Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

“Where The Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak is the picture book that changed picture books forever.

Maurice Sendak Where The Wild Things Are Book Cover
Maurice Sendak Where The Wild Things Are (actual cover)
Maurice Sendak Where The Wild Things Are (spoof cover from Better Book Titles)
Maurice Sendak Where The Wild Things Are (spoof cover from Better Book Titles)

The picture book began to be understood,  after Maurice Sendak, as something extraordinary – a fusion of images and limited vocabulary which authors such as Julia Donaldson, Lauren Child, Alan and Janet Ahlberg, Emily Gravett and more have turned into a post-modern art form.

Amanda Craig

When I started reading books about picture books the first thing I noticed was how much the books of Maurice Sendak are referenced as primary sources, especially Where The Wild Things Are. Handy hint: If you’re thinking of reading academic literature in a bid to understand children’s books, have the Sendak oeuvre at your side. (Also Rosie’s Walk, the picturebooks of Anthony Browne and Chris van Allsburg.)

SENDAK_1963_Where_the_Wild_Things_Are_copyright_page

I find it ironic that the Book Depository description of Where The Wild Things Are includes the phrase: ‘Supports the Common Core State Standards’. Sendak famously did not write for children, saying, “I write stories, then someone else decides that they are for children.” I wonder what he would have to say about the heavily pedagogical motivations behind adults encouraging children to read his stories.

Sendak readily acknowledged his inspiration for his stories, and this one was apparently inspired by King Kong.

King Kong interfering with an aeroplane
King Kong

WHAT HAPPENS IN “WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE”

This story is about a boy named Max who, after dressing in his wolf costume, wreaks such havoc through his household that he is sent to bed without his supper. Max’s bedroom undergoes a mysterious transformation into a jungle environment, and he winds up sailing to an island inhabited by malicious beasts known as the “Wild Things.” After successfully intimidating the creatures, Max is hailed as the king of the Wild Things and enjoys a playful romp with his subjects; however, smelling the food that his mother has delivered for him, he decides to return home. The Wild Things are dismayed.

“Pretend” often confuses the adult, but it is the child’s real and serious world, the stage upon which any identity is possible and secret thoughts can be safely revealed.” 

Vivian Gussin Paley, The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter

THE ENDURING APPEAL OF “WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE”

Where The Wild Things Are is an example of a carnivalesque text. This is a form which endures — young and old audiences love to be whisked away on a jaunt of the imagination, back in time for tea, consequence free.

Marjery Hourihan points out other, more irritating, reasons for this book’s enduring appeal in Deconstructing The Hero:

The persistence of this pattern which inscribes the myth of Western patriarchal superiority is apparent when we see that Maurice Sendak’s celebrated children’s picture book, Where The Wild Things Are (1963), tells a story which is in essence exactly the same as the story of Odysseus. A small boy called Max, dressed in his wolf suit, misbehaves and threatens his mother, so he is sent to bed without his supper. Once in his room he embarks on an imaginary journey, through a forest and across an ocean, to the land where the wild things are. Despite their ferocious appearance Max tames them by saying ‘Be still!’ and looking into their eyes without blinking, whereupon they make him their king. He is given a crown and a scepter and they obey him. Max and the wild things indulge in a joyous and anarchic rumpus which stretches across six pages of illustrations, but finally, lonely for love, Max stops the rumpus and departs despite the wild things’ plea: ‘Oh please don’t go — we’ll eat you up — we love you so!’ He sails home, into his own room where he finds that a hot supper is waiting for him.

Like Odysseus and all the other heroes of antiquity, Max is the primary force in his story. His goal, like Odysseus’s, is to regain his kingdom (his position as a loved child with the freedom of his whole home). Like the ancient heroes he shows no fear in the face of the wild things he encounters and he subdues them by the exercise of his own will. Though they linger in the magical wilderness for a time, neither Max nor Odysseus can be persuaded to stay there despite appeals and blandishments; they remain dedicated to their purpose. Each achieves a successful return to home and normality and is rewarded by the love of a faithful kindswoman. They regain their kingdoms.

