On Monday at the ALA Midwinter conference in Seattle, Jon Klassen won the 2013 Caldecott Medal for This Is Not My Hat (Candlewick), the second book that he has both written and illustrated. He also received a Caldecott Honor citation for Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins), a dual honor that was last accomplished by Leonard Weisgard in 1947.
Congratulations! How do you feel? Were you surprised?
Yes, all parts of it surprised me. I try to get my head around it. I forget and then I think, "Oh yeah, that thing happened."
Some people have called This Is Not My Hat a "sequel" or companion to I Want My Hat Back. But it explores a different mindset, doesn't it?
I Want My Hat Back is a bit broader. It wasn't just about the bear; it was about other characters. This Is Not My Hat is more of an exploration of a certain character. With a monologue, you can't help but get into the character. It was a lot of fun to explore what the little fish was doing, and give him a point of no return.
The two books have a very different palette, too, which sets very different moods. Do you decide on the palette first?
I think for the fish book, the palette came first, but there were a few story ideas before that where the palette was more neutral. The water wasn't black; it was dark teal. But the more I got into it, it simplified more and more, and black implied so much more. The water feels so much colder, and you wonder how deep down you are. All the graphic decisions after that became so much easier. The bubbles and the eyes show up better. Since the eyes are the only indicator of how the characters are feeling, they need to show up.
How do your stories evolve?
I've only written two, so it's hard to find a pattern so far. But for the second one, it's not so much a plot as it is a way that the text and pictures contrast. The little fish says, "He probably won't wake up for a long time," and the big fish's eye opens, and you have a book. That page is the idea for the book. It's the structure. Once you have that relationship between the pictures and the book, then you're off. Writing is so intimidating--so's illustrating I guess, but the two have to lean against each other. The more of a job you give each one, the less pressure you have on either one individually.
You work with ink and you also work digitally. Do you draw first, and then scan in the art?
For this book, I'd do a page of plants and hats and fish with an ink brush on paper, and scan them, and then you choose the ones you like and put your picture together digitally. They're like little cast members. The shapes are all done in black and white. You can get distracted by color. Ink looks smoother, and you don't mind seeing it printed on book paper. I've been liking photographing them more and more because they're softer; scanning makes it sharp.
Tell us about the crab.
The crab is a fun guy. I'm surprised by how evenly divided children are about him. Half of them think he was always a sellout, and half thinks, "No, he's scared."There are a lot of advantages to not narrating. You put the person in the situation, and then you can say, "What do you think about this guy?" When you ask kids about the little fish in this one, even if they're divided about the crab, they're less divided about what happened to the little fish. When you ask, "Do you think the little fish is okay?," there's always one or two hopeful kids.
When you spoke at the Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium this past fall, you talked about the illustration in Extra Yarn in which we see evidence of the robbers' theft of the yarn. Could you talk about how you worked that out?
You can't show certain things. With the rules we'd set up, I couldn't see a way to show three men in her room without scaring myself or anyone else. You choose the moment in time when you can imply the most. By showing the moment after, the ladders were still there and the light was on, which meant she'd discovered the theft, and the dog was chasing after them. You can do a lot by implication.
At SLJ's Day of Dialogue last summer, you spoke about how Maurice Sendak's books scared you as a child because you always felt as though there were something hiding in the bushes.
Sendak's books did scare me, and it was because--it's the same thing as the three robbers example. He'd established a tone where he seemed capable of putting creatures in the bushes. He was so truthful about things. He didn't ignore the fact that there were things hiding in the world. Most of the work of illustrating your own stuff is establishing what kids can expect in this specific story. Even if you don't do it, they're going to look for it if you imply that it could happen. Sendak's art felt so fraught with possibility, sometimes awful possibility. At the same time it was capable of everything else, too; there's a pretty moon up there, it's operatic and stagey. His books always looked to me like stage sets, and these big things were happening. He was in control of every part of the page. Even if everything on the edges is creeping through the bushes, he's going to lead us through it. That's how you deal as a kid anyway, you're being led around all the time. You crave the person leading you through it. --Jennifer M. Brown