Photos: Left- THE SKULL. Copyright © 2023 by Jon Klassen. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA. , Right- Carson Ellis

Duck, Chair, Bone, Suspense: A Conversation with Jon Klassen

The Caldecott Medal winner on unusual characters, the art of suspense, the joy of good collaboration, and... revenge

FOR YEARS, when looking for a bedtime book to read with my young children, I inevitably drifted toward the Jon Klassen section of the shelf. It didn’t matter if we were reading about missing hats, stolen goods, hungry bridge trolls, the unusual living arrangements of a duck and a mouse (think: inside a wolf’s belly), the existential thoughts of triangles, or two kids digging a really big hole–the theme of the hour was delight. Was guffawing. Was being utterly charmed. For those unfamiliar, Jon is a much-lauded children’s author-illustrator, Caldecott Medal winner, and frequent fixture on New York Times bestseller lists. With nearly three million books in print in twenty-seven languages, his books are beloved by many. With his new book The Skull hot off the press, I connected with Jon over his unusual characters, color palette, the art of suspense, the joy of good collaboration, turtles, ducks, and, as one does, revenge. 


Kathleen Yale: I’ve noticed some unusual friendships in your work – Otilla and her skull, the duck and the mouse, the snake and the… armadillo/mole guy, and of course Circle, Square, and Triangle. Do you have a particular animal, inanimate object, natural phenomenon, or dynamic duo you’re just dying to make a book about?

Jon Klassen: I like ducks? Early on, before I had any books published, I had some duck stories, but nothing that ever made it. One day I’ll crack it. 

I like chairs too, but that might be a stretch. 

KJY: I can see it. The ducks at least. But if anyone could make chairs complicated and lovable, it’s probably you. So, I’ve got a big stack of your books here… You seem to really love using earth tones in your work. Why?

JK: This is one of those things where it feels like asking the broken shopping cart why it veers off to the left. I always *think* I’m using lots of different colors, and then when the book comes out and I see it in the store next to all the other peoples’ books, I think, Oh.

I think it has to do, at least partly, with the fact that most of the books I grew up with were older, from the 50s and 60s, and the printing then was more subdued, and I like how they felt and looked, so I try for that. But I also think I just have an oversensitivity to saturation and color. I’m more concerned with contrast and value, darks and lights, and as long as those are exciting and punchy, I’m happy, and color is sort of an afterthought. Every now and then I have a reason in the storytelling to punch a color for impact, and that’s always exciting, but absent that I just kind of forget to use them. 

KJY: I also love your occasional use of red, most memorably when the bear figures out who stole his party hat and the whole page goes red. How much do you think about revenge?

 

 

Image from I WANT MY HAT BACK. Copyright © 2011 by Jon Klassen.
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

JK: I think about revenge a lot, apparently! I remember when I was pretty young hearing a summary of The Count of Monte Cristo and thinking that that was the perfect story. Also, I’m always looking for a way to make the story work locally, like get it to where it’s driven by its own gasoline rather than by some outside meaning or message, and revenge works for that. It’s very clean, somehow. The reasons for everything are just inside the story when it’s about revenge. But it’s also attractive as a subject because it’s complex. Getting someone back is usually not what you’re supposed to do, it’s not the high road. So as a reader, you’re left thinking about things, if the writer doesn’t weigh in on it (and I tend not to).

KJY: So many of your books give kids (and their adults) something to puzzle out for themselves.

You collaborate a lot, especially with writer Mac Barnett (another all-time favorite of mine), and I’m so curious about how you navigate that process. Does Mac give you the text and then you draw freely, and you both just trust each other’s vibes, for lack of a better phraseology? Or do you plan it out more together in advance. . . like what to highlight, when to end a page, etc.?