Where the Wild Things Are is justly admired for its exquisite illustrations, its meanings which readers might make from the text and the pictures are that in his dream Max realizes he has the power to control his ‘wild’ emotions, understands that when he threatened his mother he had not ceased to love her. The wild things’ appeal to Max: ‘Oh please don’t go — we’ll eat you up — we love you so!’ echoes the earlier threat he made to her: ‘I’ll eat you up!’ and shows his awareness that the intensity of his anger was a function of the intensity of his love. The hot supper which his mother has left for him shows that she realizes this too. The possibility of such personal meanings constitutes a potent appeal for child readers. But part of the story’s enormous and enduring popularity is attributable to Max’s role as a hero who undertakes a successful quest and masters the wild things — and from that other, socially significant meanings emerge. Although he is no more than 4 years old, Max has learnt the trick of domination and is clearly a potential member of the patriarchy.

‘WE’LL EAT YOU UP!’ FOOD IN WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

The conflation between food (especially sweet food) and love is well known. As Rosalind Coward suggests, there is “something about loving [that] reminds us of food, not potatoes or lemons, but mainly sweet things — ripe fruits, cakes and puddings.”[…] Despite cultural taboos against cannibalism adults often play games with children in which we pretend that we are going to eat them. These games typically involve blowing raspberries on the baby’s tummy, kissing, nibbling and sucking on their toes and fingers, growling and playing giants or monsters, as in “the monster’s going to eat you up!”. Adults understand the food rules and the way they can be bent but not broken. But children, unfamiliar with the way metaphors work, must find adults’ behaviour very troubling.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

 NOTES ON ILLUSTRATION IN WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

Maurice Sendak Finds His Style

Illustrators struggle to find their styles; the style of Maurice Sendak’s early books is close to the commonplace conventions of most cartoons, and it seems that Mercer Mayer’s career as a picture-book artist would have been different if Sendak had never invented his Wild Things.  And we do, certainly, tend to admire Sendak more for his original work in Where the Wild Things Are than for his more derivative work in earlier books and more in general than we do the generally derivative work of Mayer.

Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures
There's An Alligator Under My Bed
You may notice an influence.

Here is the cover of the first book Sendak ever illustrated. As you can see, the style is like many others of around that time:

The Wonderful Farm
published in 1951 when Sendak was 23 years old

Style, to me, is purely a means to an end, and the more styles you have the better […] Each book obviously demands an individual stylistic approach.

Maurice Sendak, The Openhearted Audience

By the time Sendak illustrated Wild Things, his style was distinctively his own. In order to get there, he did a lot of work. By the time he was 34, Sendak had written and illustrated seven books and illustrated 43 others, so his style was either going to develop or stagnate!

Character In Where The Wild Things Are

Sendak was a very influential illustrator, though it’s easy to forget, now, that once every single child depicted in picturebooks was blonde and cherubic. We still haven’t come far enough when it comes to illustrating non-white children, but it was Maurice Sendak who first started drawing pot-bellied, dark-haired, non-pretty looking children. In Outside Over There, the trolls look exactly like human babies, which added to the ‘disturbingness’.

sendak-goblins

Max of Where The Wild Things Are has a human face but the body of an animal (because of his wolf suit). The suit represents the way in which he gives over to his baser, animal instinct to misbehave. He must learn to enjoy being human again.

Color In Where The Wild Things Are

(Note that in order to see the colors properly, it’s necessary to look at the primary text.)

