In his beloved Hat Trilogy, Jon Klassen won young readers over by making them feel like insiders: they always knew more than his flawed animal characters did. The bear in I Want My Hat Back, for instance, eventually realizes he has seen his hat, while the astute reader saw it pages ago. The fun and the tension come from waiting for each protagonist’s awareness to catch up with our own.
Though Klassen’s latest borrows characters, visual elements, and themes from the trilogy, it’s less a continuous, building narrative than a series of interrelated set pieces. In this, it arguably offers even more fodder for lively discussion than its predecessors.
As the book begins, we see a massive boulder hurtling toward a pair of behatted animals (the turtle and possum-cum-raccoon creature from I Want My Hat Back) standing in an empty landscape. Racoon-possum urges Turtle to move away from his favourite spot; he has a bad feeling about it. No sooner does Turtle do so than the boulder lands where he’d just been standing with an obliterating, shell-crushing thud.
In Part Two, Racoon-possum discovers Turtle lying on his back. He’s clearly fallen off the rock, unconvincingly insists this isn’t the case, and that he doesn’t need help (“I never need help”). In Part Three, we find the pair sitting atop the rock, where Racoon-possum has a vision of the future in which the spot is covered with lush vegetation. So far so good, until we get to the long-legged alien who zaps plants dead with a laser beamed from its single eye.
In the book’s final part, Turtle discovers Racoon-possum and his snake friend content under the rock’s shade. Clearly jealous, he approaches them to complain, just as another boulder falls from the sky, narrowly missing him but crushing his would-be assassin who – wouldn’t you know it? – is the murderous cyclops of the prophesying possum’s earlier vision.
A kind of playful nihilism lurks beneath the entertaining absurdity. In another moral universe, Turtle’s pride and jealousy would be cast as failings requiring apology or punishment (Part Two is called, one assumes winkingly, “The Fall”). In the Klassen Literary Universe, however, they’re just regular, everyday emotions. If you do happen to get crushed under a giant rock falling from the sky, you can blame it on bad, dumb luck.