Lesser Known Masterpieces from Your Favourite Illustrators November 08 2017
A Drink of Water, illustrated by Quentin Blake
The nature of children's books and childhood memory means that we often associate our favourite illustrators with just one book or series. Quentin Blake's recognisable inky illustrations will forever be associated with Roald Dahl, and Shirley Hughes' soft style immediately stirs fondness for her well-known Alfie series. But illustrators usually create masses of work in the span of their careers, and some of the most accomplished work from our favourite illustrators lies in books you might not have heard of yet! Here are some of our favourite lesser-known books from the most iconic illustrators of the last century.
Best known for Alfie
In 1968, Methuen commissioned the artist Shirley Hughes to illustrate the fourth collection of Dorothy Edwards’ My Naughty Little Sister stories, which began as a series of popular radio broadcasts. The series' author Dorothy Edwards loved Hughes’ illustrations so much that she was asked to re-illustrate the earlier collections for reissue, and the most well-known image of My Naughty Little Sister is now Shirley Hughes' depiction of her.
This work was a breakthrough success for Hughes, who went on to illustrate over fifty books, including her own massively popular Alfie series. Egmont recently released My Naughty Little Sister: A Treasury Collection, which has Shirley Hughes’ illustrations in full colour for the first time! You can buy it here.
Best known for creating The Moomins
In 1959, Tove Jansson, best known as the creator of the Moomins, was commissioned to illustrate a Swedish translation of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. Her illustration style suited Carroll’s strangeness perfectly, and this project is hailed as a meeting of two of the greatest children’s authors of the past 150 years.
Jansson was later asked to also illustrate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which presented her with an exciting opportunity to try out a new style. Upon receiving her work the book’s delighted editor immediately sent Jansson a telegram which read “Congratulations for Alice- you have produced a masterpiece”.
Best known for Winnie-the-Pooh
E.H. Shepard sometimes lamented that his beloved illustrations for Winnie-the-Pooh overshadowed his other work. He was a brilliantly versatile illustrator, adept at capturing the atmosphere of any writer’s work. Shepard was the original illustrator of the first edition of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. His drawings for the book show his skill at capturing characters and atmosphere, in a world that is very different from the Hundred Acre Wood. The Wind in the Willows has since been taken on by countless illustrators, Inga Moore’s version is one of our other favourites.
Best known for collaborating with Roald Dahl
Long before he ever heard of Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake was already a popular illustrator. He first became well known for illustrating covers of Punch magazine, but always wanted to illustrate a full book. He asked his friend John Yeoman to write a collection of stories for him to illustrate, and in 1960 A Drink of Water was published. The book had been out of print for about fifty years, but Thames and Hudson recently released a new facsimile edition which is completely loyal to the original. (You can get it here). Blake’s illustrations, in his now iconic scratchy style, are immediately recognisable. Because of early sixties printing methods, the illustrations only use only two colours, which today gives them a lovely vintage feel. (You can see more of this 1960s print style in The Mellops go Spelunking and A Balloon for a Blunderbuss).
Quentin Blake’s amazing ability to illustrate a book’s most complex concepts is maybe best exemplified in Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. He said that this illustration, of the author “being sad but pretending [he’s] being happy”, was the most difficult he’s ever done, as he had to capture the sadness behind a smile. The image that follows it depicts how Rosen is really feeling. The comparison strikes to the heart of what the book is about.
Best known for The Velveteen Rabbit
William’s Nicholson was the original illustrator of Margery Williams’ Velveteen Rabbit, a story which has not declined in popularity since its original publication in 1922. Nicholson’s other books are now less famous, but are no less brilliant. He both wrote and illustrated Clever Bill, which Maurice Sendak described as “among the few perfect picture books for children”.
Best known for Findus and Pettson
Sven Nordqvist is a household name all over Scandinavia and in Germany for his series of books about an old farmer and mischievous cat, Findus and Pettson. But arguably his best work as an illustrator is in his stand-alone book Where Is My Sister.
He conceived this book before Findus and Pettson ever existed, and came back to the project after becoming a successful illustrator. Where is My Sister is a surreal dreamscape of intricately detailed double spreads, published in large format which allows you to escape into its world for hours.