Writes Perry Nodelman in Words About Pictures:

The conventional meanings of colors are of two sorts: those, like the red of a stoplight, that are merely arbitrary and culture-specific and those that relate specific colors to specific emotions…the culture specific codes tend to be more significant in terms of their ability to give weight and meaning to the objects within pictures, but it is the emotional connotations that most influence the mood of picturebooks—the connections between blue and melancholy, yellow and happiness, red and warmth, which appear to derive fairly directly from our basic perceptions of water and sunlight and fire. Since such associations do exist, artists can evoke particular moods by using the appropriate colors—even, sometimes, at the expense of consistency”: Max’s room in Where The Wild Things Are is blue when he is first sent to it, a much more cheerful yellow after his visit to the Wild Things; and his bed changes from moody bluish purple to cheerful pink.

First bedroom scene
where-the-wild-things-are-max-bedroom-trees
Second bedroom scene. For other examples of bedrooms morphing into other scenes see Just A Dream by Chris Van Allsburg.
Third bedroom scene
Fourth bedroom scene, upon Max's return.
Fourth bedroom scene, upon Max’s return.
The Bedroom Colors

Other qualities of colors can also convey the emotional content of pictures. Consider the two pictures of Max in his bedroom in Where The Wild Things Are. Not only do the colors of the wall and the bed change, but their doing so changes the effect of the pictures as a whole. In the picture the pink of the bedspread is different from the purple of the bed, and both jar with the greenish yellow carpet; in the other picture everything is suffused with a warming yellow that brings the room together; the bed matches its spread and a bowl on the table. The unified calm of the picture contrasts mightily with the discordancies of the first one. Artists frequently use related colors to imply calm and discordant ones to suggest jarring energy or excitement.

Location of Character on the Page
Max meets the wild things for the first time
Max meets the wild things for the first time

In picture books, artists vary the location of their characters in order to inform us about whether we should be more interested in the action or in a character’s response to it. In Where The Wild Things Are, Max is at the edge of the picture as he sees the Wild Things for the first time, for at this point, what Max sees is what matters. But once we are familiar with the creatures, Max’s own action becomes more significant, and he moves to the center as he joins their wild rumpus.

Nodelman
unsettling page composition
unsettling page composition

A more unusual use of central focus is the picture in Wild Things in which Max makes mischief by building a tent. The tent is on the left of the picture, Max on the right; the center is empty. Max faces out of the picture to the right, and his teddy bear faces out of the picture to the left; the focus is away from the center rather than toward it, and the mood is as unsettling as Max’s tantrum.

Nodelman
Use of Shapes In Where The Wild Things Are
crescent shaped leaves, crescent shaped teeth, pointy crown
crescent shaped leaves, crescent shaped teeth, pointy crown
horns and crown echo shape of the crescent moon

Notice that Max’s wolf suit is the only patch of white, clearness on the entire page. This way, it stands out.

[W]hen the Wild Things make Max king the crescent shape of the moon is echoed by the curved backs and by the crescent shaped horns of the Wild Thing closest to Max. Furthermore, the curves of Max’s crown turn its spikes into more crescents, the position of the first Wild Thing’s legs and arms make them into crescents, many of the leaves of the tree behind Max are crescent-shaped, the ground has suddenly developed a semicircular rise, and the line formed by the tops of the heads of the group of Wild Things on the right forms an arch also. The rhythmic unity of this picture evolkes a much quieter moment than those depicted before and after it, both of which seem to put more emphasis on the points of crescents than on their roundness.

Nodelman

Another thing to note is that the pictures start off postcard size and gradually expand as the book progresses, filling the page as Max’s imagination opens up.

