Jon Klassen – Techniques and thoughts on children’s book illustration

Jon Klassen is a children’s book author/illustrator and animator renowned around the world for having woven the clever tales of “I Want my Hat Back” (2011)  and “This is Not My Hat”(2012) which follows the same narrative as the 2011 work and was the recipient of  both the American Caldecott Medal and the British Kate Greenaway Medal for children’s book illustration. Klassen has illustrated and written a number of other award winning children’s books, and also worked as a concept artist on animated feature films such as Kung Fu Panda and Coraline.

Around my house though Klassen is primarily known by my son and I for the first two books mentioned above; affectionately known as the teddy and fishy books, which feature both a bear and fish as lead characters. These books have entertained my son since we first read them around his first birthday, and still captivate him today, weeks before his third birthday. They are undoubtedly two of his favorites, and if I had to speculate on why that is I would suggest it’s both the simplicity and beauty of the art style, in conjunction with the simplicity and beauty of the storyline which uses repetition to introduce the reader to a number of different animals and fish respectively.

The story in both books revolves around the concept of stealing a hat, which I’ve observed my son relate to from the age of one when we first read “I want my hat back” (2011) . My son seemed to acknowledge that the hat had been taken by a character who did not own it, which seemed to fill him with empathy for the owner , and disdain for the taker. This book seemed to play to his early grappling with the concept of possession. It was a cold winter at the time we read it, and my son was very aware he had his own hat, that was put on regularly for keeping him warm when we went outside. I suppose in warmer climates children might draw similar parallels for hats that protect them from the sun.

Although I wasn’t aware of it when we read the books initially, I  later came to realize  Klassen had traveled down many similar life paths. He had grown up primarily in the Niagara region as, studied animation and graduated from Sheridan College in 2005,  and we had both spent the majority of our professional careers working in the animation industry in the United States.

Klassen’s  and Daniel Rodriguez’s student film from Sheridan College

Inspired to find out the illustrator and writer of the books my son and I had enjoyed had a local twist, I read up on Klassen’s career and came across this quote of his from Illustration Mundo (2008)

“I work at an animation studio right now on things that won’t come out for years and years. …  it can sometimes feel like the equivalent of emptying a glass of water into a lake.”


This was a view I had shared, and I’d add that these bigger projects often involve large numbers of artists working together sometimes doing very specific tasks (ie. just facial animation).

While this process lends itself very nicely to the efficiency of production, it can also have the bi-product of making the artist feel to a certain extent like a cog in the machine. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, it allows one to focus in on a very specific task and get good at it. But one of the aspects that drew me to animation  was its ability to serve as an avenue for creativity and personal expression, which was an aspect I often felt disconnected from on larger projects.

Jon’s comments in the quote above along with a 2014 interview he did for the Globe and Mail would seem to express his fondness for the freedom that comes from working as a children’s book illustrator in contrast to the rules that are often tied to the workflow in  the animation industry. This is an aspect of producing a children’s book that has drawn me to the art form as well.

In the interview below Jon talks in detail about his experience writing, illustrating and publishing his books.

I thought he made two very insightful points, in regards to writing the books.

First was that although he is a more experienced illustrator and relies heavily on the illustrations to help carry the story. Initially he finds he has to be able to read it through without pictures and enjoy the story by itself.

Secondly he seems to indicate that unless an idea for a story comes almost as quickly as you would read it, it’s not a tight idea. He talks about how the entire story can be changed in five minutes and that this is both a plus and a negative for the writer. Reading into this I feel what he might be trying to say is that when writing a story for children’s picture books, if you have to think too hard about telling the story, the truth and simplicity of the message may be lost on them. I find this to be a particularly revealing piece of advice.

Below Klassen demonstrates a sample of his process and technique while working in Photoshop. He builds many of his elements using traditional mediums and scans them to be assembled digitally. It’s interesting to note the way in which he seems to draw directly with selections as opposed to painting masks.

Below is a link to a blog covering a great interview with Jon on general life and his work process.


Klassen, Jon (2011) I want my Hat Back. Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press

Klassen, Jon (2012) This is not my Hat. Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press [accessed  9-12-15] [accessed  9-12-15] [accessed  9-12-15]

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