Young author wins 2 major awards

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

Jon Klassen may be only 31 years old, but he's already accomplished a rare feat: winning both a Caldecott Medal and a Caldecott Honor in the same year.

In the world of children's literature, winning the Caldecott Medal -- given annually by the American Library Association to the best illustrated children's book published the previous year -- is akin to winning an Oscar in the movie world. For someone to also win a Caldecott Honor, a kind of runner-up award, in the same year is something even more astounding.

Until this year only one children's book creator -- Leonard Weisgard -- had pulled it off, winning both the Caldecott Medal and a Caldecott Honor in 1947.

Amazingly, all three of the picture books that Mr. Klassen published last year won major awards. "This Is Not My Hat" (Candlewick Press, $15.99, ages 4-8), a darkly humorous tale of a thieving fish that he both wrote and illustrated, won the 2013 Caldecott Medal.

Meanwhile, "Extra Yarn" (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, $16.99, ages 4-8), which tells how a young girl uses a magic knitting box to literally wrap her town in warmth and color, was one of five 2013 Caldecott Honor books. Mr. Klassen did the illustrations for the book, which was written by Mac Barnett.

Mr. Klassen's third book, "House Held Up by Trees" (Candlewick Press, $16.99, ages 5-8), a poetic look at the way a deteriorating house becomes a part of the natural landscape, was chosen by The New York Times as one of the "10 Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2012." The book was illustrated by Mr. Klassen and written by Ted Hooser.

Mr. Klassen himself is amazed and a bit terrified by the accolades heaped on his work.

"I really try not to think about it too much," he said in a recent interview. "How can I ever live up to it?"

Children's literature expert Anita Silvey, however, believes that Mr. Klassen is just getting started. Noting that he worked in animation before turning to picture books, she said that background helped him develop "his sense of story, pacing, action and humor before he ever crafted a children's book.

"With his unique and original perspective, he has already made a great contribution to books for children. I believe the best is yet to come from him, because he creates for his audience, children, and is on their side," Ms. Silvey said.

(Disclosure: An essay I wrote was included in a book edited by Ms. Silvey titled "Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children's Book.")

Mr. Klassen's work is instantly recognizable for his typically subtle palette, slyly comical drawings and intense attention to detail. He stayed awake at night, for example, worrying about the quality of the hand-lettering he did for the text of "This Is Not My Hat."

Since the 2013 Caldecott winners were announced in January, Mr. Klassen has had a frenetically busy year.

Besides increased speaking engagements, he has been even busier because he's also spent the past few months working under a tight deadline on the art for a new kind of app. He describes the app as "a bit of mobile animation -- not a feature or a short," adding that it may be released in the next few weeks.

"Because it's a new kind of thing, it was interesting for me to do," he said. "It's the only thing I would have taken time out to do this year."

Working on the app was intense, but also it helped "keep my sense of perspective" about winning the Caldecott.

Mr. Klassen, the oldest of three children, knew early on that he wanted to be an artist. His parents encouraged his interest, "probably because I always had a realistic idea about it.

"I wanted to go into animation, I wanted to get a job," he said. "I didn't want to go to some apartment in Paris and paint."

Mr. Klassen studied animation at Sheridan College in Ontario, graduating in 2005. The Canadian native then headed to Los Angeles, working on animation for two films, "Kung Fu Panda" and "Coraline."

He published his first picture book, "Cats' Night Out," in 2010. Written by Caroline Stutson, the book won a top Canadian award, the Governor General's Award for English-language children's illustration.

In 2011, his fame widened when he published "I Want My Hat Back" (Candlewick Press, $15.99, age 4-8), a hilariously subversive tale about a rabbit who takes a bear's hat and ends up eaten -- off the page -- by the bear.

The book was selected by The New York Times as one of the "10 Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2011.

Meanwhile, Mr. Klassen already was wrestling with the text and illustrations of "This Is Not My Hat," which, he said in his Caldecott acceptance speech, "owes quite a bit to" the unreliable narrator in the classic Edgar Allan Poe story "The Tell-Tale Heart."

Mr. Klassen's book also features an unreliable narrator, a little fish who has stolen the blue derby of a huge sleeping fish and gleefully tells the reader that he's not giving it back, and that the big fish will never find him anyway.

The illustrations, however, tell an entirely different story, showing how the big fish hunts down the smaller fish, with the inevitable consequences. (However, very young children could conceivably believe that the small fish got away after being forced to give up the hat. Mr. Klassen said that he tried to build in enough nuance to make that scenario plausible, if not probable.)

After sending the "roughs," or draft, of the book off to the publisher, he then began to worry that the story was too similar to "I Want My Hat Back."

"I woke up at 2 a.m. and thought, 'Oh my God, I sent them the same book again!' " Mr. Klassen laughed. "But then I realized that it really was a different book."

These days, he has begun work on the illustrations for another picture book written by Mac Barnett.

"It's about these kids who dig a hole, and I'm trying to find a process that implies a lot of dirt without me showing every speck of dirt," Mr. Klassen said, adding that he's trying out a new medium -- colored pencils.

"It's a blast! I can't believe there's a job that lets me experiment with colored pencils."

He also is beginning work on another book that he will both write and illustrate.


Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?