JK: Mac and I have tried all the combinations by now, I think. We’ve certainly done the thing where he just writes everything and then sends it to me and the writing doesn’t change, and that works well because he’s a very good writer, and sets up great page turns and that kind of thing. But we’ve also done it where I do some drawings to show how it would progress visually, he gets the gist and then writes to that and then I draw it for real, and we’ve even written things together before the illustration starts at all. There is a lot of trust, though. I think we really believe that we both want the same general kind of quality in a book, whatever it is, and so we’re able to take it out of ourselves and put it on the table and examine it kind of objectively without keeping track of who did what or who won which argument. 

KJY: I will never get over how much your characters are able to express through your signature eye style. Readers will know what I’m talking about here. The way you draw eyes is deceptively simple – basically a circle in an oval – but through those two shapes you are able to convey suspicion, longing, fear, joy, realization, crankiness, and my favorite, the kind of stares directly into camera look. And what is especially fabulous about this is that kids identify these moods as easily as adults. HOW DO YOU DO IT?!

 

 

Image from SQUARE. Text copyright © 2018 by Mac Barnett. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Jon Klassen.
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

JK: OK, there is a trick here. There is something in cinema called the Kuleshov effect, and the basics are that if you’re shown a character with a relatively blank expression, and then the movie cuts to something they are meant to be looking at, you, as a viewer, can’t help but relate the two images and think that the blank expression is actually expressing something about the second thing you were shown. For instance, the movie would show the blank expression and then it would cut to show a sandwich, and then show the blank expression again, and then show a baby, and show the expression again and then show a coffin. And every time you, the viewer, would do the work of thinking “oh he looks hungry now / loving now / sad now.” We, the audience, like doing this. We actually kind of have to do it. The adjustment I make is that instead of cutting two images together in sequence, I put some text next to a picture. So you show a blank-expression bear and you say on the facing page “This bear has lost his hat.” The bear’s expression is still blank, but now that you’ve read the words, he looks devastated. I think there is SOME drawing involved, like you want just the right KIND of blank expression, but there’s a lot less of me, the illustrator, and a lot more of you, the viewer, going into it than you’d think.

KJY: Jon, you just blew my mind. Wow wow wow.  

You also convey a lot of thematic tension – a meteorite barreling toward Earth, a bear or fish running down a stolen hat, a shape hiding in a dark cave. I’ve read your books to so many kids, and they’re just delighted messes squirming with anticipation. Is that intentional, or does it just kind of come naturally? 

JK: Constructing that is my favorite part of the work. I like drawing and writing dialogue and stuff, but thinking of a good setup, really tuning it properly, is the best. And as a bonus, it means the writing and the drawing will be much easier if you get that first part right. Hitchcock has a great talk about this where he outlines the difference between suspense and surprise. He uses an example of people sitting around a table, having a boring conversation about nothing for ten minutes, and then suddenly a bomb under the table goes off and blows everybody up. That’s a surprise. Now, take the same scene, but go back to the beginning and SHOW the audience the bomb ticking away under the table right at the start. Now you’re listening and watching the ten minutes of boring stuff in a different way because you’re waiting for that bomb to go off, or for someone to find it. The audience is working again. That’s suspense. I like the boring conversation. I can write that. I like writing that sounds unenergetic and flat. And I like drawings that look like that too. But I need permission to do it — I wouldn’t want to give the audience all of that boring writing and drawing on top of a boring story. Nobody wants that. So I try to think of bombs under tables first and then I can draw and write how I want.

 

 

THIS IS NOT MY HAT. Copyright © 2012 by Jon Klassen.
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

KJY: Who are some of your favorite children’s book authors and illustrators? 

JK: I don’t have too many super deep cuts – Arnold Lobel, James Marshall, Ruth Krauss. P.D. Eastman was my favorite when I was little and I still love him. William Steig was a late discovery but I might like him best. Remy Charlip is also a big hero. 

