Jon Klassen


Jon Klassen

Jon Klassen grew up in Niagara Falls and now lives in Los Angeles. After working as an illustrator on animated feature films, music videos and editorial pieces, he debuted as a picturebook artist with ‘I Want My Hat Back’. Jon has since received many prestigious awards for his work, including the Caldecott and Kate Greenaway Medals.

In this post, Jon talks about his ‘Hat’ trilogy: ‘I Want My Hat Back’, ‘This Is Not My Hat’ and the just-published ‘We Found A Hat’. The first two books in this outstanding series have together sold almost two million copies, spent over ninety weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and have been translated into almost thirty languages.

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Jon: I’m going to talk about making these three books: ‘I Want My Hat Back’, ‘This Is Not My Hat’ and ‘We Found A Hat’. I’ve illustrated other books, but these are the only books that I’ve written, so this post will deal more with the writing side than with illustrating.

Front covers for 'I Want My Hat Back', 'This Is Not My Hat' and 'We Found A Hat' by Jon Klassen – published by Candlewick Press, United States

When I was getting more into making books full-time, it became clear pretty quickly that I needed to start writing my own if it was going to be a viable thing, but I had a problem in that I didn’t like drawing characters. I like drawing scenery and inanimate objects and I especially liked it back then. The challenge of making a piece where the subject wasn’t a living thing was really fun, and I liked how quiet the effect was.

'Beach House' by Jon Klassen

‘Beach House’ – an illustration from 2007.

Drawing characters always seemed like cheating, somehow. Like it was an easy way to get the audience’s attention and focus. I like a story that allows the viewer to wander around a little bit and find it on their own. I think my distaste for drawing characters owes partially to sensibility and partially to me just being scared of making them up. Making up a character always seemed kind of impossible.

Around this same time I was asked to make some greeting cards for a company called Red Cap Cards, and I sent them some sketches of chairs and inanimate objects and they wrote back asking if I might try my hand at something a little more engaging, like some characters. I argued that I didn’t really do that, but they were (and are) friends and they were comfortable enough to come back and ask again. What I eventually sent them was a series of animals wearing birthday hats and holding balloons, but their faces and poses made them look, to me, like they had no idea what a birthday was and didn’t really care. I was excited by this approach. It made me laugh, and it got me off the hook. I wasn’t creating a character when I drew them; I was borrowing them for a minute to put them on this card, like a photographer who gets someone to pose for them and this is the best they could get.

Card design for Red Cap Cards by Jon Klassen

Card design for Red Cap Cards by Jon Klassen

Card design for Red Cap Cards by Jon Klassen

Greeting cards from Red Cap Cards.

I also liked the bear that appeared on one of the cards. Even though he was completely still and emotionless, he looked like potentially a threat. He was a bear, after all. I thought that since I had broken the seal on drawing a character I could maybe use him in a book. I thought of maybe taking his hat away and then calling the book ‘I Want My Hat Back’.

It was a while between deciding on that idea and figuring out how to write it. For a long time I had it written with narration. It sounded like this:

A bear has lost his hat.
“Where is my hat?” he said.

I hated it. I didn’t really know what I wanted the narration to do, what it was adding, and I had no real story anyway. I can’t remember what prompted it, but one night I thought of doing the whole thing only in dialogue instead, without narration, and using colours to show who was talking so I wouldn’t even have to name anybody.

Part of the text file from the initial writing of 'I Want My Hat Back' by Jon Klassen

Part of the text file from the initial writing of ‘I Want My Hat Back’.

The idea of just doing it in dialogue with the pictures next to them suggested that one of them might be lying, and we could show the audience that they were lying. After that the story came very quickly and organically.

Spread from 'I Want My Hat Back' by Jon Klassen – published by Candlewick Press, United States

The illustrations were kept really simple. I always liked picture books that were very clean, but I was afraid to do them too clean for someone else’s text for fear it would look lazy.

For my own books it was really fun. Also, when you leave out a lot your roughs come out pretty close to the final.

Rough spread for 'I Want My Hat Back' by Jon Klassen – published by Candlewick Press, United States

Spread from 'I Want My Hat Back' by Jon Klassen – published by Candlewick Press, United States

The book was written in very stiff language. It was stiff because I was nervous about writing a book, and I liked the idea that these characters were not very good at speaking their lines, so they came out stiff and they kept looking at the camera/audience instead of at each other like they should be when two characters are speaking to each other. They seemed baffled to be in a book, as I was baffled to be making one.

