It would be easy to suspect Jon Klassen of having an obsession with hats. The author-illustrator of “I Want My Hat Back” is following up his No. 1 New York Times bestseller about a bear and a thieving rabbit with a second picture book about an animal robber -- this time a fish that’s nabbed a small blue bowler cap in “This Is Not My Hat.”
The Angeleno, by way of Canada, kicks off a 15-city tour for “This Is Not My Hat” at Skylight Books in Los Feliz on Tuesday. We caught up with the 31-year-old illustrator to talk about his latest.
What is it about hats that you like so much?
For this second one, it was by accident. I was trying to do stories with the characters from the first book, and it wasn’t really working. I did something with a fish in a different story than the one I ended up with that involved a hat. I found I liked using one again. It’s not that a hat is fascinating. It’s such an easy little motor for the story. Also, fish can’t wear very much. It’s not like a fish can steal a jacket. He can’t wear it.
You got some flak for “I Want My Hat Back” because it’s presumed the bear eats the rabbit who stole his pointy red cap.
I didn’t expect it, to be honest. When the book was pitched to publishers, most of them wanted to change the ending. Candlewick was the only one that embraced the ending. Some people can’t get around the idea that a kids’ book should have a lesson that the characters themselves are aware of. Instead of eating him, they wanted the bear to say to the rabbit, ‘And that’s why you shouldn’t steal hats!’ I tell people who don’t like the ending that the story does have a point: The bear might be thinking, just like we are, at the end that maybe this wasn’t the best idea. Kids are aware when a story is good on its own outside of a moral.
As similar as the concepts seem for your two books, the stories unfold differently. How do your drawings help tell the story?
With the first book, the characters are looking at the audience, not at each other, almost like they’re bad actors. I’d never written a book before, and I was really scared about writing one. The tone of the first one is like a bad director, almost like I was embarrassed to have these characters come out for the day and do this book for me. There was a lot of nervousness in the writing of it that actually works with the tone of it. With this one, it feels more like a dramatic story, not so much like a bad play. The fish is actually worried he’s going to get caught.
You were an award-winning illustrator of other people’s novels before you wrote and drew “I Want My Hat Back.” Why did you want to tell your own story?
Most of the stuff I do for other people, like “House Held Up By Trees,” is more visually complicated. What I like best is boiling a story down to something really simple. With other people’s books, you can’t make it look too simple because it looks like you phoned it in. I felt insecure about doing something too simple for other people. So I had to give myself the excuse to do it.
You went to college for animation, and you’ve worked at both DreamWorks and Laika Studios. Do you have animation plans for your picture books?
This second book might be more conducive to animation. The fish is moving all the time, so it’s easier. I’m finding that you can either have book ideas or film ideas, and they’re not necessarily both when you have an idea for a story. If you have a book idea that’s a really good book, you’re thinking: Page to page, how does it work? A story doesn’t always work outside the format you’re telling it with.
What else should we be looking for from you?
I’m working on another book for Candlewick with the same sort of format and idea. I haven’t gotten to the point where I can nail down details, but it will be about animals probably staring at each other again.