Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Jon Klassen

h1 August 18th, 2011 by jules

I’m going to have fried-egg sandwiches with author/illustrator, designer, and concept artist Jon Klassen this morning. Well, that’s his breakfast-of-choice if he’s cooking, but it’s French toast if he’s ordering. Wait. I know! How about this? Since this is all pretend and only a cyber-breakfast anyway (though I wish we were sitting face-to-face in a diner), we’ll have both. Sounds like a plan, yes?

Won’t you join us for our breakfast? Jon’s newest title, I Want My Hat Back, out on shelves next month from Candlewick, is one of the funniest picture books I’ve seen all year. I see a lot of picture books yearly, and this one is a more-than-slightly-demented breath of fresh air that makes me laugh every time I see it. (Yup, I right away mentally added this one to the growing list of Slightly Demented Picture Books, which Adrienne Furness and I composed years ago, still one of my favorite posts).

I Want My Hat Back is deliciously dark and twisted-funny (“did he really just do that?” I asked myself of Klassen after laughing out loud when first reading the ending), and sometimes I just need that (after stacks and stacks of the cute books … and, before anyone fusses at me, yes, I know that cute books have their place, too). This book puts the “wicked” in “wicked funny” — but I can’t tell you why, as I don’t want to give away the plot. You gotta love how the Kirkus reviewer describes it as “cynical on wry.” And Publishers Weekly writes of the “delectable results” of this, Klassen’s author/illustrator debut.

As I told a group of teachers and librarians at a recent in-service all about 2011 picture books, the protagonist of the book, this very deadpan bear, pretty much doesn’t get any more animated than this:

As you can see, he’s looking for his hat, but really and truly … You won’t get any more out of me, because should you decide to read this one on your own, I wouldn’t want to destroy the book’s surprises for you.

So, Jon is hardly new to illustration (his illustrations for Caroline Stutson’s Cats’ Night Out won the Canada Council for the Arts Governor General’s Award for English Language Children’s Illustration), but after reading this new title, I decided I’d love to invite him over for seven questions over breakfast (though he opted for four, which is a-okay with me) to see what he’s up to next. And to learn a bit more about him. (He has also worked, it should be noted, on film and animation projects, including U2′s video for “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” Henry Selick’s film adaptation of Coraline, and a TV spot for BBC’s coverage of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.)

Without further ado, I welcome Jon, the fried-egg sandwiches, and the French toast. (And strong coffee. Lots. That’s always assumed.)

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Jon: Author/Illustrator! Probably Illustrator/Author is more accurate, though.


Jules: Can you list your books-to-date?

Jon: {Caroline Stutson’s} Cats’ Night Out (Illustrator), I Want My Hat Back (Author/Illustrator), {Mac Barnett’s} Extra Yarn (Illustrator) (forthcoming), {Ted Kooser’s} The House Held Up By Trees (Illustrator) (forthcoming).




(Jon has done the jacket cover and interior illustrations for Maryrose Wood’s Incorrigibles series from Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins)

Jules: What is your usual medium, or––if you use a variety—your preferred one?

Jon: Lately, usually inks or gouache or acrylics, but everything is assembled and altered digitally afterward. A lot of the work is generated digitally from scratch, too.


Jon writes at his blog: “I’m trying out a new technique using photographs of ink cutouts and messing with them a little in Photoshop. So far, it’s really really fun. Because its just a photograph, you can move and arrange the pieces under the camera around all you want, and add things from your front yard,
like little plants and things…”

Jules: If you have illustrated for various age ranges (such as, both picture books and early reader books OR, say, picture books and chapter books), can you briefly discuss the differences, if any, in illustrating for one age group to another?

Jon: I haven’t had to cross the age ranges too much, though I don’t think it changes the technique so much as what you think it’s necessary to show. With stories for very young kids, you’d probably want the shapes to be clearer. Something that would read across the room, but I try for that anyway, I guess.

