In the latest episode of the Deeper Reading podcast, Jon Klassen, author and illustrator of the Hat trilogy, talks about his bumper new picture book – The Rock From the Sky.
The story unfolds over five chapters, by turns funny, surreal and even a little scary. Its trio of bowler hatted animals move awkwardly through their featureless world and must come to terms with the enormous boulder that crashes into their lives.
In the podcast Jon talks about some of the surprising influences behind his new story including Samuel Becket, Stanley Kubrick, Remy Charlip and Edward Gorey.
To whet your appetite, in this extract he discusses his approach to creating The Rock from the Sky, explains why his characters are ‘bad actors’ and how, like his first book I Want My Hat Back, the story was born out fury.
“I think my work is defined by an aversion to movement, especially in the illustration. There’s something about my sensibilities and what I like to draw that prohibits me from showing an action or showing something in the middle of happening.
I like choosing a moment just before or just after something has happened and then looking at the people who it just happened to. I just get a kick out of that – it’s fun to draw and it gives the audience credit because they can picture it happening on their own.
The first story in the Rock from the Sky was the idea we could do a giant spread with just a rock floating. We would know what it was and what it meant because of what had come before – and the title of the book.
But the more I flipped through it and turned the pages, I thought, “Oh, it’s too risky. What if they think it’s just floating up there?” And if you’re just a little too young to understand that this thing is falling, you wouldn’t get the story. Why would this rock, all of a sudden appear on the ground?
That’s a totally different story than the one I want you to get. So grudgingly, I put these little pebbles up there to give the rock some context on the page, but it was against every fibre I had going into the book.
The stretching of it is a big part of this book. Whenever I was writing one of these stories, a lot of the momentum was to see how far we could stretch your expectation of how long something ought to take.
The idea (for the Rock From the Sky) was of these lowly cast members who only got one page in the other books, coming out after the play was over and saying, “we also have some ideas for a story. Can we put this on for you?” So they put on this play that doesn’t go anywhere. They find these hats in the costume box and they’re like, “we can do this!”
And the whole stage seems too big for them. They don’t know how to act and they don’t know where it’s going. So everyone slowly kind of empties out in the theatre while they’re doing their play. That was my feeling for this one – it just helped me figure out the tone of the writing.
Because picture books are so condensed, it’s a highly pressurised format. You are setting something up within a few pages because you’ve got a very fickle audience who will walk away if they’re not entertained right away.
And so I’m playing with that and sort of hoping that the audience will enjoy that I’m almost wasting spreads. There are spreads where the only change is that the sun has gone down a quarter of an inch, or that the turtle has moved four feet from his usual spot.
My hope is that kids have read enough picture books where that’s exciting to them, where they’re like, “we’re spending a whole spread here. Why is this taking so long?”
I was worried that this might come off cynical because I’m kind of making fun of picture books too. And I worry about that sometimes that some of my work gets almost sarcastic. But I don’t want to be sarcastic, and I don’t want to make fun of picture books or children for paying attention to them.
I don’t want a boring book about boring pictures. I want boring pictures that have something exciting as their context. So usually that’s emotional. If you tell the audience that this character is having a horrible day or that something’s really wrong, but you don’t draw that, then they get to load that drawing with emotion.
But with this one, it’s the physical premise: there’s a giant rock that’s about to fall. And these guys are having the most boring conversation you could ever think about – where to stand in a field. But because we know there’s a rock coming, that gives me permission for my weird conversation that I’m interested in writing.
I think my interest in the book was that the rock could fall on you. It’s not by some virtuous nature of the universe that this rock didn’t hit that turtle. He got lucky and some people don’t get lucky. And I’m interested in that. I like talking to kids about lack of fairness. It’s such an interesting topic because it has nothing to do with how the world ought to work and how we would like it to work. It has to do with how the world is. And that seems instructive to me.
We have to emotionally prepare ourselves for bad things to happen. Things that we do not deserve, or think are fair or that we could even predict or understand. Where’s that rock from? Who knows. We’ve got no information about that. And we often will not get information about things that happened to us. We have to function and go about our weird little days and have our weird little conversations and untangle our weird little relationships while rocks are falling all around us, pretty often.
The first book, I Want My Hat Back was born of me being pretty angry. It was written around the time of the financial crisis and there was a feeling of being robbed, right to our faces by a massive group of people. There was not much you could do about it. You just had to take it.
It’s a wish fulfilment book. Just feeling like, what would you do? What do you feel like doing? You feel like eating that, you feel like absolutely erasing it. And then as time went on, you get softer and think, maybe these books shouldn’t be born of fury.
With the Rock From the Sky, I think I went right back to that, where almost every impulse I had just felt like I was furious. There were so many things going in the world that felt out of our control, there was a pretty clear line drawn there.
I don’t know how to be naturalistic and believable. My impulses are so subtle that if I try to play it straight, I don’t do enough. It feels boring because my instincts are so quiet. And so my, my idea of being entertaining is way over the top. And there’s something that makes that believable. If this story is getting boring, let’s bring out a death ray alien – that ought to wake them up! Every time you have an impulse, you follow that impulse and magnify it by like a thousand percent.”