Spread from 'I Want My Hat Back' by Jon Klassen – published by Candlewick Press, United States

The process of making this book ended up loosely being the process for making the two books that followed it. Choosing a simple (and hopefully visual) problem – in this case a bear who wants to be wearing his hat again – then deciding how it will be told – in this case with dialogue between characters – and let that second decision suggest the story itself.

After ‘I Want My Hat Back’ was finished, I wanted to try other books using the same characters and location. I’d enjoyed the atmosphere of the book, however minimal it is. Along the highways in Ontario, Canada where I’m from there are these patches of low forest that grow when you travel north a little ways. The trees don’t get higher than six feet or so and they grow out of tall grasses and scrubby bushes. I always pictured these animals living somewhere like that, heads poking out of the plants, and I liked hanging out there and thinking about them.

I thought maybe there could be a book about the deer. He was the only one in the first book who took any real interest in the bear’s problem, and he looked to me physically sympathetic. Kind of hunched shoulders and thin and frail. I tried a few versions of books about him.

Cover tests by Jon Klassen

The first story was about the deer saying he liked to be alone at night (he doesn’t) and going around waking up other animals to see if they shared this feeling. The only idea in this book that I liked was that he goes to wake up the turtle, but the turtle is asleep and in his sleep describes a dream where he is floating off into the stars. It didn’t really fit into the story, but it was a nice little aside. The second story was about the deer trying to trade a stick that he found for other objects that the animals have now acquired. Eventually the mole creature from ‘I Want My Hat Back’ appears and shows him how to light the stick on fire, but that goes nowhere good.

After a few of these deer stories I started to realise that I was just copying the format of the first book and it wasn’t coming as naturally. My art director at Candlewick, knowing I didn’t like what I was getting out of this strategy, suggested I “go somewhere else” completely with the setting and characters. So I thought of doing a story with light characters on a dark background, and that suggested being deep underwater, so it might be about fish.

'Ten Bad Fish' by Jon Klassen

Rough illustration from ‘Ten Bad Fish’.

The first fish story really didn’t concern a hat at all. It was called ‘Ten Bad Fish’ and it was kind of a western about a gang of fish that ride into town and terrorise successively bigger and bigger fish until they wake up an especially big one and turn around and head back, but are now being eaten one by one from behind until there is only one left, and the book ends without showing if the last one gets eaten or not. It was a dark book, and again it didn’t really have anybody very redeeming in it. You didn’t like the gang, and you didn’t really like the big fish either, so there was nobody to root for. My editor asked if I could lighten it up at all, and I realised my favourite part of the story was the very end, when there was one little gang member fish left with a big fish somewhere off the page behind him, wondering if he would be spared.

The structure of ‘This Is Not My Hat’ came from two very well-known stories about feeling guilty. The first is ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allan Poe.

Still from the UPA's animated production of 'The Tell-Tale Heart', 1954

From the UPA’s animated production of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, 1954.

My favourite of his stories were his unreliable narrator ones; he always knew just how to remind you what it felt like to be in big trouble but trying to talk yourself out of feeling bad about it.

Spread from 'This Is Not My Hat' by Jon Klassen – published by Candlewick Press, United States

The idea of a character talking to you about how and why he committed the crime when you felt like all the while you were walking him to the gallows is a really good fit for a picture book because you can show that walk (or swim, in this case), and contrast it with what he’s saying in the text.

The other story that was a big influence was Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’.

Still from Alfred Hitchcock's 'Psycho', 1960.

From Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’, 1960.

The first half of the film is basically about guiltily running away, and getting tripped up in small ways as you go. Even though she doesn’t meet her end directly because of what she did, it did make it more acceptable to the audience that she was on the run instead of just an innocent lady who needed a place to stay. The little fish’s punishment is outsized to his crime, but he did have something coming.

Spread from 'This Is Not My Hat' by Jon Klassen – published by Candlewick Press, United States

The other piece from ‘Psycho’ is the weird silence the film has in it after the main character has been killed. Even though people continue to talk and the movie continues to roll along, there’s a weird void feeling to it now that she’s gone. The idea for doing it in monologue came from the Poe story, but the idea for ending that monologue three spreads before the book was over came from ‘Psycho’.

‘I Want My Hat Back’ and ‘This Is Not My Hat’ were done roughly a year apart. When Candlewick bought ‘I Want My Hat Back’ they gave me a contract for three books. Whether it was the contract or the more general idea of a trilogy I’m not sure, but for some reason I always wanted to do a third book on the theme (now that there was a theme).

