22 September 2011

Blog Tour: I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

Would you deny this bear his hat?
Poor Bear. He's lost his hat. Then he finds his hat! The end.

A simple enough story. But read between the lines, and you will discover a book which can be appreciated as a funny read-a-loud or a sly peak through the fourth wall. I Want My Hat Back, the first picture book to have been both written and illustrated by the supremely gifted Jon Klassen, is a dead-pan pantomime starring an unlikely cast of woodland creatures. Like Pirandello's six characters in search of an author, they seem to have stumbled into a story by accident. One of them has stolen Bear's hat. One of them does not even know what a hat is. One is stuck behind a rock. Little dramas; big laughs.

It all starts with the cover. Klassen has stated that his first idea for this book was, in fact, an image in his mind for a cover. (You can read more of his insights in the Q&A at the end of this post.) Just look at that bear--he's on a mission! Focused and determined, he wants his hat back, and readers should be in no doubt as to whether or not he will find it (and woe to the one who stole it!) But once the story begins, and the bear proceeds to ask of each character his simple, unfailingly polite question--"Have you seen my hat?"--the negatives begin to pile up. Yet the bear's ignorance is the reader's bliss, because the thief of the hat is immediately evident. Once discovered, it is just a matter of giggling at each misstep until the bear finally realizes his error and does, indeed, find his hat. It is a storytelling technique which works remarkably well.

Klassen's previous experience with video (he did design work on a BAFTA nominated ad for the BBC, the film Coraline, and the video for U2's I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight,) is evident in the theatricality of the book. In some ways, the action of the story is a direct result of the reader's perspective. The reader sees what happens, but needs to provide the context. There is no back story, no motivation, other than the intensity of the bear's desire to get his hat back. It is a sentiment to which children can instantly relate. And because they can see the hat before the bear does, you can be sure that holding this book up during either a storytime or a one-on-one reading will elicit cries of, "There it is! It's behind you!" Not to mention, plenty of scope for trying on a multitude of voices. Storytime as reader's theater!

The book weighs in at an economical 253 words, but the images speak volumes. With visual laughs for the kids, and a touch of black humor for adults, I Want My Hat Back is a cross-generational hit.

As part of this blog tour, author and illustrator Jon Klassen kindly took some time to answer a few questions.  

NJFK: In creating this book, did you have an image first or the story? Did you enjoy the freedom of creating both, rather than working from a story written by someone else?

JK: I had the idea for the cover first, but not the character or the story for a little while. Just the title, and somebody not wearing a hat. I did enjoy working on both the writing and the pictures, though I was nervous about it, because I don't usually write things. There are less ways to hide in writing than there are in illustration. But when it became just dialogue, I got more comfortable because it's less formal.
I was also glad to work on something very simple. When you get something from someone else, it's often harder to make it simple.   

NJFK: Despite the fact that little seems to happen in the story, there is a sense of theatricality because of the perspective of the audience. Reading the book reminded me of watching a pantomime (“He’s behind you!”) Did your experience of working with film and video influence the creation of this book in any way?

JK: Yes! I'm glad you noticed that. Because I was nervous about the writing, and also because I like drawing characters that aren't doing very much, I wanted to try and make it seem as though it was a badly rehearsed play with animals who were sort of brought in for the day to read these lines. That's why they are looking at the audience instead of each other, which is how the bear misses seeing the hat early on. Later, once he's found out what has happened, it's like the bear forgets he's in a play and gets as mad as he would if this had happened to him in real life and goes and does what a bear would do.

I think the way the end is done is a little more like a storyboard from a film instead of maybe how a book would be. It's hard to stop thinking about stories that way if you've been doing it for a while.
Author and illustrator Jon Klassen
NJFK: How is a book created both digitally and in Chinese ink? One process seems modern and the other traditional.

JK: Those two things are how I like to work best. I like working with traditional mediums at first, to give a looseness to things, and then bring what's been done into the computer to work over it and tighten it up. It's nice because you can make all sorts of mistakes and experiments with the traditional materials and know you still have that last stage to use whatever you're doing. In this case all the characters and plants were done in silhouette with chinese ink on paper, and then scanned in and the color and smaller details, like eyes and other features, were added digitally.   

NJFK: Will there be a sequel involving a blue, round hat, by any chance?

JK: There might be a blue hat, though I'm pretty happy with the shape of the red one. I might keep it pointy like that.  

NJFK: And finally, I have to ask--what was it like working with U2?!

JK: Well I didn't get to meet them or anything. David O'Reilly, the director, got to meet them afterward because he was working from Europe and they came through, and it really was David's video. But it was still pretty surreal sending them illustrations and getting approval and stuff. It was such a small production, it was weird knowing it was for this huge band that we'd all grown up with. They liked the video though! They even let us make the cover for the single afterward!

