Jon Klassen was up early on Monday morning – not because he was expecting a career-changing phone call, but because he had a plane to catch. The author-illustrator was due to fly from his Los Angeles home to San Jose, Calif., where he’s working on an animation and illustration project a few days a week.
“I was on my way out to catch a cab and I didn’t think much about waiting for a phone call” from the Caldecott committee, he said. “You try not to think about things like that.” But the call did arrive, at about 6:30 a.m., to tell him that This Is Not My Hat (Candlewick) had won the Medal. “I couldn’t believe it; I was going crazy.” Klassen barely had time to tell his wife the good news when the phone rang again; this time, it was the cab, waiting downstairs. And when he finished that call, he said, the phone rang a third time, with the news that Extra Yarn (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray), his collaboration with writer Mac Barnett, had also won a Caldecott Honor.
“I think I was too turned around by the first phone call to register the second,” Klassen said. “They said something like, ‘Did you ever consider making the yarn in the book out of silver, because that’s what’s happened here.’ I didn’t know what they were [saying.] I thought they were doing an interview, just getting more information. You don’t get two phone calls.”
Then, he dashed off to his waiting cab. Ironically, his hectic day gave him just a bit of time for contemplation. “Sitting on a plane for an hour,” he said, “that’ll give you some time to think about it.”
By the time his flight landed, the official announcement had been made in Seattle. “While we were taxiing in my parents called, because they’d watched the announcements – I hadn’t been able to get hold of them before I left. So they called and I’m trying to get my bag out of the overhead compartment and they’re screaming on the other end of the line. It was great.”
The texts, emails, and calls started rolling in: “It’s just sort of a blur, how many people you talk to.” Klassen does recall speaking with Barnett – “We were just going crazy over it” – and his editors, Liz Bicknell (This Is Not My Hat) and Donna Bray (Extra Yarn). And “I called Steve [Malk], my book agent,” Klassen said. “He’s been really good about keeping people’s head straight about this kind of stuff. But he’s very, very excited.”
In all the frenzy, Klassen continued, he kept thinking there was someone else he needed to call. “It was the strangest thing. I knew I’d talked to Mac and I kept feeling like, well, there’s somebody else I have to talk to. I’d forgotten I’d written the other one.”
PW spoke with Klassen at about 2 p.m. California time, nearly eight hours after he’d gotten the news; still, the whole experience hadn’t quite sunk in. “I think you get this feeling that these books aren’t quite real, even when you see them in stores,” he said. “Especially the ones you write and illustrate yourself. They’re so homemade – not to say that they aren’t produced beautifully and the art direction isn’t amazing and everything, but you see them and you wonder if people see all the weird little things you do in them, because you made them in your house.”
He won’t get back that house for a couple of days, while he’s on the job in San Jose – which means his celebration with his wife is a bit delayed. When he does return to L.A., “There will probably be a little bit of drinking involved,” he said, laughing. “And some sort of food that’s probably too expensive – I imagine that’s the way to go when something like this happens.”
But there’s an upside to the postponement, too. “I get to have dinner with Mac tonight, because he’s in Berkeley,” Klassen said. “Normally I wouldn’t get to do that, so it’s a lucky break.” The pair have another book in the works, and Klassen is also writing and illustrating another on his own (“I’m keeping it pretty close to the chest,” he said, when asked whether a hat might be involved.) But before those two, in April, comes a picture book called The Dark (Little, Brown), which Klassen illustrated for Lemony Snicket. “You feel the pressure when it’s a writer like Daniel [Handler],” he said. “But he’s been so supportive and friendly – and I think he likes the book.”
Between illustrating his own stories and those of other writers – not to mention continuing to work in animation – Klassen may be understating things just a bit when he said, “It’s been kind of a busy year.” And at the moment, he’s still processing it all, including the recent pair of metallic accolades. “When you’re a kid, you see all those books – and a lot of my favorites were Caldecott books,” he said. “To think [This Is Not My Hat and Extra Yarn have] been given the same distinction – I don’t know. I think it’s going to take a long time for it to feel like the same thing.”
For an interview with 2013 Newbery Medalist Katherine Applegate, click here.
For an interview with 2013 Printz Medalist Nick Lake, click here.