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Jon Klassen Writes Dark Kids Books

The Canadian-born writer’s newest classic is for all the little weirdos in your life.

Dorothy Woodend 13 Apr 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

Death, mendacity, hats and killing over hats — all feature large in the work of children’s book writer and illustrator Jon Klassen. It’s not the usual stuff of kids’ entertainment, but if you’ve ever met a child you know they’re often dark little weirdos.

You may also know the sweet, dull pain of having to read many kids classics, like Goodnight Moon, approximately 100,000 times. But a great picture book, one that works for all readers, can transcend time and culture in the best fashion. As Nobel-prizewinning author Olga Tokarczuk said, “I adore the picture book.... For me it is a powerful, primeval way of telling a story that’s able to get through to anyone — regardless of age, cultural differences or level of education.”

As picture books go, the Canadian-born Klassen is kind of a big deal. Ask any kid and their slightly freaked-out parents about his global bestseller, This Is Not My Hat, and prepare for a fusillade. His new book The Rock from the Sky, released today, shares with earlier works the same delicate balance between darkness and humour, and also plenty of animals in hats. It’s aimed at kids four to eight, but perfectly suited to anyone with an appreciation for sly wit, surprise and gorgeous illustration.

Steeped in both fatalism and absurdity, Rock tells the story of three friends, the decisions that come to haunt them, time travel, world-ending aliens and a little light Deus ex machina. The story ping-pongs back and forth between the hurtling force of fate and the petty dynamics of interpersonal relationships. So, it’s pretty much a perfect summation of human experience.

Klassen was born in Winnipeg and spent his early years there before his family moved to Ontario. Something of a Winnipeg-ian quality still clings to his work — think Eastern European animation meets Guy Maddin. “Winnipeg struck a deep chord for four-year-old me,” he tells me.

In their particular combination of bleakness and humour, Klassen’s stories pull from a number of traditions, but perhaps none more so than the world of theatre. He comes by the stagey quality of his work honestly. One of his first jobs was painting sets for an Ontario theatre, where he learned the art of suspension of belief. A painted tarp might not look like the sky, but when hung and draped in a theatre, the audience accepts it as so.

This relationship between artifice and acceptance, Klassen says, “is like a magic trick.”

Like any good stage production, his books employ a bevy of other theatrical tricks including asides to the audience, soliloquies of sorts and the occasional trashing of the fourth wall. Shakespeare’s famous stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear” from The Winter’s Tale wouldn’t be out be of place in Klassen’s work, but just another part of the story.

In Rock from the Sky, Klassen likens the three principal characters (snake, armadillo and turtle) to minor thespians who’ve snuck onto the stage after the main show is done to enact their own small dramas.

Other influences like Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot) are implicit, but even if kids haven’t the faintest interest in existentialist dilemmas, the emotional entanglements, hurt feelings and misunderstandings that resound in Klassen’s stories are recognizable to humans of any age.

Rock started as one story and then morphed into two, then three, before finally settled into a five-part saga. Like a traditional stage play, there’s the setup (a giant rock hurtling from the stratosphere), a second act that heads off in an entirely different direction — a tip of the hat to War of the Worlds — followed by the resolution of sorts. Action happens in long takes and subtle exchanges between the players.

Klassen has a way with silence, letting a side-eye expression telegraph an entire emotional history. Hats also help, carrying with them a world of connotations. (Never trust a snake in a beret, for example.) Whether it’s a friendly betrayal or full-on alien invasion à la H.G. Wells, relationship crises or the end of the world — a curious convergence of big and small problems boils off the pages.

In structuring the drama, Klassen says he looked to another master storyteller: Alfred Hitchcock.

He paraphrases Hitchcock’s famous aphorism about the difference between shock and suspense in explaining Rock’s narrative structure. If you put a bomb under the table and it explodes in five minutes killing everyone, that is shock. If you put a bomb under the table and let the audience know about it while the characters in the story blather on about baseball, that’s suspense. Suddenly the audience is engaged and actively participating in a new way. The most mundane conversations, like where to stand in a field, suddenly become the stuff of unbearable, agonizing tension.

In Rock, this means comedy and tragedy combining in a combustible recipe that’s impossible to turn away from. Reading it, I could feel my blood pressure begin to climb. It’s little wonder that kids go nuts for Klassen’s work.

At this very dark moment in human history, a book steeped in fatalism packs a particular punch. Rock often feels like a Russian novel, or perhaps more correctly a Russian animated film. One of the influential artists on Klassen’s aesthetic is Russian animator Yuri Norstein. Norstein isn’t a household name outside of animation circles, but his films have been called the greatest animated films ever made. His film Hedgehog in the Fog had a big impact on Klassen.

Klassen waxes rhapsodic about Hedgehog, not just about the characters and the narrative, but the quality of the atmosphere Norstein created with his cut-out puppets and multi-plane camera effects. It is a deeply beautiful, almost elemental film that concerns a small hedgehog and his quest to find his way to his friend’s house to drink tea, eat jam and count the stars. Along the way, he gets lost in the fog and discovers a level of incalculable mystery.

After studying animation at Sheridan College, Klassen worked on a number of animated features including Kung Fu Panda and Coraline. He worked in film for a while, but the immediacy of book design appealed to him. “Books are an unfiltered form that suits my sensibility,” he explains.

Although a year-plus of lockdown and limited travel might seem ideal for the creative process, Klassen is, like many of us, balancing the demands of parenting. When asked if becoming a father has changed the nature of his relationship to his work, the answer is not really.

“If kids don’t like a book, they will tell you. Whereas adults will cross their arms and size you up.” The openness of kids, their willingness to play along and figure things out as they go is something he particularly likes.

A book that works for both parents and children is a rare beast, but Klassen’s work is one of those unicorn creatures, unfolding on multiple planes, beautiful, strange and unafraid to plumb the darkness. They take their place alongside other great books that employ animals as a form of inoculation against tragedy and suffering — along with Charlotte’s Web, Old Yeller, The Yearling, Black Beauty and so on. Except Rock is deeply and mordantly funny.

As Klassen says, his stories often boil down to one thing: “Shit’s gonna happen.” You might as well learn it now, kid. As the vagaries of fate and the repercussions of small decisions come together in cataclysmic fashion, The Rock from the Sky is an ideal story for adults and children, for this moment and for the ages.  [Tyee]

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