion of effortlessness. When you’re reading his work, it’s seamless. I didn’t read him when I was little. I only discovered him a couple of years ago when I worked for DreamWorks while they were doing the Shrek films.
How do you feel about electronic publishing? Would you like your books to become apps or ebooks?
Ebooks are a very different experience. In iPads, you have a fake gutter in the middle and you’re turning a virtual page. It’s a different form and a different story with one big screen where you move through the story in a new way. I think I Want My Hat Back works best on the paper page. It was especially hard to make a book trailer of this story since the bear doesn’t even have back legs and the characters aren’t represented at any point in the book as walking. Making it digital would affect the pace and the whole process and drama of turning the page. If someone tried to make it digital and it didn’t work, then it would be validating my original decision to produce it as a book and not as a piece of film or animation. PK