Just before 6:00 a.m. on Jan. 29, Jon Klassen was about to get in a cab for a cross-country flight when the phone rang at his Los Angeles home. He took the call as calmly as he could, considering the news he’d just received and the increasingly impatient cab driver waiting outside. Then the phone rang a second time. When Klassen finally stepped into the cab, he’d accomplished something no one had since 1947: winning the Caldecott gold medal, the most prestigious children’s book illustration prize, for This is Not My Hat, as well as a silver medal for the same prize, for his illustrations of Mac Barnett’s Extra Yarn. The honour’s even more impressive given the Winnipeg-born, Niagara Falls, Ont.-raised Klassen only published his first book of illustrations three years ago, after he left a full-time animation job at Dreamworks.
Klassen, 32, told Maclean’s that the news sank in after several weeks, but it hasn’t changed his life very much: “It’s not like I had a bunch of dream projects where I could say, ‘Now I can work on these things.’ I was left to do what I wanted to do with my books. I’ve always had that freedom.”
That freedom showed in the picture book that made his reputation, I Want My Hat Back, which hit the top of the New York Times bestseller list in 2011. It’s a slyly playful tale about a bear in search of his missing hat that ends with a delicious twist—an ending that proved so controversial that all publishers who saw the book wanted to change it, except for Candlewick, who said the “lesson would be lost” otherwise. By contrast, This is Not My Hat, published last fall, is a moodier, monologue-driven story, the clash between a great whale and a tiny thief of a fish playing out against a velvet-inflected black background and vaguely menacing ocean plant life. Klassen said the contrast between the books was intentional, as opposed to the Group of Seven-esque vibe of some of his landscape illustrations, which must have been “totally subliminal.”
Klassen’s latest project, illustrating Series of Unfortunate Events author Lemony Snicket’s second picture book, takes his exploration of darker themes to a literal next level. Klassen’s work on The Dark, which will be released in early April, came about years ago. Susan Rich, long-time editor for Snicket (a.k.a. Daniel Handler) wrote asking Klassen if he had any illustration ideas. “I sent her a one-page illustration of a boy at the top of the stairs with a flashlight, with a darkened doorway at the bottom.” Rich sent that image to Snicket, and “sure enough, he sent me back this manuscript that was exactly what I hoped for.” It took about six months for Snicket to come up with the text on a child’s most primal fear, “mostly so that I could picture how splendidly Mr. Klassen could play with the dark,” Snicket told Maclean’s via email.
The illustrations in The Dark have a great sense of warmth; the blackened dark envelops the reader to make a “potentially scary idea,” in Klassen’s words, far less so. Just as arresting are the eyes of the boy, Laszlo, which bear more than a passing resemblance to the black, tightly slitted eyes of the main character in the movie Coraline, which Klassen worked on while at Dreamworks. “We wanted to give his eyes a calm but not very capable expression,” Klassen explained. “We didn’t want some kid who was manically running around the house. He takes this very calmly. He might be scared, but it doesn’t mean he’d necessarily act it out.”
Klassen’s style shies away from sentimentality. Instead it shows young children the consequences of bad behaviour through the prism of humour, a technique that hearkens back to books for children by the likes of Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl.
Klassen won’t talk about his current book in progress, except to say there may be a thematic connection to the hat books. He also has some additional book-illustration projects in the works. But as he’s grown busier and more successful, one surprise is how much he misses his country of origin. “It gets worse ever year, the longer you stay away,” he mused. “The illustration work I do is just me remembering Ontario especially. I didn’t realize at the time how distinct it was. I sort of took it for granted geographically.”