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Jon: I live in Los Angeles, California, though I’m from Ontario, Canada.


Jon: “Part of a bunch of pieces I did (with some motherly help) for the
‘Great Great Grand Show’ at Gallery Nucleus”


One of Jon’s illustrations for an ad for
the Royal Bank of Canada and their Blue Water Project

(Click to enlarge)


Beach House

Jules: Can you briefly tell me about your road to publication?

Jon: I went to school for animation and worked doing illustration and design for animation studios for about five years. While I was at the animation studios, I got my very first book illustration job from Lucy Cummins at Simon & Schuster, and it went really well. I liked the book format even more than I thought I would, so I started trying to make it more of a full-time thing. I got lucky enough to get set up with my rep, Steven Malk at Writers House, and we’ve been very lucky to work with some amazing people, most recently Liz Bicknell and Ann Stott and the whole team at Candlewick Press, who are insanely great. It’s been a very nice road, so far.


From Coraline, the stop-motion animated film, directed by Henry Selick


Jon’s production work on Kung Fu Panda 2
(Click to enlarge)

Jules: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?

Jon: www.burstofbeaden.com.


The Legend of Alexandra and Rose, Jon’s one-page story for a book called
Half-Minute Horrors, edited by Susan Rich


Storming the Capital
(Jon’s submission for the Ebeling Group’s exhibit about letters and type)

Jules: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?

Jon: I am working on a follow-up to I Want My Hat Back for Candlewick, as well as illustrating a book by Ted Kooser called House Held up by Trees, also for Candlewick. There is also a book I just finished illustrating by Mac Barnett, called Extra Yarn, that will be out this winter with HarperCollins.

Mmm. Coffee.Coffee’s ready, and the table’s set now for four questions over breakfast. (Jon is busy helping bear find something else, I think.) Let’s get a bit more detailed, and I thank Jon again for visiting 7-Imp.

1. Jules: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Jon: Illustrating a book, if it’s somebody else’s text, usually starts with just figuring out the tone of it. I’ve been lucky to have gotten books that are all very different from each other, so this has been a different experience every time.


A work-in-progress

Dividing out the pages, pacing it, and figuring out the visual rules of the story are my favorite parts, probably. You can solve so many problems for yourself at that stage. It’s where the biggest decisions are made, and I’m constantly reminded that if you think you’re going to fix something when you’re trying to make it pretty later on, it never works. I like showing the roughs to people and seeing where I cringe or feel the need to explain or defend something in them, because then you know where your trouble spots are.


Dayton, Ohio 1903,
“based on the song that Harry Nilsson sings and Randy Newman wrote”

(Click to enlarge)

That process goes with writing, too, I think. Even though I’ve only written one book, I really did like reading the text to people before I put the pictures to it. It’s really, really fun to have the chance to both write and illustrate something. It’s much easier to get something really clean and simple when you have both sides justifying each other in the early stages.

2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.

Jon: I work at home, in kind of a medium-sized room with a tilted ceiling, cause it’s against the roof. I do a lot of random texture samples on pieces of paper that will only find their homes once they’ve been scanned into the computer, and there’s no way to organize stuff like that once you’ve scanned it, so they are just everywhere around. I have a wall covered in cork where I pin things up that I like — there’s a lot of aerial photography up right now for no specific reason.

Also, there are a lot of mugs with different quantities of tea in them.

3. Jules: As a book lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Jon: My favorites when I was little were P. D. Eastman’s books. As an illustrator, he was very straightforward and approachable, but as a storyteller I think he was pretty experimental. I’d love to be that same combination when I grow up. My favorite was Sam and the Firefly. Also Go, Dog. Go!, which isn’t even a story, it’s just a bunch of random stuff happening, but it had this weird way of all hanging together and building to an ending, and when it was done you really felt like something had happened.

I also really loved Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books. He’s going into such big problems and emotions in those books, but the language and the pictures are so comfortable and easy that you’re not scared away.

