Author & Illustrator Spotlight: Jon Klassen
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Today, we have a fun Spotlight on author-illustrator Jon Klassen for his newest book, THE ROCK FROM THE SKY. This book was much anticipated for me and I think he really delivered on it. When it first came out, my son, Peter requested it for weeks. He was particularly drawn to the fire-zapping-alien-robot-thing. "One big eye!" he would say. Blasting things is fun, isn't it? Yes, it is.
To go with this interview, we're raffling off a copy of THE ROCK FROM THE SKY for one lucky winner, so check out details below on how to enter!
Here's Jon Klassen!
We get a bit of an absurdist drama and Beckett vibe from the bowler hats and situational comedy. Talk about some of the influences and inspiration for the art and story of THE ROCK FROM THE SKY.
I've always, I think, worn a bit of Beckett on my sleeve in my own books, but for this book it seemed to make sense to go for it in a more obvious way. It doesn't really concern anybody else, but in thinking about this book, I sort of had this idea that we'd finished the last three books - the Hat books - and they'd gone pretty well and begun, in my mind, to feel like these big productions that had to do with Moral Problems and things. But those books were over now, and these little guys, who'd only maybe gotten a few pages in other books, had this idea that they wanted to put on sort of an after-show of weird little funny absurd skits that happened onstage as people kind of got up and left the theatre. That idea, or the tone it created anyway, was really useful in helping me think about the book. I was writing the stories for a while without the little bowler hats and one morning I thought "I should really just call a spade a spade here and put those on them" and right away it helped me a lot.
As far as other influences, the bowler hats go a lot of useful places. They bring up Magritte, who was no stranger to big rocks in the sky. They bring up Laurel and Hardy, who tonally aren't too far off from our guys. Structurally, in the first story especially, I was working off of a bit that Hitchcock talked about in describing suspense vs shock, and the idea that you could have a scene where a group of people were sitting around a table, talking about some boring thing for five minutes, and suddenly a bomb under the table goes off and blows everyone up. So that's a shock. But, he says, go back to the start of that scene and SHOW your audience the bomb under the table, and suddenly the five minute boring conversation becomes very interesting (also, importantly, he says the bomb isn't allowed to actually blow anyone up). So the rock in my book is his bomb under the table. I was so excited by that idea because what it does is give you permission to show a boring, even absurd, conversation without losing your audience. I want to draw and write conversations about where to stand in a field, but that's a hard thing to write and maintain interest, its a lot to ask of an audience, especially a young audience. I need permission somehow, and the rock gives me that permission.
The idea of the Unknown and Unexpected lurking just around the corner...or sky...is a prominent theme in the book. In the context of this previous year, this theme rings eerily true and makes the story more relevant. Why is this message timely and something children need to hear?
It was certainly an idea that was on my mind, for all sorts of reasons, both personal and general. I feel like (and hope that) it's one of those subjects that's always going to be applicable. I think it's important to talk about the feeling, or the fact, that we are not always in control of things. We have to learn how to go about our days managing that and admitting that. It's important to control the things we CAN control, but it seems healthy to say sometimes you're just not in charge.
Something I appreciate in this story is how you create gaps for the reader to fill in. This is a great way to respect a child’s intelligence and they’re usually wicked intuitive about it. An example from the story is the first image of the rock falling. We know it will land on the turtle’s favorite spot without being told...we know what’s coming. Why is it necessary to build space for the reader to co-construct the meaning of the story and how do you orchestrate that while creating the book?
You want your audience working for you. They want to work for you, kids especially do. Nobody ever lets you do anything yourself when you're little. It's exciting to be given that job. You want your readers to have a relationship with your book, and if they've done some work in there, that encourages a feeling of ownership and intimacy with it. I think what I'm just starting to understand about that is that the biggest prize is if you can get them to recognize and help build something you didn't even really know how to write, that isn't even really written anywhere, some kind of association or feeling that they thought was really specific to them, but you've had it too. You can't plan for that, though. It's not in the plot or the character descriptions or anything. A lot of times you don't even know if you've done it, you just hear about it from readers later. But if you get it, it makes a home in your audience for that book where they felt connected to it in a really special way, and that's about the best you can hope for.
The conclusion of the book seems to be an echo from the beginning. The idea seems to be that just as life presents us with unexpected and often unexplained...problems...so too does it often provide solutions in a similar fashion. Without giving it all away, why was it important to book-end the story with such a big...statement?
