An Interview with Caldecott Winner Jon Klassen

The award-winning author and illustrator talks with American Libraries about picture books and drawing

June 29, 2015

Caldecott winner Jon Klassen
Caldecott winner Jon Klassen

Caldecott Medal winner Jon Klassen talked to American Libraries in two video interviews at the 2015 ALA Annual Conference.

In the first video, he discusses the picture books he grew up with and their evocative powers, as well as his own writing process and how he engages young readers’ imaginations.

In the second video, Klassen talks about visiting schools, encouraging students to draw and write, and the roles that librarians can play in connecting children to the right book.

Below is a transcript of our complete interview:

What picture books did you grow up with?

Probably my favorite one was one called Sam and the Firefly by P. D. Eastman. It was the first book he ever did. He did Are You My Mother? and Go, Dog. Go! Sam and the Firefly is this really weird book about an owl and a firefly, and they fly around at night. And the owl shows him how to make lines in the sky, and the firefly figures out he can spell words that cause trouble. And he ends up making planes crash into each other, and he makes movies open all night for free, and all these of kind of sign issues. A hot dog guy whose business he messes up kidnaps him in a jar and drives him out into the country, and it’s this really brutal scene, and you don’t know what’s going to happen to this poor firefly. And then he gets stuck on the tracks of this railway, and this train is coming. It’s going to hit this old man’s truck, the hot dog guy’s truck. And then the owl, who has been following along this whole time, and is mortified of what he’s taught this firefly, kind of grabs this jar that this firefly is being held captive in and breaks it on the tracks. And the firefly can write “Stop” in the sky so the train doesn’t hit the truck, and he saves the day. And it’s this great thing. But I never remember the story much as the way the whole thing felt. It felt like the nighttime. It felt like this deep, dark night, the whole book did. And I always thought that it’s so interesting how you remember mood in a book just as much as the story when you’re a kid. You just dive into the mood of the thing.

That’s similar to This Is Not My Hat, where you’ve got the black background, which indicates water.

Yeah, very minimal stuff. I think for me, anyway, the less detail, the better, that kind of thing. And if you can leave a lot of depth to it, if you can leave a lot behind as far as what you’re representing or what you’re showing, the kids will feel and the audience will feel that. It’s kind of a balance between not feeling lazy and feeling economical. But yeah, that’s what I like to try for.

P. D. Eastman had a very simple style, very linear.

Very simple. Yeah, really linear and not very showy, either. He could draw beautifully. You could tell he wasn’t showing off. His whole thing was clarity, and that’s kind of what I try for too. Not to show off visually but to keep it clear.

How old were you when you cut your hand, and at the time, did you worry what it would do to your career as an illustrator?

I cut my hand, these fingers, when I was 16 as a dishwasher. I just cut it on a beer glass, and they all got stitched up. I wasn’t so worried. My father was really worried. He drove me to the hospital, and he went in and I’m bleeding all over the place, and he just tells the doctors, “The boy wants to draw! The boy needs to draw!” Luckily we had a good surgeon that day and he was okay. But it was a creepy day. But I don’t think I ever worried—I think when you’re that young, you don’t think you’ll ever get a job to draw. It’s just this dream, and you’re like, I’ll probably end up with something else. Now I would worry about it more, but back then, I didn’t think it was a possibility.

Librarians have this totally emotional connection to this stuff that is over and above what they would need to do their job.—Jon Klassen

You’ve said that you’re often inspired by the movies you’ve watched rather than by the books that you’ve read. What have been some movie inspirations?

The Shining, for some reason, is one of my favorite films. I don’t like scary movies very much, not horror films, but Stanley Kubrick in general is the best guy. I love him to pieces. The Shining is this really smart one where you don’t know the entire movie whether what is happening is really happening or whether it’s happening in somebody’s head until, there’s a certain point in the movie where it clicks over, and there’s this subtext to that. The whole movie is sort of undercut by this weird assumption that you don’t know what’s happening, but it’s happening for real. So it’s technically a beautiful movie and everything else. He shot it beautifully and the whole thing is great, but it almost, it’s bigger than that. The idea behind the film is bigger than how pretty you’re making it or what the shots are doing or what the acting is doing. The whole subtext to the film is smarter than anything that can be happening during the film. With kids’ books, it can be like that too. It doesn’t have to rest on just the drawings or just the writing. If you have a bigger idea than that, it can make this book feel much bigger than your component parts you’re putting together. And whether it is a security thing for me, whether I don’t trust the drawing or writing necessarily to hold up the book, if you can find a bigger idea that’s smarter than that, than those component parts, I always look to that sort of thing.