Best known for The Hat Trilogy
Jon Klassen is one of the most popular picture book makers working today. He’s best known for his explosively funny trilogy of books about animals and hats; I Want My Hat Back, This is Not My Hat and We Found a Hat. His collaborations with the writer Mac Barnett have also brought him acclaim. Their latest, The Wolf the Duck & the Mouse, was published only last month.
Klassen and Barnett’s books are marked by their sly humour and expressive, devious animals, but Klassen's collaborations with other writers show a versatile range. House Held Up By Trees is written by poet Ted Kooser, and Klassen’s illustrations for it are on a completely different register to his other work. They have a sombre stillness that works well with the book’s reflective and poetic text.
Jon Klassen has also collaborated with the writer of A Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket. Their book, The Dark, is all about the balance of light and dark, both in its story and its artwork.
Our carefully curated selection of books includes lots of lesser known works by iconic illustrators, as well as books from amazing artists you may not have heard of. You can browse the entire range here.
Too Much Too Soon? Dark Themes in Children's Books August 16 2017
We believe that children’s books have a special importance in teaching people about values, imagination and the world in general from a very young age. But should that education include the darker side of life, or should children be sheltered from life’s unpleasantness as far as possible?
Grimm & grimmer
Since stories for children have been in existence they have functioned as warnings and behavioural codes for children. The Brothers Grimm Fairytales have become part of our psyche without us even realising, everyone knows the meaning of a Big Bad Wolf. Stripped back to their core, fairytales are just lessons for life: don’t talk to strangers (Little Red Riding Hood), don’t stray too far from home (Hansel and Gretel), and things are not always as they seem (The Princess and the Frog).
The original Grimms stories didn’t hold back when getting these messages across, some of the original tales are downright gory. Cinderella’s ugly sisters hack parts of their feet off to fit into the glass slipper and Red Riding Hood’s huntsman cuts the sleeping wolf’s belly open to find her grandmother still alive inside!
These stories have since been softened up and Disney-fied, with most people now knowing them in much fluffier forms. But what is still capturing the imaginations of artists and writers generations later is their dark edge, the way they touch on the less talked about sides of life. Stories can sometimes be the only place where we can freely explore difficult subjects, especially when we are children.
This stencil artwork by UNIT. design studio captures the ambiguity and threat of the Red Riding Hood story. Read our earlier blog all about how UNIT. create their artwork here.
Play-pretend and growing up
Books for children have a vital function not only in teaching them about the world, but also in allowing them to explore emotions such as fear and sadness, in a safe way. For a lot of children, giggling and cowering from an adult reading in the voice of the Big Bad Wolf is how they learn to act out fear for the first time. A lot of children enjoy scary stories in the same way adults enjoy rollercoasters and horror films. They present a chance to experience the full range of human emotion, without having to be in it for real. For children, learning what it is to be frightened within a make-believe context can help them process an emotion that they will inevitably face for real sooner or later in life.
Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf by golden age illustrator Arthur Rackham.
Our Illustrator of the Month blog series has touched on some of the best children’s authors, and what these authors all have in common is the fact that they don’t talk down to children. Instead, the best among them have a special ability to get in touch with the child’s psyche. Great children’s writers remember that children have a unique view on the world which is all too easy for grownups to forget. Learning about the absurdities of the adult world can be immensely confusing for children, when we consider that adults lie out of politeness, they accept things that are totally unfair, and they spend much of their time doing things they don’t enjoy. The best children’s books delight in this absurdity and create a world where the author and the child reader are in on it together. Think of the dedication preceding Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince: “I ask children to forgive me in dedicating this book to a grown up” and the exasperation in its first pages, “Grown ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for children to have to explain it to them again and again”.
Working at Tales for Tadpoles gives us an insight into what children really like to read, and two books we’ve been told children love are This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen and The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer. Looking at what these books have in common, it may be their moral ambiguity that children delight in. In This Is Not My Hat, a flustered little fish tells us he has stolen a hat, and even though he knows that is wrong, he is going to keep it anyway. Adults tend to let out a guffaw of shock when they read the ending, as it not so subtly implies that the hat-stealing fish we have been rooting for all along has met a sticky end. But children love being let in on a secret from the adult world: sometimes good fish make bad decisions. And sometimes bad things happen to good fish.