A big thank you to Jon Klassen for the interview, and to Candlewick Press for providing me with a copy of the book. Be sure to visit the other stops on the (global!) tour for more interviews with Klassen:

Tuesday, Sept. 20 – UK: Playing by the Book
Wednesday, Sept. 21 - AUS: Kids' Book Capers
Thursday, Sept. 22 - US: Not Just for Kids
Friday, Sept. 23 – UK: Bringing Up Charlie
Saturday, Sept. 24 - AUS: My Book Corner
Sunday, Sept. 25 – UK: Wahm Bham
Monday, Sept. 26 - Canada: Pickle Me This
Tuesday, Sept. 27 - US: There's a Book
Wednesday, Sept. 28 - AUS: My Little Bookcase
Thursday, Sept. 29 - US: Chris Rettstatt

16 September 2011

More Kiddielit love for Ted Williams

I've been obsessing about the amount of attention Ted Williams gets within the realm of children's literature. Must be all those pin-striped covers I've been forced to stock over the years. I was well pleased to read Fred Bowen's No Easy Way , and I thoroughly enjoyed The Unforgettable Season by Phil Bildner, even if Williams did have to share the book with Joe Dimaggio. Now, I can look forward to two more books recognizing the accomplishments of the Splendid Splinter, both as a ball player and as a man.

October sees the release of Soldier Athletes, the third installment in Glen Stout's highly readable "Good Sports" series (shameless plug--mine is the Booklist review beneath Baseball Heroes.) Four athletes are featured, so of course there is a profile about Ted Williams and his distinguished career as a pilot during both World War II and the Korean War.

Then there is There Goes Ted Williams: the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived by author and illustrator Matt Tavares. Tavares has already proven his Red Sox cred with Zachary's Ball, and his picture book biography Henry Aaron's Dream is not to be missed. There Goes Ted Williams looks to be really special. You can see get a peek at it here, but you'll have to wait until 2012 to get your hands on the book.

Last but not least, Dan Gutman is finally bringing Ted Williams into the Baseball Card Adventures fold with Ted and Me. And just in time for the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park. Now, I can't take credit for this, of course, but I did write that open letter to Dan Gutman all those years ago...... However it came about, Gutman's latest is a welcome addition.

13 September 2011

Dead End In Norvelt Giveaway!

A few week ago I reviewed, with much enthusiasm, the upcoming middle grade novel by Jack Gantos, Dead End in Norvelt. Well, the book is "upcoming" no more--today is release day! The kind folks at Macmillan Audio saw that review, and they sent me a copy of the audio book to give away on this blog. So, in celebration of the book's release, I invite you all to enter for a chance to win this 6 disc audio book--READ BY THE AUTHOR! Yes, Mr. Gantos adds yet another layer to the fact-vs-fiction aspect of this book by reading it to you himself!

You can hear an excerpt of the audio book here. To enter the giveaway, all I ask is that you leave a comment on this blog. Make sure I can contact you if you are the winner! The winner will be chosen randomly one week from today. Good luck!

09 September 2011

Non-fiction review: "America is Under Attack: the Day the Towers Fell" by Don Brown

As the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks approaches, I am forced to consider something I have thought about almost since that very day: how do I explain this to my daughter? She was eight months old at the time, oblivious to the knowledge that the world was changing. And now, ten years on, there is an entire generation just like her; children for whom September 11th is as much a part of history as George Washington or the lunar landings. While adults heed the call to never forget, our children don't even remember it.

Don Brown's latest addition in his "Actual Times" series is written for children who have probably heard about September 11th but have no frame of reference with which to relate to it (unless they were personally affected by it themselves. One of the statistics Brown mentions: about 3000 children lost a parent that day.) Carmen Agra Deedy's 14 Cows for America, or Jeannette Winters' September Roses, two excellent picture books already available on the subject, approach the event as storytellers. They focus on specific incidences related to the day. As they show readers how different people responded to the event, they are already thinking about a new reality--the one that began on 9/12. Don Brown is writing as a historian, documenting the day's timeline and presenting the personal accounts of people there. He is showing readers how it all started. 

Brown, who is both author and illustrator of the book, writes with a chronicler's need for detail; he presents facts with sensitivity for the age of his audience without shielding them. But he draws with a broken heart. The watercolors which illustrate the text are at times devastating:
               --a single plane flying over New York City, an everyday site which is so menacing in this context;
              --trapped men and women calling for help through the gash left at the first point of impact while a helicopter hovers helplessly nearby;
              --a man at a gas station looking over his shoulder to see a plane looming beside the Pentagon;
              --a woman blown out of her shoes by the force of the collapsing South Tower.
And the illustration which opens the narrative--a double page spread of nothing but blue, a plane in the top right corner. It's beautiful, just as the actual day itself was.

The bibliography at the end of the book is a testament to the research that Brown put into collating the information and crafting the illustrations. An Author's Note provides statistics from the day as well as a brief mention of America's response to the attacks. A discussion guide is available online, as is this excellent interview with Don Brown over at School Library Journal. America is Under Attack is dedicated to the 15 people from Brown's home town of Merrick, New York who were killed in the attacks, which reminds readers that the impact of history is most powerful when it is related personally. 

A list of my recommended picture books about September 11th is available here.

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