KJY: Oh, I love all of those folks. It’s interesting to think of how each may have seeded some of your own work — the friendship and subdued color palette of Frog and Toad, the gentle juxtaposition of anxiety, beauty, whimsy, and even dread in Steig’s work, plus great animal characters. I don’t know much of Charlip’s work beyond how he illustrated Margret Wise Brown’s The Dead Bird… which, if I’m being honest, is probably the book I would have written if she didn’t already do it so well. (Christian Robinson’s version is also lovely.) 

What books loom large in your kid brain? 

JK: I had a book called The Big Jump by Benjamin Elkin and Katherine Evans that took up a lot of room in my brain, and I still read it to my kids and they like it. It’s out of print but you can find it. It’s about kings and riddles and stuff and it’s great. My bigger reading memories are from a little later, when I got into comics and chapter books. Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side and Archie comics. I read a lot of Hardy Boys and Tolkien and all of that too, again, pretty early on. 

KJY: I just listened to someone read it on YouTube! Thank you, interwebs. Fantastic rendering of facial hair, chainmail, and use of the color green. I’ll have to look for a used copy. 

Follow up to that — do you have a future dream collaborator? 

JK: I’ve been pretty lucky, collaboration-wise, already. I can’t think of many people in books. I started my career in animation and there are still some people working in that field I’d love to work with. There’s an older short Russian film called Hedgehog in the Fog by Yuri Norstein. He’s older now, but there are rumors he’s still working. I wouldn’t want to take up any of his time but I’d hang around and bring him coffee and stuff if he wanted. On that kind of topic, there was a set of Chekhov stories — About Love — my three favorite stories of his, and Seth illustrated them in a great little book, and that’s probably as jealous as I’ve ever been of an assignment. 

KJY: You illustrated a book-length take on Ted Kooser’s poem “House Held Up by Trees,” which felt like a bit of departure from your other work – not visually, but content-wise. How did that project come about? Did you have a particular connection to that poem? Do you have another poem you’d like to illustrate, or was that more of a one-time fancy?

 

Image from THE ROCK FROM THE SKY. Copyright © 2021 by Jon Klassen.
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

JK: The publisher of all my books I’ve written myself, Candlewick Press, sent me that book to do and it was the first time I’d ever worked for them, and for my editor there. At the time I remember wishing I’d gotten the text when I was older. It felt ahead of me, and I wished I was better able to live up to it. But I’d been preoccupied with landscapes that looked abandoned, places without people, what happens when we leave, and it described that and lived in it so well. The sound of the writing is wonderful, also. I didn’t know much about poetry then but I’ve since gotten more into it. My favorite poet is probably W.S Merwin (who I know contributed to Orion!). I got to visit his house this year, and it was a big deal. The stories from his book The Miner’s Pale Children would be so much fun to do drawings for. I’d fall over dead for that. There’s one called “Tergvinder’s Stone” that I read like every week. 

KJY: Yes! This has to happen. Maybe with Orion?

He said that at such times he found himself listening, listening, aware of how some shapes in the darkness emitted low sounds like breathing, as they never did by day. He said he had become aware of a hole in the darkness in the middle of the living room, and out of that hole a breathing, a mournful dissatisfied sound of an absence waiting for what belonged to it, for something it had never seen and could not conceive of, but without which it could not rest.” 

What a perfect fit. And we already know you’re really, really great at drawing meaningful rocks.

I know we’re not supposed to have favorite children… but… do you have a favorite character from one of your books? 

JK: I go back to turtles a lot — I’m a little fuzzy on if I’m writing the same turtle or different turtles, there are small differences, or at least he’s in different stages of life. But I can always write the turtle pretty easily. I know that guy.

KJY: Any advice you care to bestow upon would-be children’s book authors?