Find out more about Jon Klassen's work here.
The Three Robbers is another story in which the difference between good and evil is less clear than in more conventional children’s books. Three highwaymen hold up a carriage with a little orphan girl inside, and steal her away to a better life. They use their stolen gold to build a house for all mistreated children to live in. But does this make the fact that they’ve stolen the gold okay? The question is left unanswered. For children, who are always being told what is what, it’s exciting to get to decide this one for themselves.
Reality in fiction
In an article on dark subjects in children's books for The Guardian, young adult fiction writer Rebecca Westcott had this to say: “Children live in families; they are surrounded by adults with all their adult problems…Life happens and they are a part of that. Their books need to reflect what they hear, what they see. They need to recognise their situations in a book”.
It is natural for parents to want to protect their children from what’s going on in the world. But children are also citizens of the world, and older children who are aware of life’s cruelty need books to help them process it. In A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Jim Kay, a young boy deals with his mother’s cancer through talking it out with a monster who visits him nightly. Jim Kay’s illustrations create an atmosphere of foreboding that anyone who has been touched by illness can recognise and appreciate, and this book bridges childhood and adulthood by representing a loved one’s illness in a child’s terms; a monster hiding in the dark.
Often in children’s books, illustrations help to fill the gaps when not everything can be expressed in words. Michael Rosen’s Sad Book is an excellent example of the importance of interplay between word and image when dealing with difficult subject matter. This book explores grief and depression in an accessible way, with Quentin Blake’s illustrations alternately lightening the mood and reinforcing the sadness of the text. The image below is among the most evocative illustrations in the book: the dearth that a loved one leaves after their death is explained simply through a blank space.
For children who have experienced the death of someone close to them, this is a straightforward visual representation of death itself, and of how it feels. Someone was there, and now they’re not. There is simply an empty space.
Maia and What Matters is another book that uses illustration to explore family situations that are hard to discuss in words. Maia’s grandmother’s loss of speech after a stroke is represented by illustrator Kaatje Vermeire in an image of Maia and her grandmother out to sea, perched on the edge of a boat. The water swells around them, isolating them, while a squirrel struggles against the swell, trying to reach out a phone to the boat. In Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling, research interviews show even the youngest children to be very adept at picking up visual metaphors. Where language fails small children, they express themselves in pictures, and this allows them to read images in a way that many adults lose. Trying to explain loss of speech to a young child in words may seem insurmountable, but a lot of children will associate the idea of someone holding out a phone with a memory of talking to their grandparents. Children can read the image and realise that the phone being lost at sea means that Maia can't speak with her grandmother anymore. Visual cues that adults might miss are honed in on by children, and in this way illustrations can open up a discussion.
Not just for children
As all wise grown-ups know, children’s books are not just for children. And illustrations can also help adults process difficult emotions. One of our most popular books with adults in the shop has been The Big Question, in which a committee of animals ask the question “How do you know when you love someone?”. There are a range of different answers, but they all leave the chairperson, a small ant, feeling lonely. If any book tried to manage this same story in passages of text, it would feel heavy handed, but the picture book format leaves space for us to feel things without having to process them consciously.
Reading children’s books later in life also links us back to our own childhood. The journalist Bruce Handy has written extensively on the subject of enjoying children’s books as an adult, and wrote in the Wall Street Journal that he “really hadn’t expected to be turned into an emotional puddle by Winnie the Pooh”. He spoke of reading the Pooh books to his own children, and the new layers of meaning he could come to appreciate. He was particularly moved by the passage at the end of The House at Pooh Corner where Christopher Robin struggles to explain to Pooh that he might not be around so much anymore…because he is not going to be a child forever. Tissue, anyone?
Educating the next generation
As children’s books are written by adults, there are certainly always elements of them that we can only understand when we have grown up and seen what the world is like. But the likes of children’s authors Tomi Ungerer and Maurice Sendak would argue that even sheltered, happy children should be exposed to the adult world, including things like war, violence and injustice through books. Tomi Ungerer writes in the treasury of his work that “children should be exposed to what war is like as early as possible. If you don’t share stories like this, how are you going to bring awareness?”. For Ungerer, books are an important tool to teach young people about prejudice and injustice so that they can go into life wanting to improve the world. (For more on Tomi Ungerer and his unique outlooks and experiences, see our previous blog on his work).
