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Ethics, food chains, and stolen hats

Tuesday’s Caldecott post mortem entry has raised an issue in the comments that I think warrants its own post.

First, Robin provided a link to Minh Le’s NY Daily News Page Views blog entry, This is Not My Hat: Reading (a little) too much into the 2013 Caldecott winner.”

I think Le is spot-on in his analysis of Klassen’s book when he calls it an “irreverent tale of deception and revenge” and says “the reader quickly realizes that their narrator is unreliable, delusional, and ultimately doomed.” He goes on to wonder if this book strikes a particular chord today in the same way some past Caldecott award winners did. For example, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers resonated because of September 11, while A Sick Day for Amos McGee could have something to do with universal health care. Are these fish a sign of our times? And if so, what is that sign?

Klassen’s other book involving food chains and hats, I Want My Hat Back, found Robin and me disagreeing about the fate of the rabbit. I said the bear ate him and Robin said he didn’t. When Robin put up the link to Le’s article, Erin commented that she didn’t think the fish was eaten, either.  The text doesn’t tell in either book, so the reader has to rely on pictures and context to make up his or her own mind. While Klassen later admitted that he thinks the rabbit was eaten, I think there’s an even more interesting dynamic at play here. What does our response to this book say about each of us?

Then there’s Le’s main point. He asks what the book itself might reveal about who we are — not just as readers but perhaps even as a global society in 2013. Are unconventional narrators, irony, and deception skewing for a younger audience these days? Are kids becoming more savvy and growing up too fast? Or do young children simply understand and accept food chains (being low in the power hierarchy themselves) in a way that some adults would rather not (preferring to look on the bright side of classism, racism, and other issues of inequality)?

There’s a lot to think about here and my own response is still in an embryonic state. For example, I think there’s a connection between this book’s breaking the fourth wall (narrator speaking directly to the reader) and other books that play more openly with meta elements. And all the recent meta books have me thinking about how this fascination with stepping outside a format as a way to explore it more deeply might be connected to the whole smart phone connection/disconnection dilemma.

As I said, my own thoughts about this need more work, but I wanted to get something up here ASAP because I really want to hear what this  group of smart blog readers and responders has to say.


Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.



  1. Hmm…Emily Gravett has a similar ending to her 2007 book WOLVES so I’m skeptical about saying this is something related to things today. In fact, I remember vividly all the “end of irony” commentary after 9/11 which I thought was absurd then and wonder about now because far from irony dying post-9/11 it seems to have taken off.

  2. Doesn’t the rabbit appear on the back endpapers of I Want My Hat Back? My 8 year old daughter thought surely he could not have been eaten, because if he had Klassen wouldn’t have put him there (this may have been wishful thinking on her part, but she has a point). Still thinking about the fish!

  3. Did you all see this interview last year at the wonderful 100 Scopes Notes?

    Travis asks about the rabbit at the interview’s close, and Jon’s answer is blunt. And I laughed outloud when Travis wrote in response, “Didn’t expect a straight answer on that one.”

    I share that for fun, not as some sort of definitive answer, because I think what you all are talking about here is reader response, how the reader constructs solutions from the text and illustrations at hand.

    I love this discussion and loved Minh’s thoughts/the question he raises. I’ve been chewing on this topic (not outloud, ’cause I’m still chewin’) since I Want My Hat Back. These books feel in many ways like 21st-century morality tales. Stealing is bad, m’kay?

  4. (And, for the record, I love both of these Klassen books. A friend of mine calls these kinds of books “crunchy,” the thought-provokers that engender discussions like this.)

  5. And I see that Lolly wrote, “While Klassen later admitted that he thinks the rabbit was eaten…” And there I was rambling about it in a comment. This is what happens before I have coffee.

  6. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    I do think picture books are in the eyes of the reader, just like novels are. As a teacher, I love having my kids argue about these things. I am remembering a particularly energetic argument about Jack and the Beanstalk (stealing is stealing?) with my second graders a few years ago. Fairy tales (WHAT is the father thinking in Hansel and Gretel???) are especially good for this.

    I agree with Monica about making predictions about how these books might or might not reflect things that are going on today. It’s just too hard to say.

    I think (and God knows I don’t have this thought fully fleshed out!) that it would be easier to talk about color and pacing in some of the recent books seeming modern or new. So many books (some of them honored by ALA and elsewhere) are being penned by folks who work or have worked with animation and film making and that background can create a subtly different book. I am mostly thinking about Mo Willems here, but Klassen and many others have worked in this industry. I wish I was better at putting that idea into words, but I think the fact that many artists have worked in many settings before trying their hand at picture books makes for some fascinating and different stories and books.

    I better stop.

  7. Megan Lambert says:

    Part of the genius of these books is how they trust the reader to come to her own conclusions, right? By keeping some action offstage, unstated, or otherwise ambiguous they resist tying everything up neatly, and they’re stronger (or crunchier–love that word) for this use of aperture.

