A Tip of the Hat to Jon Klassen on “We Found a Hat”
BAM: How do you begin mapping out your picture books? Do you start with the characters? The setting? The plot?
Jon: Since I am less comfortable with the writing part of making a picture book than I am with the illustration, I start with the writing. Since these hat books have all been written only in dialogue, it’s been important from the beginning to figure out who it is that is speaking. Different choices on that point will suggest different stories. The first book is done in dialogue between various characters, so it seemed interesting that one of them would be lying. The second book it was decided that it would be done in a monologue, which suggested not so much that the one talking would be lying, but that he would be wrong about what was going on in the pictures, and nervous and trying to convince both himself and us that he was going to be ok. The third book is a little more subtle, but I was interested in toggling between two people speaking as “we” and it not being clear who was speaking and splitting into two voices to talk to each other. So choosing the point of view is the first biggest step and it seems to inform all of the choices that follow. I guess it also starts with some kind of scenario at the same time – a point of view with no problem to solve doesn’t get you very far.
BAM: Is there a theme that connects all 3 books in your Hat series?
Jon: If there is I try not to think about it very hard. The first book was done as an isolated thing, and then I’ve had the opportunity to follow up two more times. What I’ve tried to do with the following two is make books that, if they were found on their own, would work just fine, but that they do feel connected when you read them all in a row. They all involve characters making mistakes, or dealing with their impulses. I think the first two dealt with out-sized consequences more than the third one did, though I think the nature or the character of the “threat” changes from book to book. The rabbit in the first book is kind of a more classic villain, just doing something bad for the sake of it. The big fish in the second book is more impersonal – he’s acting on some baser instinct. He’s kind of this force that just sort of moves through the book in an unchanging way. In the third book the threat isn’t even really seen. If it is represented by anything visual, it’s the presence of the hat itself.
BAM: What kind of message were you hoping to leave your readers with in this final installment?
Jon: I wanted to leave them with a good story. I had many earlier drafts of this one where I thought I did have a message in mind, but that’s no way to start a book. At least it isn’t for me. The book only started to work properly once I stopped thinking I knew what I wanted it to be and just followed the initial idea to its end and got out of the way. The ending kind of surprised me when I finally figured it out. I was interested in a book where nobody got the hat, which in my mind always seemed like it was going to be a quieter ending. I also thought that meant that maybe it had to be the most violent of any of the books, where maybe nobody was left to claim the hat, but the ending I got instead is one that I like much more and I’m probably the proudest of, at least right now.
BAM: Are you a big fan of hats? What’s your favorite kind of hat?
Jon: I wear a lot of baseball hats, but I can’t really pull off anything else. I think that’s actually kind of a coincidence, though. I like hats in these books because they make for a very clear visual prompt for a story. Also I like that they are unnecessary things. You don’t NEED a hat – it’s not like money or food where stealing it might be more complicated. These characters just like these hats, so it becomes a more emotional thing. You can’t logically explain why you love something, you just do.
BAM: How did you choose the animals that feature in each of your Hat books? (How did you choose the hats?)
Jon: Before I wrote the books I had a job drawing birthday cards and I drew a series of animals wearing birthday hats but looking a little confused about what birthdays even were. The most interesting one was a bear who is basically the bear in I Want My Hat Back wearing a red party hat. I liked it because he looked so blank that you didn’t know what he was about to do, which is kind of how real animals are. His size is kind of a threat on its own, and I liked that, so that’s what the first book is about. The second book was kind of done in reaction, or an opposite of the first one, so it is light characters on a dark background and to me that suggested being deep underwater where things kind of glow. The hat in that book was actually mentioned in the first book already – the snake says he saw a hat that was blue and round. The third book I wanted to use characters that looked almost identical to each other and also didn’t look like they were going to do much physically – kind of humble characters. The idea for the third book was almost that it was about side characters (the turtle was a side character in the first book) that aren’t capable of the drama and violence that the other characters in the other books were. The hat that they find, a cowboy hat, is too big on them. It’s supposed to sort of feel like kids that are fooling around on stage with a prop that had just been used for a much bigger, more volatile play, but they end up going through something where the stakes are actually very high because there’s a real relationship at stake this time.
BAM: Each book in this trilogy has a very distinct color palette. Did you think about this as you were planning your illustrations?
Jon: I wanted them to be different enough from the other but also look okay as a set if they were ever all together. I like that the first one feels like it takes place during the day, the second one takes place in the dark, and the third one kind of runs from day into night so it kind of bridges the first two, at least visually. That’s partly why the cover is a gradient instead of a solid color.
BAM: At what point did you start imagining these stories as a trilogy?
Jon: One at a time!
Hold on to your hats for the conclusion of the celebrated hat trilogy by Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen, who gives his deadpan finale a surprising new twist.
Two turtles have found a hat. The hat looks good on both of them. But there are two turtles. And there is only one hat. . . . Evoking hilarity and sympathy, the shifting eyes tell the tale in this brilliantly paced story in three parts, highlighting Jon Klassen’s visual comedy and deceptive simplicity. The delicious buildup takes an unexpected turn that is sure to please loyal fans and newcomers alike.