I co-wrote my first book in third grade with my best friend, John. John was the illustrator because he managed to make squirrels that actually looked like squirrels and not just stick figures with tails. For the most part I wrote the words with his input. It was a construction paper and staple concoction about woodland creatures having crazy adventures. I’m sure the premise came from the nighttime stories that my father told when I was kid, but it impressed our teacher enough that he asked to keep it, saying he wanted our first work for when we were famous. He’s still waiting on the pay out, and John’s too busy learning chemical engineering to illustrate what I write, but that doesn’t change what that first book introduced me to. One tiny book, illustrated in Crayola crayon and pencil, taught me to appreciate how much can be said when words are set to pictures, how art can make words mean more. I didn’t know just how important that realization was until now, almost thirteen years later, looking at children’s picture books through the eyes of an adult looking to write a book. Illustration can be powerful when paired with words.
That’s one of the reasons that this week’s author is a little different from the usual, Jon Klassen is an illustrator first and an author second. He has illustrated many books for others, but I’m most impressed with his independent work. Critics seem to feel the same as both books managed to rack awards, one a Caldecott and the other A Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor and an E.B. White Read Aloud Award. The books, I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat are simply fantastic. They do exactly what picture books should do, tell stories through pictures more than with words. Better than that, both books are almost darkly comedic. I’ve yet to find another picture book that manages to combine comedy with moral gray themes so well. I’d have no problem showing Klassen’s books to Leah and Kenny (I plan to share them with the kids when we have Spring break in a couple of weeks) so the themes aren’t overly mature, just a bit dark to make them complex. Here’s the trailer for a little taste of what I mean:
As you can see by the trailer, the art is a really big part of Klassen’s work. There is a balance between art and words that is important to the genre of picture books in general. The balance makes reading the books fun in a way that other genres simply aren’t. The idea is to create a book where even the worst readers can interpret the story from just the pictures- “reading” without reading, and Klassen is a master in that sense. The book is neither just about pictures nor just about words, it is special because of how the two interact. It frustrates me that picture books don’t get nearly enough attention or get written off as just a kids’ book. Some of the coolest art I’ve seen has been between the cardboard covers of those kids’ books.
I’ve had a lot of respect for picture book authors since that very first book in third grade, and I’ve been lucky enough to become friends with people who share that same regard. My friends and I never bothered to grow up, we’re just as likely to be found reading picture books as we are the classics, and ironically, we’re better writers for it. We read picture books in the name of research for our own work, but mostly we like the pictures. The best picture book authors understand that- the fact that people are opening their books for the art, not just the words. That is why great picture book authors can have a lot happen in very little space, with very few words, and some pictures. It’s a very difficult, very special skill, and Klassen has that skill in spades.
Klassen’s picture books are also particularly fantastic because their narrators are characters that kids can relate to. The protagonists and antagonists are funny, adorable, and often have questionable morals. In both I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat, all of the characters take part in questionable actions. They get into trouble; they’re not perfect. Most importantly, Klassen’s characters make you laugh.
Some of the greatest things about these two books are the artistic choices. My roommate Alex and my good friend Lena think that “The Red Page” from I Want My Hat Back is the greatest picture they have ever seen in a picture book (it really is awesome). I can’t explain the red page because that would give the story away, but it is wonderful and the story would not be complete without it. The art brings the story off the page and puts the imagination to work. Klassen has a unique style of clean lines and cooler colors that suit his themes and blend well. Picture books are like a river, the words are the river bed, but the pictures are the water; you cannot have one without the other and Klassen pairs the pictures to the prose wonderfully, often in ways that will make any reader laugh harder than they ever imagined they would laugh at a book written for kids.
Here is the trailer for I Want My Hat Back. It’s just as awesome as the one for This Is Not My Hat.
Tell me, do you have a favorite picture book? What makes it so special?
Books I Mentioned In This Post:
Jon Klassen, This Is Not My Hat, (Shenzhen, Guangdong: Candlewick Press, 2012).
Jon Klassen, I Want My Hat Back, (Stevens Point: Candlewick Press, 2011).
Video Trailers property of and created by Candlewick Press.