Jon Klassen won two Caldecott Honors for books he created with Mac Barnett, and he’s also the author of the hat trilogy, a series that includes This Is Not My Hat, the only book to win both a Caldecott and a Kate Greenaway Medal. In five brief stories, his new solo book The Rock from the Sky follows a sulky turtle and a personable mole whose exchanges are punctuated by random moments of vintage sci-fi movie-level doom. PW spoke with Klassen about deadpan humor, making the audience work, and picture books as theater.

Where did the stories come from?

The first and third story in The Rock from the Sky—the one about the falling rock, and then the one about the sunset—are actually from before the third hat book. I submitted them, along with a third story at the end that was a very condensed version of We Found a Hat, so three stories altogether, thinking that the collection could make up a third hat book. And [editor] Liz [Bicknell] and Ann [Stott, the art director] said, “No, this third story is your book. Find a way to get a whole book out of that.” And they were right—it made for a much better ending to that series than what I had, and in a lot of ways I think it’s my favorite of the three.

But I still had those other dumb stories that I liked that we’d cut, and it’s hard to get stories you really like, even dumb ones, so I went back and tried to see how they would suggest a book that felt satisfying but also consistent with that tone they were setting up, and it turns out it took three more stories and an alien to do it.

The five stories in that second submission, The Rock from the Sky as it is now, are largely unchanged, I think. There was some trimming, which Liz is always great at, so much so that I always forget what I had before, but structurally I think it was there.

“Deadpan” is a word that frequently shows up in reviews of your work. What is it about deadpan humor that’s so funny?

This one is really deadpan. I turned it up on this one. It’s what you do with an impossible, insurmountable situation—“I don’t even know how to start. I can’t even.”

It’s also really attractive because it’s easy to draw. If I had to draw a devastated face I don’t think I’d have a job, because I can’t draw that. A deadpan face is basically the only thing I can draw.

But the character is feeling something, and the audience has to figure out what he’s feeling, what he might be feeling. The audience has to do work there, because the character is probably going through something, but doesn’t want to show it. Now you’re peeking behind the screen. Now you’re working.

You’ve talked in previous interviews about Hitchcock’s ideas about making the audience work. Is that what you mean?

That phrase is key to children’s books. Kids want to work for you. They’re excited to be entrusted with that task. “Yeah, you want me to figure it out. You’re not going to spoon-feed me.” They’re so excited, and you can feel it, almost, when they realize what you’re asking them to do.

So in the book, I’m going through the motions, but there’s this silent conversation going on also. What do you think is this going to happen? Is he telling the truth? Kids can hear it. It’s like that part in The Shining when the little boy and the caretaker are in the kitchen and the caretaker is talking about all the food they have, but then at the same time, in the shining way, silently, he’s asking the boy, Do you want some ice cream?... He’s saying to the boy, “I’m reading you.”

That’s my whole job. Otherwise it’s just what’s on the page, and I can’t do that. It’s too much pressure, because then it’s about, how well did I write? How beautifully did I draw? It has to be the shining talking. Then we’ve got a book.

It’s the mechanics of setup and payoff, setting up a thing and either rewarding it or not rewarding it, and seeing what happens. I start with the characters as actors. That’s the pull cord on the back of the little boat that makes it go. I don’t know how to write a character that has a list of qualities. I’m nervous as a writer. So the idea of scripting actors to act out the part—“Stand just over there, yeah, that’s close enough”—not having total control, that was really it for me and it got me off the hook.

The first part of the book is extremely stagey. But then the rock lands, and then the feeling of the second story—just the implication of what time has been like between those two spreads—I was super interested in that. What are you supposed to do when this giant rock falls and you have no explanation for it anytime soon… but it’s in our yard now? It’s a quiet, boring afternoon after this catastrophic thing has happened. The relationship between the turtle and the mole is still weird. The mole is still trying to help him out. This little clock between them continues to tick.

You say you don’t paint beautifully, but the sky is like a Japanese woodblock print—was that new?

Oh, thanks. I used tons of wash. I didn’t even know what I wanted. I’d try something and it would be like, “Oops, that’s not what I wanted, either!” I finally found two or three washes that I liked that didn’t offend me, that were softer and specklier. I got help from Chris Appelhans, who worked on Coraline; he’s an amazing painter, technically proficient about everything to do with water. And Sydney Smith: master of soft washes! He’s an alchemist. He’d say something like, “In three seconds you’re going to spray it with water.” I’d never had to deal with time or water or drying or anything!

My first art job was an internship working on sets for a big theater in Ontario. The sky was a huge piece of canvas they tacked to the floor and we pushed brooms, pushing color around on the floor, and it didn’t look like anything. “Don’t go over there with that,” they’d say, “not in that corner,” but I still didn’t really get it. Then we went over to the playhouse and hung it and lit it, and it was unbelievable. It was a sky, this beautiful, soft—you could almost feel the fabric of the canvas.

It’s like a deal you have with the audience. It doesn’t look real, but the audience is with you. They know it’s not a real wall. The book is supposed to look like a stage play. They’re not real clouds, they don’t move like clouds—but it’s not not real.

That experience changed my mind about so many things. I asked them why the door in the stage set was bent. They said, “The door is bent so someone in the balcony can see it.” It’s for the audience! Every decision is for them. Why would the turtle say, “Come stand with me”? Why would the mole yell, “This is where I like to stand”? It’s for the audience. It’s for you! The book doesn’t exist without that.

The Rock from the Sky by Jon Klassen. Candlewick, $18.99 Apr. 13 ISBN 978-1-5362-1562-5