A lot of things astonished Jon Klassen about the reception given his first picture book, I Want My Hat Back: hearing Daniel Pinkwater read it aloud on NPR, being invited to talk about it with Martha Stewart on TV, learning it had become an Internet meme.
He was floored—and incredibly flattered—when the American Library Association named it a Theodor S. Geisel Honor book, an award that recognizes the year’s most distinguished books for beginning readers.
“To be recognized for the writing is amazing,” Klassen says. “Before I wrote this book, all I had ever written were e-mails.”
An animator, Klassen, 30, found a niche early on, securing an internship right out of college at DreamWorks in Los Angeles, an assignment that led to doing concept art and set design for such high-profile films as Coraline and Kung-Fu Panda.
But the unassuming Canada native made a panda-sized splash with his first book, a subversively funny story about a large but rather dim bear in search of his tiny chapeau. I Want My Hat Back parked itself on the bestseller lists last fall and has refused to budge. It swamped the expectations of its publisher, Candlewick Press, which happily learned that its 100,000-copy first print run was too low by a lot more than half.
“I still laugh out loud every time I read it,” says Liz Bicknell, Candlewick’s editorial director, who acquired the book from agent Steven Malk of Writers House.
Klassen quickly followed up with Extra Yarn, written by Mac Barnett (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray), which has earned four starred reviews, including one from PW. His next project is illustrations for a picture book by former poet laureate Ted Kooser, followed by another book so top secret that Bicknell refuses to utter even the title until Candlewick's splashy reveal. (Pssst. Klassen told Canada’s Quill & Quire in December that his next book was about fish. I Want My Fin Back, anyone?)
As unfailingly polite as the unnamed, bare-headed bear at the heart of his success, Klassen is at a loss to explain how I Want My Hat Back became a hit. “Once I get over it really being a book and being in with other books on people’s shelves, maybe we can try to figure out why it caught on,” Klassen says. “I see it in bookstores and think, ‘That’s not a real book! I made that in my house!’ ”
Klassen was born in Winnipeg—“four hours north of Fargo” is how he pins it on a map. “It was so cold there the snow would never melt,” he says. “We’d have six feet of snow piled up by the end of winter.” His father worked for the provincial government, his mother was “very artistic,” but her principal occupation was raising Jon and his two brothers.
The family relocated during his childhood twice—first to Toronto and then, when he was 12, to Niagara Falls, Ont., where Klassen graduated from high school. As a teenager, the line of work he was most sure he would enter was tour guide. When you live near the falls, he says, “It wasn’t a question of whether you were going to be working in tourism but where. On the Canadian side, there are a lot of historic parks and colonial houses. I had a number of jobs which required wearing period costumes.”
He had a plan, however, ditching his breeches for Sheridan College in Toronto, where he earned a degree in film animation. That led to the internship at DreamWorks, followed by a job on Coraline, which took him to Portland, Ore., for two years before returning to Southern California.
During those five years, Klassen started thinking about books. “Working for an animation studio is a good job but you can work on a film for three to four years, which is a long time to work on anything, even if you like it,” he says. “Even if you work on a book and it doesn’t come out perfect, you’ve learned something, you get it out there. You’ve got something you can hold in your hands.”
Two years ago, he made the decision to leave the studio to work on book illustration full-time. It helped that his wife, Moranne Keeler, has a “grown-up job” at a stock brokerage. But Klassen admits that he was nervous. Here he was, pursuing a career in publishing when he had never actually written a story. Even his artwork had been a paperless endeavor.
“I had never done work on paper, it’s always been digital,” he says. “Working on paper changes your whole way of thinking. Things look different on paper, and the tricks you use to make things work on a screen fall down completely on paper.”
He signed on with Malk, and got work doing covers and interior art for Maryrose Wood’s Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series and the illustrations for Caroline Stutson’s picture book, Cat’s Night Out. Still, he worried. “I wanted to do books full-time really badly, but for a while it didn’t look like it was going to be feasible.”
But if Klassen would not put himself in the “overnight success” category, there were early signs he would survive having quit his day job. He was stunned when his illustrations for Cat’s Night Out won the 2010 Canadian Governor General’s Award. “That is very prestigious stuff in Canada,” he said. At a reception for the winners in Ottawa, Klassen explained to an inquiring member of the House of Parliament that he was being honored for his artwork. “He said, ‘So you’re a cartoonist,’ and then he walked away,” Klassen says. “I was pretty intimidated. Everybody there looked like a serious writer. I thought, ‘What am I doing in this room?’ ”
By then, though, Candlewick had come calling. Bicknell needed an illustrator for Ted Kooser’s new book, House Held Up by Trees, about a house Kooser had owned in Nebraska that languished unsold until it was finally overtaken by the forest around it. “We were looking for an artist who could do something very realistic,” Bicknell recalls, “but Anne Moore, our art resource coordinator, pulled out Jon’s samples—it was some of his work from Coraline—and I literally couldn’t put them down. I’ve only had that experience a couple of times.”
Klassen signed on to the project. When he finished a draft of I Want My Hat Back, Candlewick was one of the houses Malk submitted it to. Bicknell was more than game. “There was probably a degree of comfort there for Jon because he was already working with our designer, but I think the key thing was we were the only house that didn’t object to the ending.”
Now that it’s come up, the ending is, of course, what has produced all the wicked chortling about Klassen’s book. To recap: A bear on a quest to recover his favorite red hat politely questions a series of animals before remembering where he last saw it—perched on the head of a rabbit. The bear retrieves his possession; with the next page turn, the rabbit vanishes. Is revenge taken, off-page? Bicknell says the answer is in the text. “Compare the way the bear answers the last question to the way the rabbit answered the bear’s question earlier.”
Ah, but now look at Extra Yarn—one spread depicts a strikingly similar bear and bunny combination, side by side, and both very much alive. Is this soothing proof that the rabbit lived? Klassen does not offer reassurance. “The truth is I have a limited range of animals I can draw and I was working on these books around the same time.”
Klassen won’t rule out a return to film, but he’s thrilled at the soft landing he has made in a new medium, including finding a publisher who trusted his storytelling skills. “Coming from animation, where things are changed and discussed for years before the thing is out,” he says, “having your publisher just happily say ‘Yeah, we like it! Let’s do it!’ is such a big deal.”
Our interview made reference to Jon Klassen's appearance on Martha Stewart's TV show; it was his book, I Want My Hat Back, and not the author himself, that was featured on the show. Additionally, a mention of the house that served as inspiration for a new book written by Ted Kooser and illustrated by Klassen was said to once have been owned by Kooser. Kooser passed the house frequently on walks but never owned it.