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We Found a Hat

we-found-a-hat

Whole masters theses will be written about Jon Klassen’s Hat trilogy, if they haven’t been already. Here, of course, we can look only at this one book, since the actual Caldecott committee is not allowed to consider an illustrator’s previous work in its deliberations.

We Found a Hat is a morality play in which (this time!) friendship and goodness and life triumph over avarice and loneliness and death. But not before a massive moral struggle within the heart of one of the two tortoise characters — the one sorely tempted by the hat sitting in the middle of the desert. (Klassen differentiates his two tortoises via the markings on their shells, but it’s almost unnecessary — we know each character by his or her relationship to the hat.) The tortoise who covets the hat lies; he sneaks. When his friend asks, “What are you thinking about?” he lies and says, “Nothing.” As his friend is serenely heading off to dreamland, he sneaks back toward the hat, tortured by his avarice/desire. He is on the very edge of betrayal, all for the sake of the hat. What saves the first tortoise (and I love this!) is the second tortoise’s STORY — a story of what she is dreaming about, a story in which there are two hats and they each get one. The power of her story literally turns the first tortoise around, away from the hat, back to his dreaming friend’s side, back to their friendship — and into a dream in which, indeed, they each have a hat.

Of course, the above is my interpretation of what happens. I see the book as having a happy, and closed, ending, where the two friends have found their way past the crisis and in the morning will continue on their journey together, walking away from the divisive hat without a backward glance. But others might decide that in the morning the dream solution will disappear and the hat — and the obsession with it — will still be there. This is Jon Klassen; we can’t assume anything. But myself, I find the book hopeful, and quite moving and profound in that hopefulness.

The art matches the tone and content of the text perfectly. The palette is one of the most subtle and yet most effective in any picture book I’ve seen this year. Look how it deepens from the bright white-gray of an afternoon in the desert (“Part One: Finding the Hat”) toward peaches and browns as the sun sets (“Part Two: Watching the Sunset”) and then twilight colors (beginning on the page where the first tortoise tells his lie). “Part Three: Going to Sleep” takes place entirely at night — the stars are already out — but it’s a gray sort of night. True, deep black occurs only when we are inside the dream. The final image in the book — a double-page spread of a starry night sky with the two tortoises, both in hats, flying up and out of the book — gives me chills.

Klassen uses very little detail here, and he doesn’t need it. A few rocks and cacti and the setting sun — and of course the big white hat sitting incongruously in the middle of the desert — are all he needs to set the scene. Viewers’ focus is thus on that remarkable palette and on the two characters, especially their (wait for it) EYES. At the end of Part One, when the second, untempted tortoise tells the first tortoise, “There is only one thing to do. We must leave the hat here and forget that we found it,” we need only to look where the first one’s eyes are tracking to know that it won’t be that simple. Almost the same situation — and illustration — and tell-tale eyes on tortoise #1— concludes Part Two.

What elements would you like to talk about in We Found a Hat? That elegantly simple setting sun? the gradations of the palette? the fact that the hat is actually ridiculously too-big for the tortoises? (Hats that don’t fit are a Klassen trademark, of course.) There is more to this book than meets the eye, and plenty to discuss around the Caldecott table.

 

Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.

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Comments

  1. Angela Reynolds says:

    Interesting that you gave these tortoise genders. I had never really considered that — they were very non-gendered to me, but adding gender– the male is sneaky, the female comes up with a solution, that *could* add another level of meaning– and this is what I love about Klassen’s work– he leaves so much room for us to wander around in the story, and bring our own interpretation to it. The illustrations do so much to extend this story– you almost don’t need the text, but we are glad it is there, happy to have Klassen give us a gentle nudge to what he wants us to think about. The eyes tell so much of the story here– the illustrations are sparse, as you said, which gives those eyes a big stage to play on. And one of the things this book excels at is design– the layout, the pacing, the placement of the text in that bar across the top– all carefully put together to create a feeling and a place for the story.

  2. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Angela, you caught me 🙁
    I also think of these two as non-gendered; in that one sentence I randomly assigned them genders in order to differentiate them one from the other. It’s funny (sad?) how much more needlessly complicated language can make things. Klassen’s spare use of both text and art clearly is superior to all my blathering!

  3. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    This is the first of his hat “trilogy” that I’ve liked. And my students love it. Yes, it is spare, the color perfect, the pacing and humor – couldn’t be better. They get the desire for the hat, the guilt, the sneaking, the honesty, the choice. And they laugh at the irony. Great book, and he’s won awards for the lesser ones. Still, there are others I’d prefer see get the medals.

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