A little boy says goodbye to his soldier father in Tomi Ungerer's Otto
For Ungerer’s friend Maurice Sendak, children’s books also have an important function. Sendak had a difficult childhood and felt alienated from the happy-clappy world of conventional children’s books. In the 1990s he approached Tony Kushner to adapt Brundibar, a Czech opera, into a picture book. The resulting book functions on two levels, it is a colourful tale of working together to defeat unfairness, full of rhyme and song. But its historical background can help parents teach children about history. The opera this book is based on was performed by the children of Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp, in order to fool Red Cross inspector into thinking camp conditions were acceptable. Maurice Sendak’s childhood was affected by the death of many family members during the Holocaust, and today Walker Books donates a portion of proceeds from the book to the Holocaust Educational Trust.
Children inhabit a world of imagination, and that’s what makes childhood such a unique and special time. But whether we like to acknowledge it or not they also live in the real world, an adult world with all its contradictions and questions. Children’s books can help build a bridge between this world of play and imagination and the darker side of human life. The best books for children don’t talk down to children, but understand their natural curiosity about all aspects of life, even the unpalatable ones. And even when we grow into adulthood, children’s books can help us process things about this world that are hard to understand.
View our full hand-picked range of books here.
It’s our birthday! Our Drury Street store was one year old last week and we have celebrated by giving out gifts in our massive sale and our social media competitions!
To celebrate our first year, we’ve been thinking about one year olds through the ages; how they were raised and most importantly what they read! We’ve picked out some of the best children’s books published in every decade from the 1920s up to now, and taken a look at some of the popular parenting advice of their time.
Childhood in the 1920s
One year olds in the 1920s were an unfortunate bunch if their parents followed the popular parenting advice of the day, which ranged from touching the baby as little as possible to having it spend as much time outdoors as possible. Robert and Mary were the most popular names for babies, so while sitting alone on the lawn all day, little Mary or Robert may have found some comfort in the great picture books published in that decade, which included The Velveteen Rabbit and Clever Bill, both illustrated by William Nicholson.
And who could forget the beloved Pooh! The first Winnie the Pooh collection of stories was published in 1926, so perhaps these 1920's parents may have read it to their little ones out the kitchen window, while keeping a safe distance of course.
In the 1920s the emphasis on the need for fresh air and sunshine for babies persisted from the previous decade, and led to parents in high rise tenement blocks in places like London and the U.S. installing wire "baby cages" on their windows so that their toddlers could spend enough time outdoors! The '30s also saw the introduction from Vienna of a theory called “democratic parenting”, a method of kind but firm childrearing that aimed to treat children with more equality to adults than was common in that era.
Among the most popular baby names in the 1930s were Margaret and John, and these babies were treated to the adventures of Babar the Elephant, the popular series of books about King Babar and his wife Celeste. A.A. Milne, author of Winnie the Pooh, said “If you love elephants you will love Babar and Celeste. If you have never loved elephants you will love them now".
In 1946 a new parenting book was published by Dr. Benjamin Spock, advocating parents to reject the previous decades’ distant parenting style and reconnect to their natural nurturing instincts. This brought more focus to warmth and bonding than in previous years. Good news for little John and Margaret, who were still the most popular names! This decade was also a great one for children’s books, with one of the most popular children’s books ever, The Little Prince, being published in the original French in 1943. The Little Prince is the third most translated book in the world, after the Bible and the Koran! For children in Scandinavia, Moomins were also starting to make an appearance, with The Moomins and the Great Flood being published in the original Swedish in 1945.
Because of advertisements like the one above, 1950s common wisdom about what was healthy and correct is the source of much amusement these days! However some people have started to question whether they might have had some things right after all. Because factory production hadn’t returned to pre-war levels, more parents made their children’s toys by hand and used reusable cloth nappies, and with television still uncommon at home, young children were likely to be read to often. And what a choice of books those children had! Our perception of 1950s culture these days is usually of a conservative mainstream culture, but in children’s books as well as other areas a lot of artists were reaching new heights of innovation. Little Susan and David, the most likely names for babies born in the 1950s, may have grown up with the wacky Dr. Seuss as a household name, and Tove Jansson's Moomins also exploded in popularity during this decade.