And your books have that kind of, well, at least the two books that we’ve talked about, This Is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back, have an element of macabre.

There is a macabre to it. I think also, they’re written from first person or just voices. There’s no narration, and that’s on purpose because as soon as you narrate something, there’s an authority telling you what’s happening for real. And if you remove that, if you take it out, then the story is whatever, like the characters aren’t going to tell you everything. They’re just going to tell you what they want to tell you, and you have to piece it together yourself. There’s nobody in the book telling you the whole story, so you’re the whole story. As the audience, you’re the one who has to grab that. And it’s involving. I think the kids, audiences just generally, I really appreciate that in a story all the time.

It leaves a lot to the imagination.

It leaves a lot to the imagination, but not the events. You don’t ever want to be unclear about what happened—you just want to be unclear maybe about why or who thought what or how they’re feeling about it. That can be ambiguous, but the events should be pretty clear, I think.

When you visit schools, what do you try to convey to the kids you meet?

Visiting schools—I didn’t know that was such a big part of the job at first. It’s been kind of a learning experience that way. But now I think it’s telling the kids that whatever they’re doing as far as drawing or writing is completely valid. It’s not saying, “Well one day you guys are going to write a real book or you’ll draw a real picture.” It’s the same thing. There’s no difference. No one is ever going to come to you and say, “All right, now you’re a writer.” Or “Now you’re an artist.” Or “Now you’re a draftsman” or whatever it is. What they’re doing is just as valid and important as what they’ll be doing as a professional, and that is kind of a meaningless line. That would have been nice for me to hear, anyway. Not that I ever felt discouraged, but just to think that, as long as I keep doing this, it’s just as big a deal as—you know what I mean? As long as you keep trying for it, it’s always going to be just as real.

Do a lot of the kids know who you are?

I think so, I don’t know. We never had that growing up, so I don’t know what it does to kids. I don’t know whether you walk in and they see you as a representative for the book, or if they understand that you drew it and you wrote it and it was this weird thing you did in your house or not. When you draw in front of them, then it clicks. That took me a while to get used to because when I draw in front of people, it’s kind of an embarrassing thing. But as soon as you start, everyone shuts up. There’s a weird magic that happens. When you’re just telling them about your book, I’m not sure it quite connects. Second and first graders, you wouldn’t expect it to necessarily anyways. You’re just some guy who walked into their school. But as soon as you draw something that they recognize, there’s lines that they recognize, and there’s colors and there’s just a sensibility that they can recognize, then it gets real, and you can watch them kind of—they don’t really know what’s going on, and then there’s something magic that happens.

You began drawing when you were in the 2nd grade.

Yeah, I started drawing early on, but it was always go with the story. Even now, I don’t like drawing on its own. I like drawing for a story, but I never doodle. And I was like that as a kid too. It felt showy; it felt pointless. So you find kids like that too, who are just like, “Well I don’t like to draw, except I have this idea for a character or like a place and I want to draw that, but I don’t like drawing otherwise.” It’s so interesting that they can have this idea of a place or a story outside of what they think they can do or show off about. When kids are starting this stuff, they don’t know what they can do, so it’s not about, well I know I’m good at this, so I want to show everyone I can do it. They’re trying everything out for the first time. It’s this really honest approach to the work. It’s really great.

I don’t like drawing on its own. I like drawing for a story, but I never doodle. And I was like that as a kid too. It felt showy; it felt pointless.—Jon Klassen

What have librarians meant for you and your work?

As a kid, I think librarians [were important] even just making the books available. We didn’t have a lot of books in the house when I was a kid. We had a couple, but for the most part, it was going to the library for two hours and bringing home stacks and stacks of books. So just the warmth that they would give that experience, I guess. I don’t remember a lot of one-on-one “You’ll like this book and you’ll like this one,” but if you brought a book back and were like, “I liked this one.” Then they were like, “Then you should go to this section. That’s where they all are. You can discover these things.”

