I knew it! I knew it, I knew it, I knew it, I knew it, I knew it! When Caroline Stutson’s Cats’ Night Out was released by Simon & Schuster in 2010 it contained art by an animator going by the moniker of Jon Klassen. And frankly I just thought it contained some of the slickest art I’d seen in a picture book in a long while. I hardly even noticed that he was the same guy behind the pictures found in The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood. Still and all, until now he hadn’t illustrated his own book. I was fairly certain he might at some point, and I wasn’t sure I’d be looking forward to it. I mean, I thought the man was grand, but could he tell a story? Well, turns out I was right about the fact that his art is magnificent and now, with the release of his first author/illustrator picture book I Want My Hat Back, Klassen shows once and for all that his storytelling talents match his illustration technique pound for pound.
A bear has lost his hat. To find it he questions a variety of woodland creatures including a fox, a frog, a turtle, a possum, a dear, a snake and a rabbit. The rabbit, for the record, refuses to acknowledge having seen the hat in spite of the fact that he appears to be wearing it. And when the bear realizes the true culprit there will be a price to pay. A deeply amusing price. Painted with Chinese ink and digital art, Klassen’s book falls into that growing category of subversive picture books out there. What makes it stand out, however, is how beautifully put together it all is.
A criticism leveled at the aforementioned Cats’ Night Out involved the expressionless faces of Klassen’s kitties. Here you had a book where felines engage in a variety of different dances, yet their faces retain the exact same universal look of deep concentration. I thought it was a hoot. Other folks felt it made the cats too cold and static. So it will be with great interest that I watch the critical reception of I Want My Hat Back. That is because here, being expressionless isn’t just the name of the game, it’s a comedic technique. Klassen can do more with the set of this bear’s head than most artists do with entire bodies. And watch how the eyes work in this book. For most of the spreads the bear and other animals are looking right at you. All that changes the instant the bear lies on the ground, despairing of ever finding his hat again. Now his eyes, and the eyes of the other characters, are looking at one another. It isn’t until you get to the final coup de grace that you realize that the bear is looking at you once more.
As I mentioned before, Mr. Klassen is one of those animators-turned-picture-book-artists. Usually when you encounter one of these (like, say, Tony Fucile or Carter Goodrich) their strength lies in the sheer number of expressions they can pack into a given character. Klassen seems to have taken a direct 180-degree turn in the opposite direction. Expressions here are all about the subtleties, but in spite of that you can still tell he has a cinematic background. For example, there is his use of the pregnant pause. At one moment two characters confront one another on a wordless two-page spread and with just the slightest tweak to their pupils, Klassen creates a world of tension. There’s also his use of color (a sudden red infusion on a page where the bear realizes where he last saw his hat) and sudden movement. Essentially, this artist has figured out that picture books bear more similarities to short films than any other literary medium (I might make an exception for graphic novels when I say that). The result? He makes the maximum use of the form.
Then there’s the language. Klassen utilizes very simple words here, and right from the start the reader is struck by how polite the characters are. Each time the bear finds himself disappointed he offers a quiet “Thank you anyway” and moves along. The turtle too says, “Yes, please” when the bear offers to place him on top of a rock he’s been trying to climb . Really, only the rabbit is a rude critter here, and we know where rudeness will get you (don’t we children?). Aside from the stellar pacing which allows the story to flow seamlessly I also loved Klassen’s use of the Rule of Three. We meet two characters that have not seen the bear’s hat to establish the storyline, then run smack dab into the sneaky rabbit. It makes it all the funnier when the bear continues his quest, oblivious of the rabbit’s incredibly obvious guilt. And so while I haven’t tried this book as a readaloud quite yet, I have high hopes. If the adults don’t freak out over the ending, of course.
Why would an ending cause parental concern? Well, I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that the book ends with a kind of Emily Gravett/Mini Grey finish. Which is to say, it has a twisted, almost British sense of humor to it. Consider this your official spoiler alert if you like. All set? Okay, so in the last sequence in the book a squirrel inquires after the rabbit and the bear replies with a long, shaken response that pretty much makes it clear as crystal that he ate the offending bunny. This is followed, interestingly enough, by a final silent two-page spread of the bear sitting alone. It’s interesting that Klassen preceded that speech with the bear saying, “I love my hat” and doesn’t end the book with that statement instead. Still and all, the American consumer is not used to finding devoured bunnies in picture books. The fact that the bear has done so off-screen (as it were) will do little to alleviate tender parental fears. Allow me to point out then that due to Klassen’s sophisticated storytelling, small children will not understand the rabbit’s fate, while the cannier older ones will not only get the joke but revel in it. When we recommend picture books to four through eight year olds, we rarely see titles that really do span the spectrum. This book is one of the few. Plus I was really amused by how torn up the plants that had been around the rabbit end up when the bear sits contentedly with his hat at the end.
If I were to sum up this picture book in one word I think I would go with this: Deadpan. And deadpan picture books are rare beasts indeed. They can be done (Edward Gorey’s work comes to mind) but pulling them off so that they’re as appealing to children as they are to adults is no small feat. I think Klassen got away with it here, though. It’ll be the wry child that takes to I Want My Hat Back but the world is full of wry youth. So equally consider both the five-year-old in your life as well as the irony-filled college grad when looking for the right gift. Klassen is straddling the market and we end up the winners. A great little book.
On shelves September 27th.
Source: Galley received from co-worker for review.
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