Perspective As Narrative In Where The Wild Things Are
unsettling triangle

Usually, the use of perspective to create focus is…subtle. In Where The Wild Things Are, for instance, Sendak takes advantage of perspective lines to focus our attention on the moon, which gradually develops more weight in the series of pictures in which Max’s bedroom changes into a forest. In the first picture, the moon occupies a point close to the vanishing point, but it is hazy, and the unsettling upside-down triangle made by Max, the door, and the bed focuses our attention on Max and his anger. In the next picture, the moon is more distinct from the background, while the heavily outlined trees make the bed and window stand out less. The original triangle has faded, but no definite focus replaces it, and the picture demands our attention to many of its elements: the more prominent moon, the trees as new and therefore automatically interesting, and still, if only because he is human, Max himself. In the third picture, the bed fades, and the trees lose their harsh outlines; only Max stands out. But the moon, now exactly in front of the vanishing point, demands some attention; furthermore, its whiteness echoes Max’s whiteness, so that a relationship between the two is suggested. The last picture in the sequence makes the relationship clear. Max, his back turned to us, is in shadow, and the moon, at the vanishing point, is the only really bright object left. As the focus of our attention and Max’s, it communicates the key meaning of the picture, the mysterious unreality traditionally associated with moonlight; it creates an atmosphere of freedom from restriction that might imply anarchy, of wonderful but potentially dangerous things about to happen. As a whole, this sequence of pictures shows how subtle changes in focus can make what is basically the same composition express different meanings. The pictures so economically move our attention from Max’s state of mind to the potential excitement of a moon-bathed forest that few words are necessary.

Nodelman
Where The Wild Things Are By Maurice Sendak, 1963
Where The Wild Things Are By Maurice Sendak, 1963
Light Source and Shadow In Where The Wild Things Are

Throughout Wild Things, depictions of the moon attract attention both to themselves and to the objects they cast light upon—usually on Max himself. But surprisingly, the moon is not the only source of light in many of the pictures in which it appears; Sendak invents other invisible light sources to make the objects he wants us to focus on stand out. When Max stands in his bedroom with his back to the moon, his front is lit from the left front; but when he turns his back and focuses his attention—and ours—on the moon, this apparent source of light in the front disappears and Max’s back is shadowed. Something similarly strange happens in Ida’s bedroom in Outside Over There: the light shining through the window causes the table leg to cast a shadow, but as the world outside darkens, the shadow remains. Perhaps […] this is Sendak’s way of telling us that all that happens here is a daydream that occupies only one brief instant.

Nodelman
Movement In Where The Wild Things Are
max dog
notice the drawing which has been done by Max — he has been thinking about these creatures already

Picture books are filled with pictures that show an action just before it reaches its climax. In Where The Wild Things Are, we see Max’s hammer about to hit the nail, Max in midair about to land on the dog, Max’s foot in midair about to stamp the ground. The few pictures showing Max with both feet planted firmly on the ground are the least energetic ones in the book; they either suggest that he is resting or else give him a strong, stable position of authority.

Nodelman
Shading to Convey Energy In Where The Wild Things Are

In Wild Things, Sendak implies various levels of energy by using two different sorts of shading. In the pictures of Max making mischief at the beginning of the book, the shading on the figure of Max is composed of hatching, disconnected lines all in the same direction, but the rest of the picture is shaded with crosshatching, which creates numerous small, enclosed, stable squares. The crosshatching holds the objects down; Max is clearly in motion, while nothing else is. As the forest grows in Max’s room and he calms down, his shading comes to consist of more crosshatching. Later in the book, during the wild rumpus, all the shading but that on Max is crosshatching, and he becomes more filled with crosshatching as the sequence goes on. That helps create a curious dreamlike stasis even in spirt of the exuberant action in these pictures.

Nodelman

For more on the illustration style in this book, see Holly Manns’ slide show.

Later Pictures In A Picturebook Become Context For Earlier Ones

More on the picture of the Wild Thing hanging on the wall at the end of the stairs:

[W]e come to understand the implications of Max’s joyous anarchy in the first pictures of Where The Wild Things Are more completely only when we see the picture that shows him alone in his room; the anarchy is now not merely fun but appears to have significant social implications. Furthermore, it is not until much later in the book that we may recalled the picture “by Max” hanging on the staircase wall in those earlier pictures and come to understand its implications: we learn that Max drew not just a monster but a creature he might visit in his imagination, and we understand how very much the place where the Wild Things are is indeed a product of Max’s imagination. The model airplane hanging over Mickey’s bed in the first pictures of In The Night Kitchen has a similar function. Such examples suggest how very much the later pictures in a book become a context for the earlier ones in re-readings. It is impossible to reread a book as we first experienced it.

