“It is a really special thing when you find out that something you thought was funny or sad or scary does the same thing to people you haven’t ever met.”
Better Reading Kids was very excited to chat to bestselling and award-winning author/illustrator Jon Klassen ahead of his first ever visit to Australia this May. His cheekily humorous picture books I Want My Hat Back and its sequel This is Not My Hat have a combined 1.5 million copies in print all over the world and have together spent nearly 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. The third in the trilogy, We Found a Hat, will be out in October (and we can’t wait)!
Jon told us about the art of selecting the right animal, how to make both kids and parents laugh and which fictional character has the best hat.
BRK: We love This is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back. What can we expect from We Found a Hat?
JK: Thank you! We Found A Hat was a little trickier to write because I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat are in a lot of ways opposites of each other, even though their stories are similar. So I wasn’t sure what I wanted from a third book and it took a lot of tries before I found one that I thought was worth adding to the other two. It was also trickier because it ended up being about two characters who are friends when the story begins, and that was harder than writing about relative strangers, which are how the other books were done. Showing that two characters enjoy each other’s company can be overly sweet or forced if your time is limited like it is in a picture book, so the story moves a little slower to give time for it. The ending is also very different than the other two books – a little less final but I hope not any less satisfying.
BRK: Your artwork often features animals, including a bear, and a fish, and now two turtles. What inspires you to write and illustrate a particular animal? What’s been your favourite to draw?
JK: The needs of the story usually inform the choice of animal. For I Want My Hat Back a bear was a fun choice because he’s so calm for most of the book, but because he’s so big compared to everybody else there’s an unspoken tension in the story and I was hoping the reader would wonder if the potential for trouble was going to pay off.
For This Is Not My Hat I wanted to do kind of the opposite of the location of I Want My Hat Back, and using a dark background instead of a light one suggested being deep underwater. It also helps that you show an obvious contrast between simple shapes like the small fish and the big fish – fish are a little bit more abstract than other animals so nobody wonders if there are bigger and bigger fish. We just kind of assume there are.
For We Found A Hat I wanted animals that were a little less capable of doing almost anything – kind of humble animals. I also wanted a slower-moving book to contrast with the chase of the last one, and I also wanted both characters in the story to be almost identical physically so the story didn’t look like it was going to favor one over the other. Turtles fit the bill for all of those things, and plus they have become my favorite animal to draw because of their limitations. Most of their body doesn’t move or bend so you end up looking at their faces right away to see how they are feeling because it’s the only place where you will find that out.
BRK: What is special for you about writing for children?
JK: I loved picture books when I was younger, and I remember the atmosphere and the dreaminess of them more than anything else. It’s important that the stories work really well, but I think I get a bigger kick out of the thought that they might remember the atmosphere of these books the same way I do with the ones I had.
BRK: How do you get the right balance to make your books funny to kids and parents alike?
JK: It has to make me laugh, or at least smile a lot. I can’t really predict the reactions of other people, but it is a really special thing when you find out that something you thought was funny or sad or scary does the same thing to people you haven’t ever met. I don’t think there’s too many differences between things that make parents and kids laugh a lot of the time. I don’t want to be too sarcastic or tell jokes that the kids won’t get, but the jokes I’m interested in don’t do that very often anyway I hope.
JK: The text comes first, but it doesn’t mean it’s working. So many times I’ll write a whole book out and think it’s going to be just fine and then I begin to rough it out in pictures and a million problems crawl out and kill the thing. When you finally do get something that works for both text and pictures it feels like a small miracle. Once that happens it’s usually a matter of sharpening and sharpening what you’ve got until it’s as pointy as it can get. The illustration comes last last. It’s the thing I save till the end because I’m most familiar with how to do it.
BRK: What are you looking forward to about visiting Australia?
JK: Everything! I’ve never been so I’m really looking forward to the whole experience. Everyone I talk to says they love it, and it doesn’t seem like any place else in the world. I’m from Canada, and apparently it operates kind of the same way but with a lot more South Pacific thrown in, so that by itself is reason to come see it.
BRK: You grew up in Canada, but now live in the US. What do you miss about back home?
JK: Everything, again. I live in California, which is a great and interesting place, but I miss the seasons and trees and lakes and what houses look like and how people talk and act and the different potato chip flavours (and using a “u” in “flavour”). You wouldn’t think there would be big differences between the two countries but there are.
JK: Well the Cat in the Hat’s was certainly taller but I remember the Mad Hatter having some tea hidden in his, and I like tea, so I’ll vote that way.
BRK: Please tell us about the books which influenced you as a child.
JK: A lot of my favourite picture books were by PD Eastman. His stories and illustrations were always deceivingly simple. Books like Sam and the Firefly or Go Dog, Go! They were always very clear but they took a lot of skill to show things that clearly. He’s been a great model to try and follow that way. I also loved Frog & Toad stories by Arnold Lobel. I don’t draw like him at all (I wish I could) but I always remember how emotional and funny and quiet and a little bit dark his stuff was. You could tell he was really working on himself in those stories. I didn’t have them when I was a kid, but William Steig stories I think would’ve made a big impression I think. He writes so beautifully and his stories always feel so genuine somehow.
You can read more about Jon’s favourite kids books in his Book List here (he has excellent taste), and see him in person in Sydney for the Writers’ Festival, or in Melbourne at Deakin Edge, Federation Square!
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