The Children's Book Author Parents Are Obsessed With
"Significantly less murder than I was expecting," wrote GoodReads user Anna Smithberger in a review of the children's picture book We Found A Hat. The third book in a trilogy by author and illustrator Jon Klassen, it was the first not to end with one animal eating another. His plots, well, have a theme.
A fish steals a hat that is a better fit on him than on the large fish he stole it from: he is eaten. A bear goes searching for his pointy red hat, and eats the rabbit who took it and then lied about it. Each could be a fable for parenthood, where nothing is ever quite fair or rational, and where a selfish piece of you just wants to sit on the straw with your hat eating rabbit. These books are beloved by kids, parents, and the child-free alike. There are fans with tattoos of his characters, sold-out tapestries of art from his books, internet memes: Jon Klassen is a serious mood.
His latest book, Square, is another collaboration with friend and author Mac Barnett, and the second of the books in the "shapes" trilogy after Triangle. The book deals with Square's fear of being found out as an imposter ("Oh dirt!" he cries as he struggles to fake it as a sculptor, chipping a block into crumbs), and has the inky look and shifty eyes™ that define a Klassen illustration, along with the playfulness of Barnett's writing. (Barnett deserves his own profile; Klassen describes his friend as a linguistic genius).
Though his books have tapped into a strain of subterranean mischief, Klassen says that (murderous tendencies aside) they aren't amoral.
"They assume a morality in the reader — the characters might not have known what they did wrong," but the reader does, the Caldecott Medal winner tells Romper. People often tell him that the endings are ambiguous, but at the end of the book, "I think it's actually very clear that everyone has made mistakes here!"
And the sheer popularity of his work — there are millions of copies of the "hat" books in circulation — suggests that the *message*, as it were, does resonate with parents and children alike.
"He's guided by this big desire to make work that is understandable and clear and simple," author and illustrator Hallie Bateman tells Romper by email. "He wants to connect with people. If an idea doesn't work, it's not other people's fault for not getting it. It's his fault for not being clear enough, relatable enough. I think the 'shape' trilogy is really a great example of that."
"Pinter for preschoolers..." — Pantelis, GoodReads user
The plot of the third "hat" story, about two turtles who find a hat and are unable to share it, required a year-long break to solve. After a dark night of the soul, one turtle realizes that the friendship is more important to him than the hat: the book ends with both turtles dreaming of themselves together in hats against a quilt of stars.
"I literally get goosebumps every time I turn to that last page where both turtles are floating away into space wearing hats. It's just so sweet and beautiful," says special-education teacher Rachel Shukan, who uses the book in class. "That book is just so perfect for kindergarten, especially kids with a social disability like [autism spectrum disorder] ASD) because if you only read the text, you basically miss the whole story. Many hyperlexic kids with ASD will read the words, and close the book and say 'done!' But they can't answer questions like 'what was it about?' Or 'why did the character make that choice?' Or 'what might he be thinking on this page?'"
Solving the dissonance between the pictures and the words helps children to learn theory of mind, she explains.
Originally, the book ended with both characters dying, and the hat being the only thing left. "The book I was trying to figure out was much darker," Klassen recalls, "the natural conclusion of that series." And the final product feels "almost like a funeral" for the original characters and idea.
"I was so bummed out by the failure of the [book] that I couldn't figure out, that the mood almost reflects that."
Having almost abandoned the project — "I felt like 'I killed it,'" he recalls — a year later he stumbled on a solution. A new chapter, "Watching the Sunset," consists of the turtles sitting together on a rock, pondering their relationship. For want of a better word, the ~vibe~ is the most remarkable thing about the scene, washed-out pinks and peaches fading to grey with a texture that calls to mind the post-dusk moment when your vision turns into flickering TV snow. It's a feeling about their friendship that leads to a transcendent little ending as the greedy turtle sacrifices the hat to be with his friend. Klassen says it is his favorite of the books he has created, in part because taking "five or six pages" to focus on this relationship — "they aren't even moving" — was something he had never done before.
Like great works of art, it expands in the mind of the reader. "I think I need to read this book every night for the rest of my life, and eventually perhaps the mysteries of the universe and the human condition will be revealed to me. I'll start by reading it to my kids tonight and seeing what they say," wrote Joshua Whiting on GoodReads.
And, yes, kids love it too. I interview my 2-year-old daughter Scout about We Found A Hat. "How does it make you feel?" I ask. "Happy," she replies. "Why does it make you feel happy?" "Because they both like hats." My 17-month-old son can't really talk yet, but Triangle is his favorite book — he squeals when the chase takes hold across its pages from the land of small squares and medium squares and big squares over to the place where the shapes have no names.
"Buñuel for preschoolers..." — Pantelis, GoodReads user
Klassen became a father in recent years, and says the biggest revelation in having a baby he could read to was that "I think you blur together your childhood when you're older." The books that appeal to children of different ages are more segmented than he remembers as a young reader, pointing back to P.D. Eastman and Arnold Lobel and Eric Carle as examples of masterful writers and illustrators.
His visual style, which operates by a certain logic, can take months to set up in the initial spread, he explains.
The best books "have little motors that aren't necessarily narratives, but they get you across to the next page and they connect to the next page and the next page until the book is over," he says. "Almost like a song or poem."
I confess that my children often gravitate to the books created in vector art and splashed in MS Office 16-color palettes, though they are never as absorbed in those ones.
Klassen's books, in comparison, tend to look almost "grey" next to the rest of the children's books on the shelf.
"I try and turn up the color, I really do!" he exclaims. "Every time I try it and start with this saturated color, and just by a thousand cuts, it comes out."
It just so happens that the aesthetic looks like something you might buy off Society 6. And perhaps it's this nuanced, highly textured approach to presenting the world that hits with parents who want something edifying at bedtime.
"It allows you to retain some dignity," Klassen says of what the books require of a performer, even though "things happen, people are killed, and there are people running around."
"I didn't love this book, I don't know what you are talking about. Why are you asking me if I loved this book? Thanks for looking at this review anyway." — Flannery, GoodReads user
If I had to offer my own guess, the kind of children's book author who takes an entire chapter to set up the platonic connection between two turtles is bringing a lot of heart to the page.
"Jon's work is massively appealing without losing any of the heart, depth and beauty," says Bateman. "You feel like you're in on a secret, but really it's something eminently shareable and universal and human."
"Loved this one! I don't care it was written for little children." — Molly, GoodReads user
"You're allowed to be dreaming with it," Klassen says of Square, and that could certainly describe much of the existentialism in his work. His characters are very sneaky, but at the end of it all, they're no more evil than my 1-year-old, who hit his sister on the head with her potty two days ago and then laughed in her face.
The residual question is: what are these characters doing here? (Other than moving blocks, in Square's case.)
"I saw and know that men could be beautiful and happy, without losing the capacity to live upon the earth," wrote Fyodor Dostoyevsky, if you'll let us go there. "I will not, I cannot believe that evil is the normal condition of men."
Or in Klassen's words on creating art for little kids: "It's on the bottom of it a hopeful thing to do."