When children’s book author and illustrator Jon Klassen visits schools to read his new book, “We Found a Hat” (Candlewick, ages 4-8, $17.99) he also likes to read “The Green Ribbon” from a collection of scary children’s stories by Alvin Schwartz titled “In a Dark, Dark Room.”
The story is about a girl named Jenny who won’t reveal to her husband why she wears a green ribbon around her neck until she is on her deathbed. She unties the ribbon and . . .
“Jenny’s head falls off. I just love it so much,” said Klassen during a recent tour of his art studio in a tidy loft in downtown Los Angeles. “I love ending the whole presentation with that because it’s such a mic drop of a story.”
Only that week at an elementary school in L.A., the tale had not gone over too well.
“They were really bummed out. They had this ‘There’s-a-lady’s-head-on-the-floor’ kind of look,” said Klassen before brightening up and adding: “But it plays really well in the Midwest.”
Klassen was recently in the heartland as part of his “We Found a Hat” book tour. The book, the third in a series of books about animals who have lethal attachments to their jaunty chapeaus, was released this fall and leapt onto bestseller lists.
EMBRACING THE DARK STUFF
Klassen, 34, is a bit of a rock star in the picture book world. The consensus is that Klassen is special because he doesn’t shy away from the dark stuff of life.
The Winnipeg, Manitoba-born writer won the Caldecott Medal for his 2013 book, “This Is Not My Hat,” which tells the story of a small fish that blithely steals a hat from a big fish and is convinced he will get away with it — until a crab sells him out and the big fish eats him.
The Caldecott Medal is kind of like the Oscar for the picture book world. But Klassen thinks he’s just a guy in a baseball cap with questionable narrative skills who can draw a decent picture. He got into children’s books after a stint working in animation at DreamWorks on blockbuster kids’ fare like “Kung Fu Panda.”
There are more than 1.6 million copies of the first two “Hat” books in print worldwide. “This Is Not My Hat” is a sequel to 2011’s “I Want My Hat Back,” in which a bear eats a rabbit that has taken his hat.
“We Found a Hat” complicates this basic theme by introducing a friendship with high stakes. Two turtles find a hat that they both want. One plots to steal the hat while the other is sleeping. Only a dream that they both have a hat prevents the theft. What happens in the morning is anybody’s guess.
As a child Klassen would clamber up on the bed in his grandparents’ room and lose himself in his father’s childhood books. He was particularly attracted to older works like Ludwig Bemelmans’ “Madeline” series. He was thrilled by P.D. Eastman’s “Go, Dog. Go!” And he adored Arnold Lobel’s “Frog and Toad” parables.
SCARED BY SENDAK
Maurice Sendak, however, scared him.
“His books are beautiful and totally perfect, but ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ was so heavy that you could tell he was working out some big things in that book,” Klassen said. “As a kid you can’t enunciate why this feels too heavy, but you know this guy is really taking it seriously, and you should take it seriously too.”
The best way to tackle serious issues, said Klassen, is with a solid visual premise. Words aren’t within the jurisdiction of very young children. Their territory lies with the pictures. The trick is to allow kids to suss out the reality of a given situation via the illustrations.
“It’s not just more information,” said Klassen of moments like one in “We Found a Hat” when one turtle says he is thinking of nothing while his eyes are fixed covetously on the hat he wants to steal. “It’s actually the true story.”
So why the hat? Because hats aren’t necessary, said Klassen. If a character wanted his money back or his food back or something consequential along those lines, then the thievery would be justified. A hat is superfluous but sentimental. In these books the hats don’t even really fit the animals who want them.
“That doesn’t matter, it’s beside the point,” said Klassen. “Kids’ books should have a visual premise to solve. At the end of these books somebody better be wearing a hat.”