This third book turned out to be much harder to pin down. The second book had been done largely in reaction to the first one. It is the same trim size turned on its side, it is light shapes on a dark background rather than dark shapes on light, it is about a thief rather than somebody getting robbed, and it is done in monologue instead of dialogue. Since they are opposites in all of these ways, I couldn’t figure out what the third book was supposed to do for a long time.

One thing I thought a third book could do is feature an ending where nobody ended up with the hat in question. Since both the previous books had established that you could be killed for stealing a hat, I thought a natural conclusion might be some sort of apocalyptic battle royale where everyone is killed in pursuit of the hat and nobody gets it.

Cover test for 'We Found A Hat' by Jon Klassen

The story I tried the most versions of along these lines was actually called ‘We Found A Hat’. The idea behind the title was that this book would be written as a group speaking, everyone speaking in unison. The group would seem solid in their words, but you would see the fraying in the pictures and attitudes of the characters.

Development work for 'We Found A Hat' by Jon Klassen – published by Candlewick Press, United States

There were a lot of variations on the story, but most of them included two or three characters standing around a hat they had found in the snow. They each tried it on in succession, coming to the conclusion that each of them liked it and wanted it. After a quick discussion about how the only fair thing to do would be to leave it and keep moving since they couldn’t all three have one, they promptly sat down and just looked at it, for fear if any of them left first, the one who was left behind would claim the hat.

Development work for 'We Found A Hat' by Jon Klassen – published by Candlewick Press, United States

Final art test for an early version of ‘We Found A Hat’.

Eventually it would start to snow and the hat would be buried, and finally so would the unmoving creatures. The book ended with just a page of white, with everyone under the snow.

I liked the setting, and I liked the idea of ending on a blank spread, but It didn’t work. Everyone dying at the end of the story came off as didactic and cold. It took a long time and a lot of drafts to make sure there was no way to do it, but eventually I gave up on this version of the story altogether.

Many different stories and scenarios later, I came back to the title, but tried a version of the story where the characters genuinely liked each other.

This version started almost exactly the same way, only instead of sitting and having a stand-off, the two turtles really do move away from the hat.

Spread from 'We Found A Hat' by Jon Klassen – published by Candlewick Press, United States

The second part of the book about them watching the sunset together shows that one of the turtles is still preoccupied with the thought of it.

Spread from 'We Found A Hat' by Jon Klassen – published by Candlewick Press, United States

The third part of the book is set at night and has the tempted turtle almost steal the hat while the other is sleeping...

Spread from 'We Found A Hat' by Jon Klassen – published by Candlewick Press, United States

... but, in a very strange coincidence, the turtle dream idea from the draft of the night time deer book almost five years ago saves the day, and they float off into the stars together instead.

Spread from 'We Found A Hat' by Jon Klassen – published by Candlewick Press, United States

This third book, at least the writing of it, was the strangest and most meandering of all of them, but it taught me a lot about how much the process can change an idea if you let it. Up until this book, if an idea didn’t work I didn’t think there was much I could do to salvage it, and I would give it up and try something completely different. But this book was at least partially salvaged from a number of old ideas that didn’t have anything to do with each other at first, and it’s been very relieving to see that this can lead to a book that I am just as happy with as a book that came by the other processes I’ve tried before. For that reason I think this last one is my favourite of the series, though that may just be because it’s such a relief to have finished it.

WE FOUND A HAT. Copyright © 2016 by Jon Klassen. THIS IS NOT MY HAT. Copyright © 2012 by Jon Klassen. I WANT MY HAT BACK. Copyright © 2011 by Jon Klassen. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

We Found a Hat

Jon Klassen
Candlewick Press (USA), Walker Books (UK), 2016

Two turtles have found a hat. The hat looks good on both of them. But there are two turtles. And there is only one hat...

‘Jon Klassen’s typical minimalism reaches a new level of refinement... in my opinion the best and most stirring in his hat trilogy. Klassen, who speaks the language of the picture book like few other authors and illustrators these days, has created a masterpiece of honest feelings, emotional tension and poetic restraint.‘
—The New York Times

I Want My Hat Back

Jon Klassen
Candlewick Press (USA), Walker Books (UK), 2011

Told completely in dialogue, this delicious take on the classic repetitive tale plays out in sly illustrations laced with visual humor – and winks at the reader with a wry irreverence that will have kids of all ages thrilled to be in on the joke.

‘A marvelous book in the true dictionary sense of ‘marvel’: it is a wonderful and astonishing thing, the kind of book that makes children laugh and adults chuckle, and both smile in appreciation. A charmingly wicked little book.‘
—The New York Times

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