In 1962 a paediatrician called Walter W. Sackett Jr. published Bringing Up Baby, a book which recommended that babies as young as 10 weeks should be eating bacon, eggs and even coffee, to acclimatise to the family’s eating habits! In the same decade, Harry Harlow’s controversial experiments on baby monkeys showed that infants prioritise warmth and comfort from a parent over basic needs. The Sixties was a good time for children’s books, with little David and Susan ,(still the most popular names!), likely to grow up with now-iconic characters such as Miffy.
In the U.S., artists like Tomi Ungerer and Maurice Sendak led a swerve towards darker and edgier books for children, such as Ungerer's The Three Robbers. And cutting edge designers experimented with children's illustration in books like A Balloon For A Blunderbuss.
The 1970s saw the rise of a more child-centred and intuitive parenting style proposed by Penelope Leach. In contrast to the parenting styles of previous generations, mothers and fathers were now encouraged to put the baby’s needs above their own and to trust their instincts. Jennifer and Michael were popular names for babies, and little Jenny and Mike grew up with Judith Kerr’s scatty cat Mog, who is still loved to this day.
Other books that '70s kids might remember include When Tom Beat Captain Najork by Russell Hoban and Quentin Blake.
This decade’s babies were likely to be named Sarah or Paul, and they would have grown up with more TV than previous generations. Children's books were still an important part of early childhood though, and some of our favourite books were published in the '80s. Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge stories were first published in this decade, along with Shirley Hughes’ Alfie books.
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen demonstrate the 1990s trend for attachment.
By the time the 1990s came along, Michael and Jessica were the reigning babies! Guides advocating attachment parenting became popular, which is reflected in one of the most popular children’s books of the decade, Guess How Much I Love You.
Jacob and Jack, Emily and Sophie have all been popular names in the last few years, and social media has meant that childhood is more publicly shared and discussed than ever before. Children’s books have been booming with award-winning artists like Jon Klassen, Carson Ellis and Oliver Jeffers enjoying mass popularity. Klassen’s ‘Hat Trilogy’ may be remembered by this generation’s children as the iconic books of their childhood.
And in 2016, a little shop on Drury Street opened, with the aim to bring the best illustrated books from the last 100 years to children and grown up children in Ireland and beyond! A big thank you to all our customers for your valued support in our first year. Here's to the next hundred!
You can view our full collection of illustrated children's books here.
Who is the Best Bunny in Children's Literature? May 24 2017
We here at Tales for Tadpoles like to bring you the hard-hitting questions of the day. It’s important to take the time to question your beliefs and make up your mind on where you stand on important issues. So ask yourself this, who really is the best children’s book bunny? We ran a quick poll on Twitter and Instagram earlier this month, but now we want to open this conversation further and delve into what makes each bunny unique. We’ve listed five of the main contenders here, with rabbits from classic literature to more modern picture books. To make it easier we’ve assigned each rabbit a music genre or song, type of cuisine, and mode of transport, so that you can figure out which one you might relate to most. When you’ve decided who you’re backing, make sure to give us your opinion in the comments below!
1. Peter Rabbit
Possibly the best known rabbit of all the children’s book rabbits. Will score points with the rebellious crowd for his flagrant disregard for the rules in pillaging Mr. McGregor’s produce, just when his good mother told him not to. Perhaps he is also an eco-warrior concerned about food waste in modern farming methods? There’s definitely an undergraduate thesis in there somewhere…
Peter is a beloved nostalgic figure for many generations, and has been part of peoples’ childhoods for over a hundred years. In terms of design, Peter is an anatomically correct rabbit, but he wears a tiny jacket and pair of loafers. What a combination! Beatrix Potter’s fine balance between realism and whimsy is what makes her still so popular today.
