So, I finally got my hands on the last book on the Cybil fiction picture book shortlist that I had not yet read. I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen is the talked about book of 2011 in the kid-litosphere. It got rave reviews everywhere and was named a Theodor Seuss Giesel honor book for best beginning reader. It was also named one of the top illustrated books of 2011 by the NY Times (their reviewer called it “a marvelous book in the true dictionary sense of marvel”). My reaction was more along the line of “meh”.
If you don’t know the story, it’s very simple. A bear is looking for his lost hat and goes through the woods asking different animals if they have seen it. When he asks a rabbit, the reader will notice a red pointy hat on the rabbit’s head. However, the rabbit will deny having seen the hat and the bear doesn’t notice the hat. The humor comes a few pages later when the bear suddenly remembers that he HAS seen his hat and rushes back to get it.
I think there are two reasons this book has been so talked about. One is the ending that I’ve seen referred to as “controversial” or “dark” or a “surprising twist”. I find it slightly amusing that most reviews I’ve seen have refused to name this surprise ending. I’m all in favor of not giving away spoilers in books but this particular surprise was pretty obvious, especially when it’s constantly referred to as dark or wicked or twisted. If you care about spoilers and haven’t figured this one out, stop reading now. OK? Here it is: The bear eats the rabbit. I wasn’t offended by this ending and I think of myself as having a somewhat sardonic sense of humor but I didn’t find it all that surprising or all that funny.
What I think this book does well is to tell a story mostly implicitly. The reader has to figure out what is going on through the facial expressions and action off the page more than in what is stated outright. The text never says that the rabbit stole the hat or that the bear ate the rabbit, but it’s very clear. This is even more amazing since the pictures are very simple graphically. Klassen uses color brilliantly to suggest the storyline and plot. The pictures are done mostly in shades of brown and grey except for the hat and one page that is entirely red as the bear realizes where his hat is. That simple red page does more to convey the bear’s anger than any text could have.
I think my reaction to this book was colored (ha!) by having seen so much press on it. It would have had to be really spectacular to live up to all the glowing reviews. My kids, however, didn’t see any of the reviews or hear anything about it ahead of time. And their reaction was similar to mine. They liked it ok. They got the joke (not Ruth but the two boys). They weren’t upset but I’d say they were only mildly amused. It sat in the book basket and no one asked for repeat readings.
We enjoyed this new book illustrated by Jon Klassen (and written by Mac Barnett) much more. In a drab grey town, a little girl named Annabelle discovers a box with colorful yarn and decides to knit a sweater. After she is finished there is extra yarn so she decides to knit a sweater for her dog. And still there is extra yarn. She goes on to knit sweaters for her classmates and the townspeople and the animals and finally as covers for the houses themselves. An evil archduke discovers the magic yarn and tries to buy it from her. She refuses and he steals it for himself. However, when he opens the box the yarn is gone.
I liked the more involved story in this book and the idea that the magic was only for Annabelle. The illustrations are more involved than the very spare I Want My Hat Back but stylistically they are very similar, even to the point of having the same bear and some other animals in common. Ultimately I can respect these illustrations as being well done but they just aren’t my cup of tea. Klassen’s background is as an animator and his illustrations have more of a graphic design feel than more traditional illustrations.
I did find his website interesting. It gives a wider idea of his artwork. I discovered this video that he worked on for U2 on the website.
And as always, stop by Hope is the Word for more Read Aloud Thursday.