This happened a few years ago. Jon Klassen, then a newly minted author-illustrator standing before a gymnasium’s worth of school- children, selected a shy third grader from the audience to collaborate with him on a piece of spontaneous art. She stood next to Jon as he tore a big sheet of paper from a pad. “We’re going to take this over there,” he said, pointing to a dim corner beneath the California flag, “because drawing is something embarrassing you only do in private.”
Later an ashen (and humorless) principal warned Jon that this might discourage kids from making art. And Jon, because he is kind and thoughtful and considers even the concerns of humorless (and graceless) school administrators, thought about her warning. He fretted a bit. And then, the next time we were talking to a bunch of kids, he made the same joke. I’m glad: it’s a good joke. And like most good jokes, it rewards a little pondering.
Jon Klassen cares about making good books. Maybe that seems like a fatuously obvious observation about a man who, at thirty-one years old, has just won a Caldecott Medal and Caldecott Honor in the same year, a feat pulled off only once before, in 1947, by Leonard Weisgard. But here’s what I mean. Jon Klassen is devoted to making sure his books feel good and look right. He makes careful decisions, whether he’s placing a pupil on a fish’s eye, spacing letters on a cover, or counting out footprints in the snow. But Jon isn’t precious about particular media. He doesn’t fetishize photogenic desks. All that matters is that he emerges from his studio with pages that work. If Jon is private about his art, it’s partly because he wants us to look first at the books, always the books, without getting distracted by his process. It’s probably also because he’s humble about his work, as he is about most things.
And now here I come, providing a peek at a guy who likes privacy, gushing about a guy allergic to boasting.
Jon Klassen was born on 29 November 1981 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The very young Jon was musical—strapped into his car seat, he’d sing the lyrics to “Sentimental Ol’ You” phonetically before he could talk. The very young Jon loved stories—he had his favorite picture books’ texts memorized before he could read. But the very young Jon didn’t make pictures. For his first two years in school, Jon refused to do homework that involved drawing. In class Jon would stand at the easel, and when the teacher told the students to paint a house, he wouldn’t.
And then — who knows why? The right teacher, the right assignment, the right moment? — in second grade, Jon was supposed to draw a dinosaur. And he did. The dinosaur was rendered and expressive and it was walking off the page toward something it wanted. (I haven’t seen the picture, but I’d be willing to bet that this dino lived in the desert or tundra or some other habitat that involved a lot of white space.) Jon’s mother remembers seeing the drawing and thinking, “Oh wow. This is it then.”
In high school, in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Jon worked in his family’s candle factory. For years he smelled constantly of apple cinnamon. (More than one person has commented that it feels strangely fitting for Jon to have some sort of spiced sillage. Today it would probably be bergamot.) He also worked as a dishwasher in a local restaurant, where he once sliced his right hand on a broken glass, badly. His father rushed him to the hospital, shouting at the doctors, “The boy’s an artist! He needs to draw!” The surgeon on call that night specialized in hands, and today you can hardly see a scar.
Here is another thing Jon says about drawing: “Drawing is something you teach your brain to do, not your hand.”
For years Jon and his brothers (Will and Justin, both younger) lived next to three other houses, clustered together without any fences. There were fourteen kids under five years old and a gully out back. “Nature was something that fed us,” says Jon’s mom. He was outside every day, even in subzero temperatures. When Jon was teething, his drool would freeze before it hit his snowsuit.
Today Jon lives in sunny Los Angeles with his wife, Moranne. They have a beautiful cat and a little porch where Jon likes to sit. The porch has a view of palm trees and other trees and bushes and plants, which are all things Jon likes looking at. Jon sees things in nature that others miss — I’ve waited, mystified, at midnight as Jon tramps down into a roadside ditch, pointing his camera at some shabby copse. To my eye, there’s no one better than Jon at drawing leafy plants and leafless trees, lush or never-quite-barren landscapes. Nature feeds Jon’s art, too, and Jon feeds us nature.
For the better part of this year Jon worked in a studio on a high floor of an old building in downtown Los Angeles. He was planning to share the space with another artist, but the deal fell through. And so it was an odd space. Half the room was filled with Jon’s things — a comfortable armchair, some great old picture books, a flat file full of textures. The other half remained empty the whole time Jon was in there: across an invisible line, the furnishings gave way to four hundred square feet of wasteland. Maybe it was for the best: Jon could draw alone.
There’s a moment I particularly admire in This Is Not My Hat. It is a double-page spread and it’s nothing but plants: browns and pinks and greens and blacks. These plants are the little fish’s hiding place. On the previous spread, the big fish — furious, vengeful — entered the reeds. And now, the little fish, that compulsive chatterbox, no longer speaks. (He won’t speak again.) In the first book Jon wrote, I Want My Hat Back, the violence happens off-screen: the bear eats the rabbit during a page turn. But in the fish book, at this crucial moment, we are present. After laughing at this little thief, after reveling in knowing more than he does, we find ourselves suddenly helpless. We’re right there, watching, but we can’t see through the plants. Still, we can imagine what’s happening. We can’t help imagining it. And so while we’re present for the book’s dreadful climax, we’re not quite witnesses. It’s a masterful bit of picture-book craftsmanship. What goes on behind the plants is no secret, but it is private. And anyway, it’s the stuff that happens next, when we turn the page and everything has changed, that really matters.
From the July 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.