    My daughter Caroline (6) is decidedly in the rabbit-and-little-fish-are-dead-and-gone camp. Her older brother Stevie (8) disagrees:

    “We don’t KNOW that the big fish ate the little fish,” he insisted when we read This Is Not My Hat together recently. He latched onto the offstage possibility that the little fish escaped behind the curtain of Lionni-esque seaweed and he refused to budge. “He could be hiding,” he continued, trying to convince his sister.

    “Nope. He’s dead,” was her response. “Just like the bear at the rabbit in the other hat book.”

    “The bear SAT on the rabbit!” retorted Stevie.

    And before the fur started to fly, I introduced the concept of agreeing to disagree.

    My own reading of both books falls more in line with Caroline’s–the tone of the text and art just suggests this dark humor to me. But, I love that there’s space in Klassen’s books for my pollyanna of a boy to assert his own reading, too.

  8. This may be a little rambly, so apologies in advance.

    I think it’s partially a case of Schrodinger’s Rabbit /Fish (and oh how I wish it were the hat that was in question, as that would make for a delicious pun). Not a perfect analogy, of course, especially if the author makes a statement one way or the other. Klassen has stated that the rabbit got eaten, for example, but if someone hasn’t seen that interview/statement, does that mean it isn’t necessarily true for that person? Can the rabbit (or the fish) be both alive and dead until we open the box hear from the author?

    For those out there who didn’t believe that the bear ate the rabbit, does Klassen’s statement change your mind? I’m curious.

    And I’m with Robin on the Fairy Tales. I had a woman in the library a few weeks ago asking for a version of Little Red Riding Hood that “wasn’t so gruesome”. I found her one, but secretly thought she should have just gotten one of the gruesome versions.

  9. I’ll be honest, we weren’t really fans of either I Want My Hat Back or This is Not My Hat. We checked both of them out from the library and they both went back the next week. My son is younger (almost 3) and he didn’t really get the joke and that totally makes sense. I understood what what supposed to be funny in both books but didn’t find it humorous in either.

  10. I never thought the rabbit was eaten for one second.
    Killed, squished, beaten up? Maybe. But, eaten? No.

    My condolences to the thieving rabbit.

  11. A little side story about I Want my Hat Back.
    I fell in love with that book, and when that happens, I send it to my niece and nephew. My sister told me after reading it to them my nephew who was 5 at the time (I think) said at the end “I don’t think he should have eaten the rabbit, I think they should have talked about it and tried to solve the problem.”
    Now I do think the rabbit was eaten by the bear, I still find myself thinking the fish did not come to the same fate.
    I still do find the people who trash this book for its perceived messages and how it is corrupting young minds to be very amusing!

  12. Wow, love that the post led to this discussion. Thanks Jules for letting me know about this!

  13. I’ve read these to my 2nd – 5th graders and they all pretty much agree that the thieves get eaten. There’s a few that want to believe otherwise, but they’re outnumbered.

    My classes have loved them and they’re really a treat to read aloud, too.

  14. Also, Lolly: it’s been a while so you probably don’t remember, but I actually took your children’s lit class at hgse in 2006. Small world!

  15. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Get outta town! That’s so funny — I absolutely remember but it didn’t occur to me you were the same person. Instead I thought, Huh, that must be a more common name than I thought it was…

  16. I’m surprised that people think the bear didn’t eat the rabbit in the first book – the bear basically admits to doing the deed by denying it (I’m just following the logic of the book here, based on the way the rabbit so vehemently denied stealing the hat earlier in the book). So I don’t see any way the rabbit survived its bear encounter. I actually thought the endpapers were kind of lame – but maybe I’m expecting too much in that regard, because I want the beginning and end of the story arc to be present there (translation: I don’t like the fact that the beginning and end are exactly the same… not that I want to be slapped across the face by, say, the bunny’s tombstone at the end or something)

  17. Jonathan Hunt says:

    While I am solidly in the bear-ate-the-rabbit camp, I know from my discussions with children that (a) the bear is so unfailingly polite throughout the text that it would be out of character for him to eat the rabbit, and (b) the bear is sitting in some bushes that look very much like the ones the rabbit was standing next to when he was last seen. Most of the children who think the bear is sitting on the rabbit just missed that final clue on the last page, but some have gone on to argue the aforementioned points with me.

  18. Nancy Van Camp says:

    Have been in the bear-ate-the-rabbit camp from day one. Thought it was a gruesome, disturbing and random ending…consequently, passed on it for read aloud. ( Enjoyed the fish far more in that regard.)

    At the same time, I must agree that traditional fairytales are in a league of their own when it comes to violence and horror. Thank you, Interrupting Chicken, for saving us!!!

  19. Jessi Peterson says:

    Well of course they got eaten. Both of them. This is what comes of being lightfingered. What I appreciate is the lightness with which it is handled and the ambiguity of it. A child who is innocent enough to expect that hats will be returned, the culprits will be chastened and life will go on can continue to think that while still appreciating the deadpan humor of the story. The child who has figured out that that is not always the way things go will be in on the likely outcome without it being spelled out. Which is such a thrill for a kid – to be in on the joke. Either reading is humorous, supported by the starkly simple illustrations, and either one is a platform for either laughter or a teachable moment about consequences, depending upon your kid, or both.

  20. SilentSun says:

    Oy Vey………..

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