JK: Mostly to start with a small premise, and don’t get too sentimental about the form. I’ve found that as soon as I have to try and unfold even the simplest problem a character can have, a ton of stuff falls out that I didn’t know I was thinking about at all. It doesn’t take much. The sentimentality thing, I think that most people who want to make children’s books probably have books they remember and have big feelings and memories about, and it can feel weighty to take that on adding to that yourself, and that weightiness can ruin the thing you’re trying to make. You have to try and forget about the history of the thing you’re contributing to, because it’ll freeze you up. You can look up later and think about it, but it does you no good to keep all those special books on the desk while you’re working.

 

Image from THE WOLF, THE DUCK, AND THE MOUSE. Text copyright © 2017 by Mac Barnett.
Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Jon Klassen. Reproduced by permission of the publisher,
Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

KJY: Thank you for that. So, I found your author’s note in The Skull so interesting. Both for the shout-out to local librarians and for your reflections on how our brains retain and amend certain details in a story, while utterly forgetting others. But what cracked me up is how you read a version of this story–about a girl and a disembodied skull–a couple of years ago. In the original version, our heroine the runaway Otilla bests the headless skeleton that hounds her skull friend every night simply by holding on tight until dawn, and she is ultimately rewarded with a pile of toys and playmates when the skull turns into a nice lady and the curse is broken. But you totally forgot that, and your brain remembered something very different. In your version, Otilla tricks the headless skeleton who haunts the skull by pushing it off a tower, crushing its bones, burning them to ash (while drinking a cup of tea with a stone-cold expression I might add), and then tossing those ashes down a bottomless pit. That’s some baller shit! And her reward is that she’ll stay in this empty castle in the woods and take walks with the skull and presumably just kind of be left alone.

I guess that isn’t really a question so much as a statement. That’s what your brain did with the story. And I love that so much. You create books where birds and rodents drink wine and play records inside wolf bellies, curmudgeonly tortoises are nearly crushed by space debris, and kids spend a whole day just digging a really big hole. They stand out on the shelf, and they stand out in my own mind, I think, for their humor and creativity and sort of darker illusions of society. So yeah, thanks for making weird and delightful art that speaks to my own odd soul.

JK: This is the nicest. Thanks so so much. The Skull changes were for sure interesting to find out about when I went back to the original, and having some distance on it now that the book is out, and having some distance on my books generally now that there are a few of them, I think maybe I’m not so much interested in revenge exactly, more a kind of catharsis, either direct or indirect. The Skull is at least partly about that. I remember finishing the third hat book, We Found a Hat, and wondering if the ending was actually how a story could end, and the best I could do was try to test it to see if I felt some kind of release, and I did. It wasn’t the neatest ending, story-wise, but it felt like what was needed was given anyway, somehow. I think the idea that you can get that feeling in any number of ways is something worth writing about and exploring, for kids as much as adults. Kids need it too, I figure.

 

 

THE SKULL. Copyright © 2023 by Jon Klassen.
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Pick up your copy of The Skull today!


Jon Klassen is the author-illustrator of the #1 New York Times bestseller The Rock from the Sky and the much-acclaimed hat trilogy, which includes the #1 New York Times bestseller I Want My Hat Back, the Caldecott Medal winner This Is Not My Hat, and the best-selling conclusion We Found a Hat. Klassen frequently collaborates with friend Mac Barnett; their books together include Extra Yarn, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, The Wolf, the Duck, & the Mouse, and the Shapes trilogy, which was adapted into the award-winning “Shape Island” television show on AppleTV+, with Klassen and Barnett serving as writers and producers. Klassen has been appointed a Member of the Order of Canada, recognized “for his transformative contributions to children’s literature as an illustrator and author.” Originally from Niagara Falls, Ontario, he now lives in Los Angeles, California.

Kathleen Yale is Orion‘s digital editor and the author of the award-winning children’s book Howl Like a Wolf! and the game Guess My Animal! which both combine ecology, animal behavior, and imagination to engage children in creative play. She’s a former scriptwriter for the educational programs SciShow and Crash Course, and prior to that worked as a wildlife field biologist. She lives outside of Glacier National Park, with her family.