With his signature sly humour and respect for young readers, Canadian author-illustrator Jon Klassen has become an international kidlit star
Given how crazy – in a good way – the past few years have been for Jon Klassen, one would expect the author- illustrator to be feeling somewhat overwhelmed. The success, the attention, the awards: it’s a lot for a self-effacing Canadian guy to handle. Surprisingly, though, it’s not the accolades that make Klassen emotional; it’s the reaction from his young readers.
Relating a story about a school appearance in Texas, Klassen even gets a bit teary: “There were, like, 700 kids in the gym and they were all perfectly behaved. It was like a cave full of bats,” he says. At the principal’s cue, the students all pulled out hats they had crafted themselves and quietly put them on, in homage to Klassen’s authorial debut, the 2011 picture book I Want My Hat Back, and its lauded follow-up, 2012’s This Is Not My Hat.
“What do you do with that?” asks Klassen. “They were waiting for this all week. You almost don’t want to think about it because you can’t live up to that.”
It’s clear that kids love Klassen, and they’re not the only ones.
“He is amazing,” says Mac Barnett, author of the Klassen-illustrated picture book Extra Yarn. Their latest collaboration, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, appears in October from Random House Canada and Candlewick Press in the U.S. “I think he really has changed a lot of people’s perceptions about what is possible in children’s books.”
Klassen’s agent, Steven Malk, calls him “a once-in-a generation talent and person. The combination of humility and talent, being such a visionary; it’s just not something you see a lot.”
It would be easy to dismiss the praise as gushing by friends and colleagues were it not for the fact that readers, critics, and award juries seem to agree. Since earning a Governor General’s Literary Award in 2010 for his picture-book illustration debut, Cats’ Night Out (written by American author Caroline Stutson), Klassen, who turns 34 in November, has been picking up laurels by the handful. This Is Not My Hat won two of the most prestigious awards in children’s literature: the American Library Association’s Caldecott Medal and the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal (he’s the first Canadian to claim the U.K. award since it was established in 1955).
Both times, Klassen was a double nominee, also snagging a spot on the Greenaway shortlist for his illustration work on The Dark (text by Lemony Snicket), and earning a Caldecott Honor silver medal for Extra Yarn, which makes him only the second person in the prize’s 75-year history to garner two medals in the same year.
“That was the craziest thing,” says Klassen. “I pick up [the phone] and it’s this committee of librarians giggling on the other end of the line, because this is their favourite part, right? This is where they get to call and wake someone up and change their life.” He was still trying to wrap his head around winning for This Is Not My Hat, when the laughing librarians called again, this time with news about Extra Yarn. “I didn’t know what to do,” says Klassen. “I think I scolded them. I was like, ‘You guys, that’s not fair! You can’t do that!’”
Though he’s still riding the high of winning, it’s clear that the frenetic pace he’s maintaining – fielding interviews and travelling frequently for book tours, conferences, and awards ceremonies – has been draining. “But it’s also great, because you can keep working,” says Klassen. “You’ve got a lease on life now, and you can relax. I mean, you want to live up to it, but it’s a different kind of work now; there’s a bit of security in it.”