There are a lot of illustrators I came late to that I wish I had known about when I was little, like Brian Wildsmith, Leo Lionni, and Tove Jansson.


Click on the image to see Jon’s Adventures of Ship (a hundred years ago)


The Little White Duck
Jon writes at his site: “I only recently heard Burl Ives’ version of this song. I grew up with Fred Penner’s version. But if you get a chance
to write Burl Ives’ name on something, you best take it. Sorry, Fred.”

(Click to enlarge and see in more detail)


Jon: “This started out being a picture about an old Canadian short story called ‘The Painted Door,’ but its not really about that anymore.”
(Click to enlarge and see in more detail)


An illustration for Issue 33 of McSweeney’s
(Click to enlarge)


Jon writes at his blog: “My pal Kevin Dart is putting together a book for his project about a spy girl named Yuki and he let me do a thing for it. Spy stories always make me think of old pulp books that have those chapter illustrations with a caption from the last page underneath, so thats what I went for…”

4. Jules: If you could have three (living) authors or illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Jon: William Steig, Bill Watterson, Cormac McCarthy.


Jon’s illustration for McCarthy’s The Road (not solicited by anyone,
but just because he likes the book — it’s for sale here)

(Click to enlarge image)

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Jon: “Gently.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Jon: “Insurance.”

Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Jon: Communication.

Jules: What turns you off?

Jon: Not communicating.

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Jon: Lake water hitting things.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Jon: Any other repetitive noise.

Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Jon: Physicist.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Jon: Probably physicist.

Jules: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Jon: “‘Deserve’s’ got nothing to do with it.”

* * * * * * *

All artwork and images used with permission of Jon Klassen. All rights reserved.

I WANT MY HAT BACK. Copyright © 2011 by Jon Klassen. Published by Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan.





37 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Jon Klassen”

  1. Love, love, love! Jon’s work is translucent and beautiful, and such sweet expressions : )

    a : )


  2. This is so well done. Beautiful art and beautiful interview.


  3. That illustration for The Road is stunning. It makes me want to read the book again. (And you know, Jules, I STILL haven’t watched the movie. Must do that.)

    I can’t wait to see I Want My Hat Back. I have it on order.


  4. So beautiful! Great work Jon!


  5. Thanks for visiting, all.

    Adrienne, I thought of you when I saw that Road print. I might have to invest in that print myself one day.


  6. His work is really intriguing. Love its old-fashioned quality.


  7. I so, so, so must get this book. For obvious reasons.

    That “Legend of Alexandra and Rose” illustration brought on a genuine spit-take and smile, following a brief microsecond pause like, Uh… what— And I too love that illustration for The Road! (Imagining Jon Klassen at a table with William Steig, Bill Watterson, and Cormac McCarthy bears rewards all its own.)


  8. Beautiful, beautiful work! Man, do I love those long horizontal story pictures. And I have to say, Jon’s “Eye for Annai” film is one of my favoritest things ever.


  9. [...] the impossibly good Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast~this time with with author/illustrator Jon Klassen (Cat’s Night Out, I Want My Hat Back.) Note: I will be reviewing I Want My Hat Back in [...]


  10. Mmmmmm. A favorite! Thank you.


  11. I have heard such great things about I WANT MY HAT BACK! I am hopinghopinghoping it is UGLY FISH good.


  12. Dear Jon, I love your SHAPES, TEXTURES,, Layers and SURprises.
    I love the DRAMA in your spy picture, OH, how I want to know all about the small boy alone at the top of the stairs.
    I can’t wait to see what you create with TED KOOSER, His poems are poems I live with.

    cheers and reflections, from Starr Kopper August 21 9;00am


  13. So super. Pure greatness.


  14. Who is the little boy in bed with the torch, and at the top of the stairs? Is it from a piece of work we can buy? Beautiful illustrations… Remind me of a mixture of Dave Mckean and Eric Carle…


  15. I have loved Jon’s work from afar for a while. I would see bits and pieces here and there. Thank you for collating so much odd loveliness in one place for me to drool over.