Nodelman
Where The Wild Things Are By Maurice Sendak, 1963
Where The Wild Things Are By Maurice Sendak, 1963
Where The Wild Things Are By Maurice Sendak, 1963

STORY SPECS OF WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

338 words

40pp

According to Sendak, at first Wild Things was banned in libraries and received negative reviews. It took about two years for librarians and teachers to realize that children were flocking to the book, checking it out over and over again, and for critics to relax their opinions.

COMPARE WITH

There is an uncountable number of texts which have been influenced by Wild Things. Also, Wild Things was part of a wider movement, influenced itself by texts which came before.

Harry the Dirty Dog is offered by Stephens as another example of a carnivalesque text in which a child character (in this case a dog) interrogates the established order, then returns home to safety.

Perry Nodelman compares Max to Peter of Peter Rabbit in his book Words About Pictures. Both Max and Peter have a wild side, and are punished for not behaving like proper humans. Peter Rabbit is, of course, ostensibly an animal, but note that it’s his human coat that gets him into all that bother in the first place.

Errol Le Cain (1941–1989) for 'Thorn Rose' by the Brothers Grimm published in 1975
Errol Le Cain (1941–1989) for ‘Thorn Rose’ by the Brothers Grimm published in 1975. This illustration reminds me of a composition from Wild Things and also from Outside Over There.

FURTHER READING ON MAURICE SENDAK

“If there’s anything missing that I’ve observed over the decades it’s that that drive has declined,” said the 83-year-old author… “There’s a certain passivity, a going back to childhood innocence that I never quite believed in. We remembered childhood as a very passionate, upsetting, silly, comic business.”

Children’s books today aren’t wild enough, says Maurice Sendak, The Guardian
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I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen cover

I Want My Hat Back (2011) is one of a trilogy of books written and illustrated by Jon Klassen. The plots are not linked and the characters are different. But they all feature hats. The other two are This Is Not My Hat and We Found A Hat.

Holly Storck-Post at SLJ recommends these Jon Klassen books for use with older students in the classroom.

When I read an opinion piece last week on the decreasing length of picturebooks from Elizabeth Bluemle at Publishers Weekly, the books of Jon Klassen immediately sprang to mind, especially at this paragraph:

Why are we so bent on brief? Is it because children have shorter attention spans? (They do. We all do. Or do we?) Is it because parents are working harder than ever and are too tired to face long reading sessions at bedtime with their kids? Possibly. Or is it because we are currently experiencing a trend of short, meta, funny picture books that don’t unfold a story with characters so much as riff on a clever idea? That’s a teeny piece of it, surely.

Pandering to, or presuming shorter attention spans?

I Want My Hat Back is also interesting for the variety of reader responses who think that picture books must star morally upright characters; that children are vessels waiting to be filled with good examples, incapable of questioning moral grey areas.

STORY STRUCTURE OF I WANT MY HAT BACK

PARATEXT

A picture-book delight by a rising talent tells a cumulative tale with a mischievous twist.

The bear’s hat is gone, and he wants it back. Patiently and politely, he asks the animals he comes across, one by one, whether they have seen it. Each animal says no, some more elaborately than others. But just as the bear begins to despond, a deer comes by and asks a simple question that sparks the bear’s memory and renews his search with a vengeance. Told completely in dialogue, this delicious take on the classic repetitive tale plays out in sly illustrations laced with visual humor—and winks at the reader with a wry irreverence that will have kids of all ages thrilled to be in on the joke.

MARKETING COPY

If there’s an ur-Story to I Want My Hat Back, it’s Chicken Little. A doltish animal goes from character to character asking the same question, oblivious to the way the world really is. But between Chicken Little and I Want My Hat Back is Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, in which the character of Lucie goes from animal to animal asking if they’ve seen her dropped handkerchief.