Picture books kind of encourage symmetry, visually. When they are open, they are neatly divided down the middle and you're not really allowed to have anything important happen in the middle of a spread because that's the gutter. So playing with the balance of things on either side of that gutter is fun, and it can suggest stories on its own. As far as the ending creating a statement, I think it just felt right in the pacing. It's kind of a meandering book, it wanders around a little bit, and it felt like, to thank the reader for coming along for that, it was polite to end with a bit of a bang. Also, to a certain extent, the last story kind of revisits every previous story in the book in backwards order, it uses things and devices we've built, and it kind of ends where we started. Every other story in the book can (I think) kind of work on its own, but the last one needs you to remember everything we've learned, and I really like that. It's a Frog and Toad trick, actually. Arnold Lobel would do like 4 stories that were sort of standalone, but in those stories he was kind of building a relationship dynamic, and then the last story in the book would be ABOUT that relationship, and you really felt it because of what he had sort of been secretly building in the other stories. It's really neat. Comedy series do it too, sometimes - the British ones seem best at it. You'll get a show that is just supposed to be funny for the whole season and then they'll do a finale that is kind of serious and makes you cry and you'll be so messed up by it because you didn't realize you actually believed in the reality of the show before but they'd been building it the whole time.
The larger message you mention, about life presenting us with solutions as well as problems, I think is as close to a lesson as I can get on board with here. There's that Kipling line about treating both Triumph and Disaster as imposters, and I think about that a lot. We shouldn't define ourselves by either one, it's more complicated than that, and there's a grace in that attitude that I hope is useful for kids. It's useful for me.
The snake actually has my favorite moments in the book - I think I relate to him the strongest out of the three of them, because he's so outside of everything. We don't really know what his deal is, he's just kind of drifting through and ignorantly causing trouble for these other two characters. Maybe my favorite moment of his is at the end of the Sunset story. I like the line on that page a lot - the mole saying "We are not doing it anymore." - and everyone on that page is doing something different.
The mole is sad, and probably angry, about having missed the sunset, he's looking downward. The turtle is looking at the mole, playing dumb but I think he knows full well what he did and he's in this weird fight that only he knows about. But the snake is looking over the turtle, toward where the sunset used to be, still not quite registering that its over. He was promised a sunset, and now there won't be one, but (no pun intended) it's still kind of dawning on him.
THE ROCK FROM THE SKY has had a fabulous response so far. Congrats! Do you foresee us meeting this trio again in another book? With maybe...another rock?
Thanks! The response has been really encouraging - I really didn't know how this one was going to go over. It felt more like "me" than the other books even, so it's really nice when that is well received. The book came about so strangely, the stories kind of floating in randomly over the course of years, that I don't know how I'd make that happen again. But I do really like writing stories of this size, and I feel very lucky to get to, so maybe another set will come along. I doubt there'd be another rock, though. As I said earlier, the rock kind of gave me permission to have the conversation I wanted, almost like training wheels allow you to feel like you're really riding a bike. I think if I did another set like this, the goal would be to try and take the training wheels off. I'm sure nothing bad could happen then.
Thanks for sharing with us, Jon!
Thank YOU for reading, kidlit fam! If you'd like to own this beautiful book, toss your name in the figurative, digital, bowler hat. Candlewick Press is donating one copy of THE ROCK FROM THE SKY for one lucky winner. See details below on how to win!
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About Jon Klassen
Jon Klassen is the creator of the #1 New York Times bestseller I Want My Hat Back, which was named a Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Book, a New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Children’s Book of the Year, and a Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book of the Year. He returned with another hat and another thief in This Is Not My Hat, which won the Caldecott Medal became a New York Times bestseller.
He is also the illustrator of House Held Up By Trees, a picture book written by Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Ted Kooser, as well as Cats’ Night Out by Caroline Stutson, which won the Governor General’s Award; Extra Yarn and Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett; and the Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series by Maryrose Wood.
Jon Klassen has worked as an illustrator for feature animated films, music videos, and editorial pieces. His animation projects include design work for DreamWorks Feature Animation as well as LAIKA Studios on their feature film Coraline. Other work includes designs for a BBC spot used in the coverage of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, which won a 2010 BAFTA award. Originally from Niagara Falls, Ontario, Jon Klassen now lives in Los Angeles.
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