  16. Thanks, all.

    Cat, great questions! I will ask Jon, or maybe he can come here and weigh in …

    Courtney, “Thank you for collating so much odd loveliness in one place for me to drool over” may be my favorite 7-Imp compliment ever.


  17. (Maybe “bringing you odd loveliness” can become 7-Imp’s new slogan?)


  18. Thank you Jules for all!
    I read with great pleasure this interview, so interesting and rich of images.
    Fortunately I WANT MY HAT BACK will be published also in Italy by ZOOLIBRI – it is a dream!
    Le immagini della fantasia- international Exhibition of Children’s book illustration http://www.sarmedemostra,it will have Jon among the 29th edition guests – we are really honoured – Thank you Jon!


  19. Jules – you have my permission to adopt that as your slogan. ;) odd loveliness is one of my favorite things in the world.


  20. [...] who got it cracked right up. Because it’s funny. And a bit evil. And funny. (A shout out to Jules for letting me know about this book. She told me I would love it, and she was [...]


  21. Ow, I love his work , totally going to buy his new book!


  22. Just came across this — great interview! I loved I Want My Hat Back, but now I think I’m hooked. Checking out his other books ASAP!


  23. [...] Jon Klassen (August 18, 2011), pictured above: “Illustrating a book, if it’s somebody else’s text, usually starts with [...]


  24. [...] author Mac Barnett, whose early Spring picture book, Extra Yarn (Balzer + Bray), illustrated by Jon Klassen, was just awarded the 2012 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in the Picture Book category. That link [...]


  25. [...] bet my lunch money that Jon Klassen would approve of such revenge. Rude is rude, after [...]


  26. [...] his interview (and more art) on Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast [...]


  27. [...] Elf’s review. 7 Questions over Breakfast w/ Jon Klassen at 7 Impossible Things… About these ads GA_googleAddAttr(“AdOpt”, “1″); [...]


  28. [...] “So she went home and knit herself a sweater.And when Annabelle was done, she had some extra yarn.”– Two illustrations above from Mac’s Extra Yarn (Balzer + Bray, January 2012), illustrated by Jon Klassen [...]


  29. [...] MEDAL The Caldecott Medal goes to This Is Not My Hat written and illustrated by Jon Klassen. This book is the follow up to I Want My Hat Back published in 2011. In This Is Not My Hat, a small [...]


  30. [...] been a lot of talk lately about this book, pictured left, by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Jon Klassen. The Dark will be released by Little, Brown next week, and I read an early copy a while [...]


  31. [...] Wood’s The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book IV (Balzer + Bray), with cover art by Jon Klassen, and a new Kate Milford novel, called Left-Handed Fate (Holt Children’s/MacMillan), a nautical [...]


  32. [...] the illustration above from Lemony Snicket’s The Dark, illustrated by Jon Klassen (Little, Brown, April 2013)? It’s, hands down, my favorite picture book illustration from [...]


  33. [...] Inspiring writer-illustrator interview ~ Jon Klassen [...]


  34. […] The awards speeches (Caldecott, Newbery, and Wilder) were so good, you all. I lucked out to go this […]


  35. I am trying to contact Jon Klassen for copyright permissions for story signing in ASL for our deaf students. Candlewick did not respond to our requests last year in July or October. I would like to re-submit to Jon if possible. Thank you! We just want to use the Golden Archer Award books with our kids for Children’s book week (video tape our signer) and possibly upload to our story hour for deaf kids and parents. We don’t need any images or text! Just sign language! (except the cover image, which we use to promote our resource library which is already permitted).


  36. […] Jon Klassen: “Most times when you see a duck in a story, it’s not very smart.Usually it is in the middle of falling for a trick somebody is playing on it.But I like ducks. I like watching them walk around.”(Click to enlarge) […]


  37. […] Klaas at the Society of Illustrators’ Original Art opening, 2013;Klaas and Klassen at the […]


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