US artist Jon Klassen has near cult status for his visually strikingly simple, darkly funny picture books. Julia Eccleshare interviewed him on his recent visit to the UK.
Jon Klassen is running late, I’m told. It’s hardly a surprise; his schedule has been tightly packed since the moment his visit to the UK was announced and slippage was almost inevitable. Everyone wants a piece of this exceptional talent who, although the illustrator of only a handful of books, has already hit the New York Times bestseller list with I Want My Hat Back and won the Caldecott Medal, the most distinguished award for illustration in the US, for This is Not My Hat.
Fresh from a podcast at the Guardian, Jon comes into the lobby of the paper looking more like a school-leaver out on work experience than an award-winning illustrator. Obviously boyish – he was, after all, only born in 1981 – he is a neat, slight figure in a baseball cap who seems more surprised than at ease with his success. Delightfully, he appears to take none of it for granted and radiates no sense of his status just a deep sense of professionalism.
Jon is very serious in the nicest possible way. He talks briefly about his life: a Canadian, he was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba and grew up in Niagara Falls in Ontario; he went to Sheridan College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning, Ontario where he studied animation graduating in 2005. The course was chosen for its employability potential. ‘I never wanted to be an artist,’ Jon says, ‘I wanted to work. I was terrified of not having a job. Studying animation was a way to a job.’ And so it proved. By 2006 Jon was in Los Angeles, employed as an animator by Dreamworks. That year, with Dan Rodriques, he made An Eye for Annai, an animated short and also worked on the animation of Kung Fu Panda and Coroline. Jon is full of praise for everything he got from his first job. ‘These studios are great places to work but they are such big boats to steer,’ he says. ‘I was learning so much from people there – they were very skilled – but the more I developed my skills, the more I wanted to work on my own.’
Jon already knew the kind of work he wanted to do. Although he says he was not ‘one of those kids who always had a sketch book and was successful in school art’, he did enjoy drawing at primary school when the stories were part of the art. ‘As a kid, I liked drawing a narrative’, he says and it was the drive to achieve art with a narrative which impelled his first solo work. ‘After work, in the evenings, I slowly made my own piece, figuring out the techniques that worked.’
I suggest we switch from just talking to looking at his portfolio. Out comes the MacBook Air and Jon shifts up several gears. Spinning through his work he becomes passionate and intense vividly bringing to life the particular process he was developing in his books. His passion for his work is contagious. As he speaks, it is easy to see how and why he has made such a powerful impression in so few books. ‘I wanted to clean up the lines,’ he says conveying in just a few words the complexity and highly worked nature of a Dreamworks animation. Going on to cast off the rule-bound nature of a big studio he adds, ‘I liked the idea of cheating, taking advantage of the edges and of making something atmospheric. I liked the opportunities of having fun within limits.’ In doing this, he was challenging animation orthodoxy. ‘The wisdom is that the more clean or linear you are, the less atmosphere you can create.’ Jon takes another view. ‘The simpler you keep it, the more emotional it can be.’
Jon’s approach to his work is always to create something that appears utterly simple. It’s something he achieves by thinking about all the problems before he starts. That way there are no false starts, no rough edges that have to be smoothed out. ‘It has to come to you fast. You need one door to open for you. As soon as it does, you run right through it.’ For some that door might be the plot. But not for Jon. ‘The thing that makes a book isn’t the plot. The plot is a device and you know where it ends because you know what you want people to feel. But, the real thing about a book is, Where is the sympathy?’
Of course! That is the crux of both I Want My Hat Back and This is Not My Hat. Readers identify with each character in turn and their sympathies yo-yo through the stories. Neither book, with their scant texts and largely single image illustrations follows a traditional ‘narrative’; instead, both present a situation with which the reader engages fully. Jon makes no judgement on the actions that happen but everyone who enjoys the books ends up having a view.
Jon got into doing books after he was asked to do the illustrations for Cat’s Night Out, a simple counting book by Carolyn Stutson. He won the Governor General’s Award for English-language children’s illustration for his work and, on the back of it, having found he really liked illustration, he got himself an agent and asked for more work. He was offered the chance to illustrate Lemony Snicket’s The Dark, a stunning book about how a little boy overcomes his fear of the dark. Jon did the work but the project was put on hold when Snicket changed publisher and it has only just been published in both the US and the UK.
Meanwhile, Jon started to create his own picture books. ‘I tried to write a text but found I was copying other books so I put it away,’ he says. ‘I’m more nervous about the writing. I’m really scared of the words,’ he adds modestly. ‘I’m not qualified with them.’
But then the idea for I Want My Hat Back came to him. ‘I had the cover picture and knew how I wanted to use colour in it. But I didn’t know about the story. Suddenly, I thought of doing the book in dialogue.’ Jon was getting close to exactly how he wanted the book to be. ‘I wanted it to be a stiff book because I was feeling stiff. I was really scared!,’ he says with convincing feeling, looking fondly at what became his most celebrated title. ‘I just went over to the computer and wrote it. It was done in a matter of minutes.’
Somehow, in that matter of minutes, Jon had created the basis of a very special book indeed. He had the bear, then the fox for its colour, then the frog and the rabbit and he thought of making the text different colours as a way of making the dialogue work better. The basic technique came because he ‘likes clean lines’. He claims not to know much about picture books although he remembers Dr Seuss and Frog and Toad from his childhood. ‘I remember there was nothing intimidating about the pages.’ That provided some kind of a guide. From that starting point, he tried ‘not to be nostalgic’ but equally couldn’t help being influenced by a lot from the past. His own liking for ‘clean lines’ helped to shape the fresh look that he achieved.
All of these things went into giving us one of the most talent illustrators of the decade. Jon’s lack of a coherent explanation for how it all came about seems just as real now as it was when he created it. ‘I felt like a first time director with really bad actors,’ he says and, despite his success, still appears to feel the same self-doubts. And he still can’t explain some of the things that happened. Looking at the spreads quizzically he shakes his head ruefully saying, ‘I don’t like wordless spreads. I’m really surprised they turn up in my books.’
But turn up they did. Luckily, despite not liking those spread, Jon Klassen let them survive. One day he, like his millions of readers, may learn to love them.
I Want My Hat Back Walker Books, Jon Klassen, 978-1406338539, £6.99 pbk
This is Not My Hat Walker Books, Jon Klassen, 978-1406343939, £11.99hbk
The Dark Orchard Books, Lemony Snicket, illus Jon Klassen, 978-1408330029, £11.99 hbk
Julia Eccleshare is a writer, broadcaster and lecturer, and the Guardian’s children’s books editor. She is a judge of the Branford Boase first novel prize