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Canadian illustrator Jon Klassen finds success with I Want My Hat Back

Jon Klassen knew the conclusion of his first children’s book, I Want My Hat Back (Candlewick Press), was a subversive risk, but there was no other way for it to end.

In the story, a bear loses his favourite red hat, then politely questions a series of animals about its location. When the bear suddenly remembers where he last saw it “ perched on the head of a rabbit “ he gets revenge (off-page) and his hat back. Klassen, a Niagara Falls animator and illustrator who lives in Los Angeles, says that when his agent first shopped the manuscript around, most people wanted to change the ending or soften it a bit.

The risk paid off. The New York Times named I Want My Hat Back one of the best illustrated books of 2011calling it a marvelous book in the true dictionary sense of “‘marvel’: it is a wonderful and astonishing thing, the kind of book that makes child laugh and adult chuckle, and both smile in appreciation.” I Want My Hat Back became so popular online it was declared an Internet meme after people began posting their own versions of the story.

Klassen moved to Los Angeles in 2005 to pursue a career in animation, working as an illustrator on projects like Neil Gaiman’s film Coraline and U2’s video for “I’ll Go Crazy, If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.” After being hired for Caroline Stutson’s children’s book Cats’ Night Out, which won him the 2010 Governor General’s Literary Award for illustration, Klassen turned to books full-time.

Inspired by the simplicity and softness of drawings by 1960s artists like P.D. Eastman (Red, Stop! Green, Go!, Go, Dog. Go!), Klassen opted for a clean style and minimal background for his illustrations, and the animals in I Want My Hat Back, which are drawn with limited facial expressions and stiff bodies. As Klassen explains, “It’s almost like you brought in really bad actors for the day and they’re reading the lines off cue cards, watching the camera the whole time though they’re not supposed to. The tone of the books is as if they’re surprised to be there.”

Klassen is currrently working on a new book about fish, which he says will maintain the simplicity of I Want My Hat Back.

Photos: courtesy of Jon Klassen