Caldecott winner Jon Klassen, is one of the most respected and beloved contemporary children's book authors and illustrators. Kids love him—and adults do, too.
When chatting over lunch with my friend, and Chronicle Books children's book editor, Melissa Manlove, she blew my mind with a reading of Klassen's two most iconic books, I WANT MY HAT BACK and THIS IS NOT MY HAT.
These are both books I've read a million times. Formerly, I worked as a bookseller, and not only read these for countless storytimes, I also based my own forthcoming picture book on the structure of I WANT MY HAT BACK. So when Melissa dropped a brand new reading on me, I wasn't just pleased and entertained, I was also surprised. How could I have missed it? Because she was totally right.
I WANT MY HAT BACK, she explained to me, was noir. THIS IS NOT MY HAT, horror. I was so taken with her reading of his work that I asked her to let me interview her. Being a pal, a genius, and also the obliging sort she agreed. And better than that, she ignored my interview questions and wrote me the following, brilliant essay instead:
Well, I want to be clear that not every story fits tidily into a genre, and there may be new genres that need inventing and there may be disagreement about what genres we have to choose from now. The most important thing to understand is that no piece of writing advice can ever be applied to all pieces of writing, except maybe ‘never say never’.
When we were talking about these two books, I was saying that one of the things that makes THIS IS NOT MY HAT so exciting as a picture book is that it’s horror. That’s a very uncommon genre to find in picture books. THIS IS NOT MY HAT is perfectly pitched for children, it has moments of humor, and it isn’t going to give anyone nightmares, but it’s horror. People often think of I WANT MY HAT BACK as a similar book, because both books involve animals and the theft of a hat, both are funny, and both are by Jon Klassen. But as stories they’re different for important reasons.
One of those reasons is genre; another is the motivating ideas behind these stories.
Generally speaking, the most satisfying stories are ones with a motivating idea, even if it’s one the reader never fully articulates to himself—in fact, I would say a motivating idea is often most satisfying when it’s so buried in the story’s subconscious that most readers only engage with it subconsciously. Little Red Riding Hood, for instance, has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years, and the vast majority of readers would, if pressed, say that the story was about not talking to strangers or something. But the idea that’s really buried at the heart of that story is this: Death comes for all of us. And even if we avoid death along the path of life, it waits for us in old age’s clothes. In my experience, the idea that is driving a story is often subconscious even for the author of the story—writers’ genius is often a matter of letting the subconscious speak.
So back to I WANT MY HAT BACK. Genre-wise, it is a mystery—the protagonist has a mystery to solve, a crime to bring to justice—and the motivating idea behind it is ‘the truth will out’. Because that’s the idea driving the story, the antagonist’s sin is not theft as much as it is lying about the theft. And by the end, we can see that this story is not just Mystery, it’s Noir—because not only has the protagonist killed the antagonist, which is fairly dark, he’s repeated the antagonist’s mistake and is lying about what he’s done. That leaves our protagonist in a morally murky and most of all unstable position as the book ends—we know from the story that the truth will out… so what does that mean for the protagonist after the book ends? It’s a satisfying ending, but not a tidy one—it is an ending with a dash of suspense still in it.
Now we turn to THIS IS NOT MY HAT, and the motivating idea of it is our own faults that doom us. Our protagonist is now the animal who has stolen a hat, not the one who has been stolen from. He’s sure he’s going to get away with it, but we, the readers, can see that pursuit is on its way, that the protagonist is not safe, that the threat is coming nearer and nearer…
This growing sense of threat is one of the core elements of the Horror genre, but the thing that truly makes this book horror is the spread in which all we see is dense seaweed—something happens in the seaweed, something that means the protagonist’s voice is silenced, but what? What happened? I have watched a kid look at that image and say, “The little fish dropped the hat and swam away and the big fish got his hat back.” And I have watched an adult look at that image and recoil-- *GASP* “Who put that in a children’s book?!?”
And here’s the thing: I don’t know what that adult saw in that image, but whatever it was, it was something that her imagination generated. If you see monsters in that image, those monsters are in your head. That’s what makes that image a kind of psychological mirror—it invites the audience to see the worst thing they can imagine, and demands that the audience go away knowing that about themselves. And that’s the other core element of most horror—the idea that in the end, the worst evil is something that we (and the protagonist, who is our proxy in a story) carry inside of us and so there is no escape. The call, as it were, is coming from inside the house.
As an editor, I see a lot of stories that haven’t yet understood what’s going on below the surface, what idea(s) are motivating the story. Since those ideas are (or ought to be) below the surface and largely invisible, that may not seem like a big problem… but it’s the unspoken idea motivating a story that is the thing that makes each story about the reader as much as it is about the story’s characters. Without understanding how a story connects to its audience, a writer can easily break or mar that connection, and leave their story without the thing that stays with the reader afterwards, makes us think about it and return to it, makes us love and invest ourselves in it.
Great stories speak not just to themselves but to us all—and even if sometimes it is a truth we’d rather not hear, the truth has an irresistible pull in narrative and will draw us to horror as well as happy endings. Truth is the sword readers pull out of the stone of stories, because armed with it, we can change the story of our own lives.
Melissa has edited amazing stories for Chronicle Books, including JOSEPHINE, THE WATER AND THE WILD, and INTERSTELLAR CINDERELLA. Besides being a children's book editor, and all around stand-up lady, she is also a bookseller for the fabulous indie children's bookstore, The Storyteller. You can glean more of her wisdom from her Twitter.