Soundtrack: Peter is definitely a little punk
Mode of transport: Wanders about going “lippity- lippity-, not very fast”
Tiny jacket rating: 10/10
Miffy is everyone’s favourite minimalist, everyone’s favourite bicyclist and everyone’s favourite artist. How she fits all these activities into the day is frankly remarkable, and all without opposable thumbs!
She is an action bunny and has starred in such stories as Miffy the Artist, Miffy’s Bicycle, Miffy is Crying and Miffy at the Playground. Miffy will win points with some for being slightly alternative. She is originally from the Netherlands, where she is known as Njintje, and like all cool, alternative things, she is very popular in Japan. In terms of illustration, Miffy is very different to Peter Rabbit, being created out of minimal strong black lines, block colours and defined shapes.
Dick Bruna created his own colour palette to work with on the Miffy books so that they would be recognisable instantly. Miffy has been on the scene since the mid 1950s, but Bruna's style of drawing still looks modern today.
Soundtrack: Minimalist electronica
Mode of transport: Bicycle
Tiny jacket rating: Miffy has many tiny, well put together outfits. Dick Bruna made her a girl bunny because he found dresses more interesting to draw than trousers. Miffy also gains sartorial points for the snow-hat she can sometimes be seen in, which is shaped to cover her entire ears.
3. Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh
Unlike most of the other animals of the Hundred Acre Wood, who are based on Christopher Robin's soft toys, Rabbit is a real rabbit. This gives him a sense of self-importance that he usually fails to live up to. Like Peter Rabbit he is drawn realistically and often shown standing on two feet and gesturing at things. Rabbits can stand on two feet in real life, but whether they gesture at things is a matter of debate. Rabbit is introduced to the Winnie the Pooh stories when he invites Pooh into his burrow for a visit. Pooh, being Pooh, eats too much and gets stuck in the hole on the way out, and for this scene alone Rabbit deserves a place on this list.
He loses points for not having a tiny jacket, though at one point he says he would need seventeen pockets to carry all of his friends and relations around with him, so perhaps he has an overcoat in his burrow that we don’t know about. Rabbit is looked up to by the other characters; he is often called upon to settle things, and to take charge of group events. However he usually gets rather flustered and messes them up.
Soundtrack: ‘For Emma’ by Bon Iver: “for all your lies, you’re still very lovable”.
Food: Vegan fine dining
Mode of transport: Public transport, because he is community minded.
Tiny jacket rating: Rabbit is a naturist and wears no clothes.
4. The White Rabbit from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Without the White Rabbit there would be no Alice in Wonderland! There would merely be Alice Sitting on the Bank of a River While Her Sister Reads A Book, which would not have made a very good story at all. The White Rabbit is the first hint that things are about to get weird in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. When he takes a watch out of his waistcoat pocket, Alice realises that not only do rabbits not generally have watches, they don’t generally have waistcoat pockets either. The White Rabbit leads Alice down the rabbit hole and so begins the great adventure we all love! It’s possible that the White Rabbit is the rabbit of most literary significance on this list, with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland having never been out of print since its publication over 150 years ago. Another point to consider is that there is no end to representations of the White Rabbit, so he has something to suit any taste in illustration style.
The White Rabbit consulting his pocket watch (Helen Oxenbury) and breaking into a run (Robert Ingpen)
Sir John Tenniel's original White Rabbit
Soundtrack: Psychedelic rock
Food: Afternoon tea
Method of transport: Running late!
Tiny jacket rating: Most certainly has a waistcoat, and a watch in his pocket.
5. The rabbit in I Want My Hat Back
The most recent rabbit on this list, this rabbit is a key character in I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. He is the one seen wearing the hat that looks suspiciously like the hat the bear is looking for in the title.
Soon after the bear realises this, the rabbit mysteriously disappears and is never seen again. Like Peter Rabbit, this rabbit is undeniably a petty thief, but unlike Peter, who sheds a tear or two, he expresses no remorse. He is rendered in Klassen’s recognisable clean style, using watercolour and ink, with very expressive (shifty) eyes. Klassen's subsersive sense of humour means the fluffy bunny rabbit is the dishonest villain in this book, so he may deserve your vote for subverting bunny norms.
Soundtrack: 'Smooth Criminal' by Michael Jackson.
Food: Whatever is on someone else's plate.
