Top children’s author Jon Klassen tells Hongkongers how to write for kids

Book illustrator turned writer Jon Klassen will share insights in Hong Kong on the creative process in writing children’s picture books

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 November, 2015, 6:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 November, 2015, 11:20am

Jon Klassen was chugging along comfortably as an illustrator for other people’s books – including Caroline Stutson’s award-winning 2010 title Cats’ Night Out – and working as an animator on films such as Coraline.

But when he elected to write and illustrate his own books a few years ago, Klassen never anticipated the response: I Want My Hat Back (2011) and This Is Not My Hat (2012)both sat on the New York Times Bestseller list for more than 40 weeks. Between them, the books have won a host of accolades, sold more than a million copies and have been translated into 22 languages. All for a couple of deceptively simple stories about creatures, and a hat.

“I had no idea that these books would do what they did,” Klassen says from Los Angeles. “You don’t know how it’s going to go over.”

I like talking about the construction of both books, what the tricks are, the moments where everything clicked.
Jon Klassen

He is preparing to give a talk in Hong Kong on Thursday on the creative process in writing children’s picture books. That’s a somewhat elliptical task to describe, concedes Klassen, who is visiting at the invitation of Bring Me A Book HK, an NGO promoting family literacy in the city.

“I think I’ve gotten better [at talking about it] as the years have gone by – although you always end up coming up with things after the fact that were not part of the process. But I like talking about the construction of both books, what the tricks are, the moments where everything clicked.”

The author-illustrator was born and raised in Canada, but moved to Los Angeles about a decade ago after studying animation. In Hollywood, he worked on the animation for films including Kung Fu Pandaand illustrated children’s books on the side.

“But then I realised I needed to start writing my own books, for both financial and creative reasons.

I just wasn’t sure it would be my thing.”

Klassen, 33, can’t quite pinpoint how he got the idea for I Want My Hat Back, but says the cover was the first thing he conceived.

It’s a short tale about a bear who loses his hat, and asks a series of creatures if they’ve seen it before realising that one of them had, and was not being entirely truthful about it. To a reviewer for the Chicago Tribune, “the joy of this book lies in figuring out the explicit plot from the implicit details in the pictures”.

That explains the wry charm in Klassen’s books: the words may not convey the whole truth, but the pictures don’t lie. In that sense, he has a pleasantly non-conformist approach to storytelling.

“At first, I was writing it pretty straight,” Klassen recalls of the process.

“A bear has lost its hat – I wasn’t suggesting anything. I was using a tone I’d heard somewhere. But then [while] watching TV I realised I could do it like a play. It’s hard to figure out when you start writing this stuff if you don’t have any narration, if you’re not putting any of yourself in the book.

“After that, the whole thing came together very quickly. A friend of mine once said to me that it took him 10 years to write a novel in four months. Well, it took me one and a half years to write this book in an hour.”

Having committed to a three-book deal, Klassen says that he was plagued by doubts about how he would produce the second title.

“It scares you after you’ve finished the first one, that you can’t copy the process again. So you collect everything that may or may not work, and hope those things come together again.”

His follow-up, This Is Not My Hat, features a little fish that has pilfered a hat from a big fish, and is hoping to elude detection.

Like its predecessor, the book has a slightly sardonic,cheeky tone, and follows a similar visual style of using muted colours, nowhere near the bright, eye-popping primary shades often associated with children’s books.

“It was harder doing the second one, because there was already a known quantity,” Klassen says. “There was something of a style to the first book. First I thought, ‘how hard can this be?’ and I bounced around a bunch of different ideas. I copied the format of the first one, and then finally decided to do an inverse of that.

“Doing it as a monologue was the strongest way to write it. The character is telling you one thing, but the pictures are telling you something else. And there is this awareness that the character is doomed from the beginning.”

Book three is scheduled for release next autumn, but Klassen can’t reveal much – except to say it involves another hat. But where his first title was “a little subversive and sarcastic”, he describes number three as “more sincere”.

“Looking at the trajectory of all three books, the third one is not at all cynical and not at all dry. I’ve wandered away from that,” he says.

Klassen is all too aware of the challenges of engaging young readers at a time when there are so many other types of media clamouring for their attention. For many families, the simple pleasure of picking up a sweet and low-key book has been sidelined in favour of digital downloads, video games, superhero films.

But “if you set up a story properly, it can still be just as big or meaningful, and can still have an impact,” he says. “I believe that kids can start from scratch with you, as long as you teach them where they are in the story.”

Jon Klassen author talk and book signing; November 19, 4pm- 5.30pm; Hong Kong Football Club Meeting Rooms 1-3 , 3 Sports Road, Happy Valley; HK$150 per child (free for parents). To register, visit http://www.eventbee.com/v/bmabhk/event?eid=144031682