Hats off to Klassen
I have always had a penchant for fancy hats.
I don’t know what it is about wearing a hat, but it fills me with joy. If I feel low, putting on some fancy headgear can boost my spirits and renew my confidence. They put a spring in my step. I’ve noticed this over the years so that now it can be a deliberate act on my part. Several years ago, when Jane was seriously ill in hospital with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, I wore a hat every day. I remember talking about it at the time with my therapist, and we decided it was absolutely a Good Thing to do.
My love of fancy hats goes way back. Tiny Tim wore a turquoise tasselled fez to clown about in (lovingly made by his nan), trying his hand at some magic tricks. From some years later, there’s a photo of a pre-teen me, birdwatching in a flat cap on the clifftops of Berwick, Northumberland.
For about a decade, it was a Yankee’s baseball cap. (I pretty much wore it out.) In the 80’s I also sported a black beret (thanks, Ferris Bueller!) and a baker boy hat.
I have fancy Panama hats, cowboy hats, and three bowler hats. A trapper’s hat. A packable fedora that can be folded in half.
My prized charity shop find - a vintage Homburg by ‘Hatter and Cap Maker’ A.J. White Ltd.
And the piece de resistance - my Thomas Farthing high crowned Fedora.
Hats are terribly useful when it comes to characterisation, and I make frequent use of them in my work. Top a character with a hat, and it becomes instantly recognisable.
Papa Bear wears my battered suede cowboy hat in Jesus Loves Me;
Daddy Rhino wears an assortment of fancy hats in the Archie/Otto series;
Mole in my forthcoming book, A Little Bit Worried, sports a dapper, blue bowler.
Cornelius J. Parker also wears a dinky bowler hat as part of his Cheese Inspector disguise (The Great Cheese Robbery);
Mr Gander from Buttercup Farm (Boris Gets Spots) has a suitably battered straw hat;
There have been Santa hats galore;
And of course, the magic top hat that the Lumpy-Bumpy Thing discovers in WARNING! This Book May Contain Rabbits (I would love to own that vintage topper!).
Some children’s characters have reached iconic status, due in part to their fancy hats.
Examples include: the Cat in the Hat, Paddington, Wally aka Waldo (there he is!), Babar the Elephant, Raymond Briggs’ Snowman; Mr Willy Wonka and the Mad Hatter.
Other contemporary illustrators have used hats to their advantage. Benji Davies’ character Noi (with his distinctive, knitted balaclava) and Oliver Jeffer’s bobble-hatted boy come to mind. Also, a childhood favourite of mine - Mr Bear, illustrated by Kozo Kakimoto (maybe the first to spark my hat addiction!).
Perhaps none have maximised hats more so than writer-illustrator Jon Klassen.
With a trilogy of hat-themed picture books that began in 2011 with I Want My Hat Back, Klassen has established what is already an enviable career as a writer-illustrator. His distinctive, deadpan characters inhabit stylised, minimalist environments reminiscent of stage sets.
This Is Not My Hat followed in 2012 (notably the first book to receive both the Caldecott and the Kate Greenaway Medal). I was reminded about it after writing last week's article about Owl Babies. Because like illustrator Patrick Benson, Jon Klassen also uses a lot of solid black in his book.
A cautionary tale, This Is Not My Hat opens with the main character and our narrator - a small fish wearing a bowler hat:
This hat is not mine.
I just stole it.
A small fish of dubious integrity in a bowler hat. I’m already intrigued!
The thief continues his monologue, explaining that he stole it from a big fish. (‘He was asleep when I did it.’)
At this point, Klassen reveals what a masterful picture book creator he is. By juxtaposing the narrator's version of events with the illustrations, two conflicting stories unfold.
[H]e probably won’t wake up for a long time.
(Klassen shows the expansive big fish, its eye popped open wide.)
And even if he does wake up, he probably won’t notice that it’s gone.
(Big Fish looks up to where his hat should be).
We are drawn deeper into the drama (and the gently swaying weed) as the big fish starts to hunt the little fish down. How long will the thief get away with his crime? Commentary by Sir David Attenborough wouldn’t go amiss!
"There is someone who saw me already," admits the little fish, about a goggle-eyed crab. "But he said he wouldn't tell anyone which way I went. So I am not worried about that." The spread tells another story; the crab betrays the small fish in a heartbeat, pointing to its hiding place, "where the plants are big and tall and close together."
It would be reasonable to expect the protagonist to learn the error of his ways and live to see another day. (Not My Hat is aimed at a very young audience, after all.) But as with its predecessor, I Want My Hat Back, it ‘ends somewhat controversially in picture-book terms, with severe off-screen violence perpetrated upon the [character] who took it.’ (The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature by Daniel Hahn). I suppose this makes Klassen’s stories more in keeping with traditional tales (before they were tamed and made more palatable for modern sensibilities). But unlike them, the violence is never shown or described. Whatever happens off-screen, is down to our own, twisted imaginations!
Liz Bicknell, from Klassen’s publisher, Candlewick:
I think [Jon’s] genius lies in revealing the human emotions that we pretend we don’t have, ... and putting them in the characters of these slightly absurd animals. It’s the combination of funny little animals and the enormous human psyche that makes his books so wonderful.”
- Jon Klassen's Latest Solo Act
I can’t understand how Klassen gets a commissioning team on board - let alone the Sales team.
His stories are quirky and dark, with a sense of foreboding and underlying menace. They are not usual picture book fair. They are subversive. They present deep, ethical questions. His characters are flawed and upfront about it. (‘This hat is not mine. I just stole it.’) All presented in the most innocent looking package.
I love Jon Klassen’s books. But maybe they are not for everyone.
Beautiful to look at, his well-designed books are funny, dark and intriguing. But if you need any other reason, This Is Not My Hat (as with the other titles in the trilogy) opens up the opportunity to discuss some pretty deep ideas with kids. This aids their communication skills and helps develop a sense of self. Allowing you the opportunity to engage and bond:
Does stealing make the fish an evil character?
Why would he steal?
Why would he tell us?
How does the victim feel?
Who even is the victim?
How would you feel?
Is it wrong to seek revenge?
Is it always wrong to steal?
Jon Klassen is a class act.
His children's books may not have the winsome, saccharine characters that many of us are known for. But the world of picture books is all the richer for them.
And his fans will be delighted to know that in his forthcoming book, The Rock from the Sky (2021) - almost everyone is wearing a hat!
Good to Read
Jon Klassen’s Hat trilogy
I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen (Candlewick Press 2011)
This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen (Candlewick Press 2012)
We Found A Hat by Jon Klassen (Candlewick Press 2016)