Mode of transport: Getaway car.
Tiny jacket rating: All this rabbit is wearing is the hat that will lead to his demise.
Please cast your vote and settle this once and for all! And if you have another suggestion for the best rabbits in children’s literature, please let us know - we may even let you include hares…
Illustrator of the Month: Jon Klassen May 10 2017
This week we’re beginning a series of blog posts that will focus on some of our favourite illustrators, their lives and their works. This is a chance to learn more about who illustrated your favourite books, the influences that shaped their art style and storytelling, and some of their lesser known projects.
We begin with a firm favourite among kids and adults alike, a relative newcomer to the scene but one whose books have already become classics. It’s the amazing Jon Klassen!
Klassen is best known for his ‘hat trilogy’; I Want My Hat Back, This Is Not My Hat and We Found a Hat, and for his collaborations with writer Mac Barnett; Extra Yarn, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, and the newest addition, Triangle. Klassen is recognisable for his clean and minimal illustration style, using ink and watercolour textures to create defined shapes and strong designs. His characters usually remain very still but are very expressive, their eyes often giving away their intentions and emotions. As a writer he’s known for his deliciously dark sense of humour. This sense of humour is unusual in children’s books and is one of the ingredients that makes him so loved by grown up children as well as little ones!
The road to picture books is paved with good intentions
Jon Klassen was born in Canada and grew up in Niagara Falls and Toronto. He studied animation and moved to L.A. after graduation, where he now lives and works. Before moving into picture books Klassen worked as an animator on films including Coraline and Kung Fu Panda. His illustration work received international recognition when he won the Governor General’s Award for his work on Carolyn Stutson’s Cat’s Night Out. But it was the release of his first book as author and illustrator, I Want My Hat Back, in 2011 that really made his name. In a blog for 'Picture Book Makers' Klassen said that he has always enjoyed the stillness in drawing inanimate objects: “I like a story that allows the viewer to wander around a little bit and find it on their own”. This is exemplified in his illustrations for Ted Kooser’s House Held Up By Trees, where it is the house and not the people that is the main focus of the story.
However in the same blog Klassen explained how this preference for drawing inanimate objects paradoxically led to creating one of his most recognisable characters. He was asked to design some greeting cards for Red Cap cards, and when he sent them sketches of chairs and inanimate objects they asked if he could draw some characters instead. He eventually sent back “a series of animals wearing birthday hats and holding balloons, but their faces and poses made them look, to me, like they had no idea what a birthday was and didn’t really care. I was excited by this approach. It made me laugh, and it got me off the hook”.
From Red Cap cards
The animals on this card are recognisable to anyone who has read I Want My Hat Back, especially the bear in his signature red hat. This was the beginning of something glorious.
The movies and the pictures
Klassen’s background as an animator has shaped his approach, both in his design preferences and in the limitations he saw in his own practise. His books are notable for their brilliant pacing and comic timing, and he has found his ultimate form in the picture book. The experience of reading the best picture books feels like something between watching a film and reading a book. Not having a background in writing meant Klassen felt unsure of himself when making I Want My Hat Back, his first book as both writer and illustrator. However it’s these limitations he saw in his own skill set that have worked to the benefit of the book and made it so unique. Because he was uncomfortable writing narration as a non-writer, he stripped back all lines to simple dialogue. And because of his emphasis on the visual, the lines are not in inverted commas but in different colours for each character, meaning that nothing stands in the way of the reader “hearing” the voices of the characters. The language is stiff and straightforward because Klassen wanted the animals to feel awkward saying their “lines”. They also often look at the reader as if they are bad actors looking at a camera. Unlike illustrators such as Quentin Blake, whose expressiveness comes from bold dashes and messy lines of movement, Klassen finds expression in stillness. The animals’ deadpan faces and awkward stances make the high stakes game of a bear seeking retribution for a hat stolen by a rabbit seem even funnier.