WHAT HAPPENS IN I WANT MY HAT BACK

A bear has lost his pointy red hat. He wanders morosely from page to page asking other animals if they have seen it. In his sorrow, he fails to notice that a rabbit happens to be wearing a pointy red hat. After lying on the ground for a while he has a revelation; he DOES know who has taken his hat!

The bear runs backwards through the book, and indeed gets his hat back. It’s a happy ending for the bear and the hat. The reader is left to surmise what has happened to the rabbit.

WONDERFULNESS

I Want My Hat Back is highly appreciated by my six-year-old. This is a very funny book — for those with a tolerance for slightly darker humour — and is best read in funny voices. The following review is typical:

This Is Not My Hat GR Review

Klassen not only breaks ‘the rules’ of what it takes to create a picture book for modern audiences; he seems to be starting a trend. What are the unwritten non-existent rules of picture books? Bright colours (because it’s thought kids only respond to bright colours), happy-lively characterisation (not morose); main characters who do the right thing despite everything.

I Want My Hat Back is almost a spoof on a large category of picture books which anthropomorphise bears and other wild animals to the point where they are borderline vegetarian. When we see picture book bears eat, they tend to be eating human food from plates, using knives and forks. Picture book bears do not go hunting. Adult co-readers know this, and I’m sure young readers know this deep down, but perhaps talking picture book bears who happen to eat talking rabbit is taboo. This book is written in such a way that should the book be read to a 3 year old who can’t yet cope with the reality of the food chain, that 3 year old can imagine instead that the rabbit delivered the hat back to the bear then ran away safely. But there is no such reassurance in the text.

Rabbit Eating Bear The Psychopath
Rabbit Eating Bear The Psychopath

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF I WANT MY HAT BACK

Klassen works with inks, gouache and acrylics but everything is altered digitally afterwards. I wonder how few illustrators are completely avoiding the computer these days. Interestingly, Shaun Tan does the inverse, sorting out his composition on the computer then using that as a model to paint on canvas.

One thing that makes Klassen’s work distinctive is his texturing; he apparently creates the textures with paint, scans them in and keeps them in an unorganised folder on his computer. This makes me feel better about the general disorganisation of my own computer.

I do a lot of random texture samples on pieces of paper that will only find their homes once they’ve been scanned into the computer, and there’s no way to organize stuff like that once you’ve scanned it, so they are just everywhere around.

– from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Textured overlays can make a big difference to an illustration, but tend to be one of those subtle additions that goes unnoticed by the reader of the story. Klassen’s are kind of ‘waterstained’ and ‘splattery’. This gives a sense of movement to images which otherwise look a little like collage, which is a more static-feeling medium.

STORY SPECS OF I WANT MY HAT BACK

Published in 2011

The Candlewick edition is 36 pages.

The FollettBound edition is 32 pages.

253 words

Marketed at level K-3

Even picturebooks have specific best-fits when it comes to age of audience. This from a GR reviewer, serving as a reminder that we shouldn’t stop buying picturebooks once children start school at 5 years of age:

I Want My Hat Back age appropriateness

This picture book has won a whole bunch of awards. Look at how half of them are European. I suspect this is partly because Europeans have a higher tolerance than American audiences for a children’s book character who does bad stuff:

  • Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis for Bilderbuch (2013)
  • New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books (2011)
  • Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor (2012)
  • Selezionato Mostra Internazionale d’illustrazione per l’infanzia di Sarmede (2011)

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Although the characters are different, this is very much the ‘on-land’ companion book to Klassen’s subsequent This Is Not My Hat. Sometimes when best-selling authors create a second book in similar style, the second one isn’t such a success. But both of these books are equally wonderful; buy both.

Contrast with The Tawny Scrawny Lion (A Golden Book), in which a lion is much happier after turning pescatarian.

