Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Jon Klassen

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Jon Klassen

Jon Klassen's first solo picture book, I Want My Hat Back, was an international success, garnering praise from the New York Times. He's now returned with the equally wry and funny (and beautifully illustrated!) This Is Not My Hat (Random House Canada). Jon has also won a Governor General's Literary Award for Illustration and worked as an animator for Dreamworks. Today he joins us as part of our On Writing series.

Jon talks to us about what he loves about picture books, missing Ontario and his upcoming projects.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, This is Not My Hat.

Jon Klassen:

This Is Not My Hat is about a fish who has just stolen a hat from a much bigger fish and is trying to get away with it. The words all belong to the little fish, but the pictures are showing what's going on behind him while he is telling us his plan.


How do you approach a project like this, where you are both author and illustrator? Do you have a process for weaving together words and images?


I don't really have a solid approach that I can fall back on yet, but I've been finding that an idea from me sounds more like "the writing is saying this, but the pictures are doing that" rather than something like "a fish steals a hat and tries to get away with it", because that second one could be anything. I'm more interested in finding a new way a story might be told using all the ingredients that the book is giving us. When I'm writing, it's with the pictures in mind as very necessary parts. So I'll write something like "But the big fish probably won't wake up for a long time. (illustration shows the big fish's eye wide open)".


Your previous book, I Want My Hat Back, was a huge success with adults and kids alike. How was the experience for you?


It was and still is crazy. I had no idea what to expect even when we were pitching the book to publishers, much less when it went out into the world like a real book. It's crazy to go on a trip to a school across the country and have a whole class and the teachers all know the book by heart. I worry I've been spoiled.


Have you always seen yourself as a storyteller? What drew you to the picture book medium specifically?


I don't know if I even think of myself as a storyteller now. I don't think I would've been the guy a hundred years ago that got the whole group around the fire and spun something that just hypnotized everybody. I'm very nervous about coming up with a story. For me it's a lot like setting up a very intricate track for something to roll along. You need very closed conditions to set it up and you only want people to look at it when it's done and ready to go.

Picture books have almost everything I like about putting a story together, and in a format that forces you to get in and out very quickly. They are so small and the language is usually so limited that you can't get lost in weird side trips — you have to grab them on the first page, and the second page better be just as good until all the pages are done. I love that. It's a tough order to fill, and you can't fancy-illustrate your way out of it like other jobs. I find that audiences, and kids especially, don't care all that much about the quality of the illustrations. I want them to be good, so I try really hard at them, but it's not what makes a good book.


Has moving to the States had any effect on your work?


It's made me homesick, that's for sure. I don't think I'd be as visually interested in snow and scrubby Ontario-type forests and lakes if I wasn't missing them actively all the time. A lot of my own work involves things like that. Also I think maybe I've tried to head towards a type of job that doesn't tie me to one place, like a studio or something, because I do want the option of coming home eventually.


What books did you grow up reading? Are there are any particular titles that influenced you as a writer or illustrator?


My favorites when I was a kid were PD Eastman's books and Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books. They are both still really big influences. PD Eastman's illustrations are so straightforward and spare. He was not a fancy illustrator but his staging is so clear and accessible. You don't have to get into his world before starting the story. Arnold Lobel's writing is so gentle and careful, and, again, not at all decorative, but he gets to these really emotional stories anyway.


What are you working on now?


I'm working on the next book for Candlewick, who published I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat. It's a tricky one, because I didn't think the first book really suggested a second one, and the two books together really don't suggest a third, but I gotta do something!

Jon Klassen grew up in Niagara Falls, Canada, and now lives in Los Angeles, California. He is the author and illustrator of I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat, as well as the illustrator of Cats’ Night Out by Caroline Stutson, for which he won a Governor General's Literary Award. He also created concept art for Coraline, the stop-motion animated film based on the book

For more information about This Is Not My Hat please visit the Random House Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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