Playing on paper

Origin Stories: Jon Klassen

Winnipeg author and illustrator Jon Klassen honed his distinct visual style while working in theatre as a scenic painter.

Jon Klassen, like many artists, didn’t set out to have the career he has now. The illustrator and author of the award-winning I Want My Hat Back trilogy of children’s picture books was born in St. Boniface before his family moved to southern Ontario. By the end of high school, he knew he wanted to become an animator. However, he loved reading plays and took a slight detour to intern at the Shaw Festival as a scenic painter. 

Klassen later studied animation at Sheridan College and developed a successful career in animation, working in Vancouver, Los Angeles and Portland on such films as Kung Fu Panda, Coraline and the animated music video for U2’s “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.”

Klassen started to post simpler illustrations to his website with captions. “It started looking like books, but I didn’t know how you got a job that way,” he says. He was contacted by art directors and publishers who contracted him to illustrate children’s books, including Cats’ Night Out by Caroline Stutson, which won him the Governor General’s Award for illustration. 

He went on to work with some of the premier children’s book authors of the decade, including collaborating with Mac Barnett on the Triangle trilogy and Sam & Dave Dig a Hole. Klassen is known for his seemingly simplistic illustrations in watercolour with muted colours, which are delightful and strange at the same time. 

Klassen went on to write and illustrate the existentialist I Want My Hat Back, which won both the Caldecott Medal and the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration. The book spawned two sequels following the animals as they pursue their Beckett-esque hat. 

“I like writing, but I don’t write naturalistically when it comes to the picture books. I’m really tense about it and nervous. Everything comes out that way. It is very stiff and normal. It feels like every word just has to go through a labyrinth to make it out,” Klassen says.  

“I can think about dialogue, because it gets me off the hook as a writer. If they are talking, I’m not writing. They are talking, and the writing can be bad, because they are weird characters, or they are performing it badly. The idea of them as performers is a big deal. But you can pin it on them.”

I Want My Hat Back was adapted into a musical at the National Theatre. Klassen did not write the play, but he says he would like to work in theatre again, even in set painting. He continues to write from his home in LA, where he lives with his wife and family. 

His next book, The Rock from the Sky, is due out in April. 

Published in Volume 75, Number 14 of The Uniter (January 14, 2021)

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