Related post: Naturalistic Animal Behaviour In Picturebooks

The following year, Jon Klassen published This Is Not My Hat, which seems to be set in the same world as this book, but stars different characters. This is an interesting choice, because I suspect authors are often encouraged to create series based on the same character so that children will fall deeply in love with them and ask their parents to buy the plush toys.

WRITE YOUR OWN

A fun diversion is rewriting the titles of the picture books on your shelf. When you do this, you may be surprised to see that picture books have their own genre classifications. Jon Klassen seems to have (re?)invented the picturebook crime genre.

I Want My Hat Back Better Book Cover
from the Better Book Covers blog

SEE ALSO

I Want My Hat Back, Don’t Ask Me Anymore Questions from We Read It Like This.

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This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

This Is Not My Hat Cover

This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen shows that toddlers can cope with the horror genre.

“Jon Klassen’s darkly humorous illustrations are a joy to behold. Deceptively simplistic, the expressions and events that he captures, which range from the sublime to the sinister, are utterly wonderful.”

The CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medal judges’ commentary

Someone on Goodreads called this a “hard-boiled crime thrillers for toddlers”. This is fairly apt description! Below I will refer to a number of 1 and 2 star reviews of this book on Goodreads, because these reviewers say something interesting about what adults think is good for children, and what should be kept from them. Committees who award big prizes are a lot less conservative than many book buyers, but I fear it’s the book buyers who drive the market.

PLOT OF “THIS IS NOT MY HAT”

A little fish steals the hat of a big fish when big fish is napping. Little fish thinks he has got away with it. He plans to hide in the reeds. Unfortunately for little fish, the big fish works out exactly what has happened and finds him in the reeds. The reader never knows how it ends exactly, but I figure the big fish eats the little fish up.

It’s interesting to read the 1 and 2 star reviews of this book on Goodreads, because there you will find parents who don’t approve of such morbid tales for children:

But who would I recommend this for? For a “scared straight” morality tale about the wrongness of stealing? I don’t feel like traumatizing children.

2 Star Review

Others take issue with the message it sends to kids:

In this book, a small fish steals a hat from a big fish and, although he knows it is wrong, thinks he can get away with it. What kind of message does this send to kids? It’s ok to steal if you don’t get caught! There is a conscience though. The big fish EATS the little fish and gets his hat back! What message does that send? If you steal something from someone the person has a right to kill you?

1 Star Review

Stealing is ok——I think not! This is NOT a book to be shared with anyone other than the trash! How very sad the committee accepts and medals a thief! The insanity must stop somewhere. This storyline is NOT ok! Perhaps some will try to explain the parameters of the medal again to me. I know the parameters – I don’t know why the committee would choose this book knowing full well many people will purchase it just because it is a winner.

– 1 Star Review

Any book that engenders such strong reactions in parents must be a good one, in my view.

– 1 Star Review

From Klassen himself:

The bear [from I Want My Hat Back] can’t talk to the rabbit and can’t reason with him. So the only thing he can think of doing is to eat him. I’m not endorsing it but it’s what you can feel like doing! I like the fact that the hat abstracts the idea. The object doesn’t need to be a hat, it could be anything. We just need a motor for the story. In This Is Not My Hat, the morality is slightly more overt because the fish states his case: ‘I know it’s wrong to take the hat but I’m going to do it anyway.’ You don’t know whether you’re supposed to be rooting for him or not. The reader has been with him all the time and that’s a more complicated emotional scenario: are you going to feel bad when or if he’s caught?

I think the book does have certain ideas about morality but not ones that the characters are necessarily aware of. As the reader, you’re part of that process. When I was little, I didn’t need books to name those lessons so I don’t use a narrator or a verb like ‘she whispered’ or ‘she said angrily’. It frees things up and you have to look to the pictures and the font colours for emotions. … But this is a hard argument to make, especially in the United States, where they think that if it happens in a book, then the author has endorsed what goes on there.