We Found A Hat, the last in the hat trilogy, goes even further with the filmic effect. It is divided into 3 parts: Part One: Finding the Hat, Part Two: Watching the Sunset, and Part Three: Going to Sleep. It’s easy to imagine an ad break or interval in between the parts, adding to the anticipation and suspense before we turn the page. As is common in Klassen’s books, the animals’ eyes are a focal point leading the action. When two turtles discover a hat, they seem to be on the same page about leaving it behind. After all it is just the one hat, and they are two turtles. But when one of the turtles is shown looking back at the hat at the end of Part Two, (the only word on the page being "nothing" makes it seem as if these turtles could be in a Samuel Beckett play), we realise that all is not as it seems. There is trouble afoot.
One thing Klassen plays with brilliantly is the contradiction between what the image is saying and what the text is saying. He told ‘Art of the Picture Book’:
“If they're being read to by an adult, I feel that the pictures are the kids’ territory. So if the pictures give out some information that the text doesn’t, there's a secret from the person reading it or maybe even from the person who wrote it”.
When children are being read aloud to, they can stop and question what is being said in words versus what they can see in pictures. This makes the books more interactive and gives children a sense of pride and cleverness, which is one of the ingredients to his success with kids as well as grown ups. In I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat, this interplay between text and image allows us to tell when the devious animals are lying. In Sam and Dave Dig A Hole, it’s used more subtly to create an eerie open ending to the story when Sam and Dave arrive “home”, to a place ever so slightly different to the one they started out in.
The writer and the illustrator
As well as working on his own projects as a writer and illustrator, Jon Klassen has collaborated with many people to illustrate their stories. He has a recurring collaboration with Mac Barnett, a great children’s book writer in his own right. Their first book together, Extra Yarn, was published in 2012, and its follow up, Sam and Dave Dig A Hole, was conceived during a chat over breakfast. It’s easy to tell that there is a close relationship between the writer and illustrator here, as the words and images in this book are not completely separate entities but playfully interact with each other. The shapes of words play into the tumbling motion as Sam and Dave fall down the hole in the final pages.
Klassen’s latest collaboration with Barnett is Triangle, another tale populated by devious creatures. Only this time they’re not animals, but shapes. Klassen’s love of landscape drawing shines through here. This book gives him the scope to create layered panoramas of shapes as Triangle runs from his triangular home to Square’s square one.
Image from Triangle, from Jon Klassen’s tumblr.
Klassen collaborated with the poet Ted Kooser, on House Held Up By Trees. This story was inspired by a real-life house Kooser saw, but Klassen recently tweeted that he deliberately didn’t look at the photo when he was designing the house. (Do yourself a favour and follow him on Twitter and Instagram, he is always sharing process and archive shots and his wry sense of humour transmits very well to social media!) He has said that when researching something, he likes to look at it just once and then work from memory, so that his sources don't influence the finished product too much. In an interview with ‘Art of the Picture Book’, he speaks about his guilt that he never kept sketchbooks as an animation student, and how he approaches other artists’ work as inspiration. Because he did not have a natural impulse to draw from life in a sketchbook, like his classmates who sketched people on the subway and in coffee shops, Klassen’s style is rooted less in anatomy and accuracy and more in impression and mood. He used the artist David Hockney’s coloured pencil drawings as inspiration during Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, but says that his memory of Hockney’s work was more important to him than anything he could get from constantly referencing and trying to mimic it.
De Longpre Ave. Hollywood by David Hockney from hockneypictures.com
Klassen's work is beautiful from a design and illustration perspective but what really sets him apart are his stories. Like all great children's writers, he doesn't speak down to children and he understands their sense of humour and unique outlook on the world. His books are not as dark as some by writers like Maurice Sendak or Tomi Ungerer, but they retain a fairytale grimness that is the basis for a lot of our most well-known stories. Characters are often eaten, but the gory details are left off page and merely alluded to, like the action that happens offstage in a Shakespearean tragedy. Morality is a grey area here and there are no hard and fast heroes and villains. We find ourselves rooting for a thieving fish in This Is Not My Hat and in the final pages of I Want My Hat Back the double-crossed bear who has been the victim all along insists, “I would never eat a rabbit”. Do we believe him?
Children love reading books again and again, and picture books are designed for this. But when someone like Jon Klassen uses the form to its utmost advantage, adults will also find something new to enjoy every time.
Explore our full range of Jon Klassen books here.
Photo of Jon Klassen by Autumn Le' Brannon.