Author-illustrator Jon Klassen will conclude his picture-book trilogy starring hatted animals – or those wishing to be – on October 11, when Candlewick will release We Found a Hat. Fans of I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat will not be surprised to learn that there’s a healthy dose of controversy between the characters of Klassen’s latest picture book, in which two turtles find one hat – and it happens to look great on both of them.
Klassen’s earlier books in the series, released in 2011 and 2012 respectively, indisputably deserve a tip of the hat: the two have a combined 1.5 million copies in print worldwide, have together spent more than 90 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and have been translated into 22 languages.
And they’ve landed a hefty tally of prestigious awards. I Want My Hat Back was named a Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Book, a New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Children’s Book of the Year, and a PW Best Children’s Book of the Year, and won an E. B. White Read-Aloud Award in the picture book category. This Is Not My Hat clinched both the 2013 Caldecott Medal and a Kate Greenaway Medal in the U.K., was designated a New York Times Notable Children’s Book, and was named to several Best of the Year lists, including PW’s.
The trilogy, which was acquired from Steven Malk at Writers House, is edited by Candlewick’s executive editorial director and associate publisher Liz Bicknell and designed by executive art director Ann Stott. The two first worked with Klassen when he illustrated 2012’s House Held Up by Trees, written by former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, for Candlewick. “Ann and I had developed a great working relationship with Jon,” Bicknell recalled, “and we knew what he could do. So when he sent us I Want My Hat Back, it was very easy to say ‘yes.’ ”
Bicknell points to Klassen’s deadpan humor as a key element of his picture books’ appeal, noting, “To begin with, Jon introduces the notion of a hat as a kind of object of desire, and combines that with a creature who couldn’t possibly have any use for a hat – that is inherently funny! In addition, Jon has a wonderful sense of comic timing.”
Yet he offsets those lighter qualities with somewhat weightier tropes, Bicknell observed. “I see a fundamental moral dilemma in each of Jon’s picture books, and the way in which the dilemma is discussed and dealt with is extremely human and humane,” she said. “We can always see ourselves in Jon’s characters, whether they behave badly or nicely. So the appeal, I think, is the books’ combination of humor and profound questions.”
A New Approach
At 56 rather than 40 pages, We Found a Hat is the longest book in Klassen’s trilogy, which came about quite organically, he said: “I always set out to make the shortest book I can, since I don’t want anything superfluous in it.” But Klassen discovered that the relationship between the story’s two turtles didn’t allow for brevity. “This was a bit trickier, and I needed a couple of extra beats to establish what I wanted to establish,” he explained. “The turtles have something of a friendship from the onset, and that’s much more difficult to establish than two strangers who dislike each other, which is more the case in the earlier books. We Found a Hat depends on readers believing the characters have a relationship at stake, and I didn’t want to tell the audience the turtles are friends – I wanted to show them. Creating a believable relationship takes longer to do. And the slower pace and the idea of taking my time with story seemed well suited to turtles!”
Was this book, then, more challenging to create? “I try to make every book a challenge – otherwise it feels slack,” Klassen replied. “This book was challenging in that I Want My Hat Back was especially sarcastic, and This Is Not My Hat was less so, because of the irony in it, but We Found a Hat is the least sarcastic one. Sarcasm is a great tool, but I had done it, and I wanted to tell a straight story here, and that was hard. I want to do something harder with each book, and I feel in a way that the earlier two books taught me how to do this one.”
Asked if he feels next fall’s Hat finale will be bittersweet, Klassen is more practical than sentimental. “I wouldn’t call ending the trilogy bittersweet right now – I’d say it’s mostly sweet,” he responded. “But I suppose it could become more bitter than sweet if it turns out that I can’t think of anything else to write – then things might get a bit trickier!”
We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen. Candlewick, $17.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-7636-5600-3