But now, working with librarians, being in touch with them with your own books and them telling you about their experiences with the kids, there’s a massive amount of—patience is the wrong word, because sometimes it is patience, but it always just that they care for a much different reason than anybody else does. This isn’t a hugely capitalistic business or anything. They’re not all sharks swimming around looking for a payday. But librarians have this totally emotional connection to this stuff that is over and above what they would need to do their job. They just really care deeply about connecting this to this, connecting the right kid to the right book, and understanding that there’s not just one silver bullet book for all kids. Some of them maybe a few books, really special ones, but there’s also the special kid who wants this particular book and is really going to do it. And to keep your eyes open as wide as they do to that kind of opportunity. I don’t think I knew that they did that until I started working with them with my own books. And then you watch it happen. And then you’re thankful, it’s your whole day, it’s your whole job, every day, to kind of connect with that, to make it work.

Can you describe your work space?

My work space is constantly moving around. I worked at home for a long time in a little room that I made to work in. And it was great. I made both “Hat” books in that room and a couple other things, and it was a really happy time. And then one day I woke up and I got really stir crazy, and I thought, “I need to leave the house sometimes. I need to go out.” And so I got a studio space downtown in some office building. And by yourself kind of faking studio is really sad—to go and have lunch by yourself and go home by yourself and just say to yourself, “That was a bad day.” And so I’ve stopped doing that and I’ve started working with a group in a studio space. You show up and you have colleagues and have other people who show up and can sharpen your stuff for you and you can talk things through. The desk itself–there’s a big desk for drawing and there’s another big desk for computer stuff, which is how the work gets done. You draw it first, and then you process it digitally. And you need both spaces to be equally big in your room. But it’s always sort of evolving. Every book is different–the production of every book is different. So you would change your workspace to fit whatever it is you need to make. I don’t get very romantic about desk and workspace because as long as the book kind of works, the whole place can look like crap. I don’t really care. As long as the book is okay at the end of the day, it’s all right.

You have said that book ideas sometimes come to you in the middle of the night. Do you keep a notepad next to your nightstand, and do you sketch ideas as soon as they occur?

Sometimes. I feel like both “hat” books, I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat, they came very, very quickly. As soon as there was some weird trick then both narratives kind of happened. As soon as that trick was figured out outside of the story or the writing, then I would just stand up and write it. It wasn’t like, you write down one note. It all sort of comes together so fast when you get the right idea that you need to do—picture books are the best because they’re so short. You can write them as fast they are read if you can get the right idea. And that’s literally how both books were done. They were written in about 10, 15 minutes when they idea finally clicks over. You can spend years in between shuffling around and making sure everything is just right. But the actual idea comes so fast that I would just stand up and leave the room and go to the computer, get used to the screen for a minute at three in the morning, and then type it all out, and then close it down. You see it in the morning and see it if it works. But you write the whole thing.

What do you hope to accomplish going forward?

This is like the luckiest job because your whole job, or at least 90% of it, is to keep yourself engaged and interested. As soon as you sort of move sideways instead of forward in the work, it’s not only bad for you, but it’s bad for the work, it’s bad for the audience, and it’s bad for the form. That sounds sort of precocious maybe, but it’s all you can do, to keep moving forward. And I think as long as—I don’t know what the work will look like in 10, 20 years if I get to keep doing it for that long, but I’m really hoping it’s still interesting to me. As long as it’s just generally challenging and I still feel like I’m in over my head, that would be great. I would love that.

Final question–I’ve always seen you in interviews wearing a hat.

I don’t know what the deal is–I found a picture of me, a family photo, one of these staged family photos in a park somewhere, I think I was in 2nd grade, and I was already wearing a baseball hat. So I don’t know what it is. It’s a weird—like I can physically relax in the morning when I put it on. I don’t know what that’s about. I actually didn’t think about it with the “hat” books. For my own books, putting a hat on a character was a really good visual motivation for a story. For a 2nd grader across the room, if you’re a character and you put a hat on, they can see that 40 feet away, and it’s a good story idea. And I don’t really associate it with my own hats. It’s become sort of a weird–I never really thought would have a thing because I guess I have a thing. I can’t explain it better than that.

I talked to writer who said she was an introvert and likes wearing glasses because it gives her a shield from people outside.

It’s a comfort thing, I think. There’s something physically comforting about it. I don’t know. And it could be anything. I don’t think it’s about hats. It could be a sweater you like or glasses or anything else, or shoes, a certain kind. As soon as you figure one thing out, that’s as much as you can ask for in terms of how you dress.


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