Jon Klassen’s Visual Narratives

WONDERFULNESS OF THIS IS NOT MY HAT

VOICE

I love the voice. There is nothing adult about it whatsoever. This is the voice of a naive youngster. The little fish speaks directly to the reader — the reader is in on a big secret. The little fish’s conscience eventually kicks in. He knows it’s wrong to steal someone’s hat but he justifies it to himself. (Non sociopathic) readers will be familiar with this kind of stream of consciousness and will identify with the little fish. But we identify equally with the big fish, who has had something stolen, after all. Modern picturebooks are devoid of moralising, and this voice is a wonderful example of such a tone.

AMBIGUOUS ENDING

It is difficult to pull off an ambiguous ending in a picture book simply because there are so many readers out there who won’t stand for it. I admit looking and looking into the reeds trying to find where the little fish was still hiding and, you know what? He’s definitely not there. He’s either too scared to come out or he’s been eaten. When I asked my daughter what had happened to the little fish she said, ‘Dunno’ and at first I thought it was because she hadn’t engaged with the story and didn’t care, but she rushed off and wrote her own picture book, which just happened to star a big fish, so this book definitely resonated with my six-year-old.

INCONGRUOUS HUMOUR

The thing about humour is, it will never catch everyone. Kirkus described Klassen’s earlier book I Want My Hat Back as ‘cynical on wry’ and this one could be described that way also. One thing that almost always works to get little kids laughing is incongruity: Mum wearing Dad’s shoes, dogs smoking pipes, that kind of thing. Klassen makes use of incongruous humour here, too, not only with a fish wearing a hat (haha) but with a huge fish wearing a little hat that’s obviously not for him. In my mind, this big fish has already stolen the hat from a much smaller fish. This is a wry comment on the food chain which parents can shield from children as long as they like, but they’ll never shelter them from it completely.


NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF THIS IS NOT MY HAT

MINIMALISM

This is a minimalist picture book, not only minimalist in words but in illustration:

A few consumers don’t like such minimalist books:

The story is really simplistic, even for a picture book.

1 Star Review

This Is Not My Hat stands out from a lot of other picture books because the background is black instead of white. (Six Feet Under flipped this same expectation by making use of fade to whites instead of fade to blacks.) How many illustrators would have even considered using a black background when the story is set underwater? Jon Klassen’s colour palette is as much a part of his distinctive style than anything else, and I suspect he is now going to stick to blacks and ochres. The shapes are wonderfully textured, with splatters and watercolour washes (which could just as well be acrylic or gouache for all I know).

(How else does this book feel minimalist? There’s minimal punctuation, also. Klassen explains that this was very much a deliberate choice:

It’s all about context. There doesn’t need to be exclamation marks. Let the pacing do the work.)

EYES

When personifying animal characters, illustrators very often put eyebrows on animals who don’t normally have eyebrows, because it’s difficult to convey the full range of human emotion without them. This big fish doesn’t have eyebrows – he has 4 different, very simple drawings:

  • Asleep eye
  • Open eye
  • Open eye looking up
  • Squinty, suspicious eye

Nothing else about the picture changes — these eyes say everything. Of his earlier book I Want My Hat Back, Klassen articulates the reasons for his design choice when it comes to animal expression:

The characters’ expressions barely change with just some movement of their eyes. If the rabbit is too characterised, then he becomes too cute. If he shows no reaction, then it’s okay to want consequences for him. When you’re a kid and you’re being picked on, this is the big question: what do you do when you actually find the person who’s done something wrong to you and they’re indifferent? Amoral. They’re blank.

Jon Klassen’s Visual Narratives

Looking at the illustration of eyes in children’s picture books – Paeony Lewis

IRONY

Irony in picture books is often achieved when the pictures say something different from the words. This book is a perfect example of that. The reader knows the big fish understands what has happened, but the words come from the little fish’s stream of consciousness, and are in complete contradiction to the reality of the story. This serves to amp up the drama. The young reader knows what’s going to happen to the little fish. The ending is both satisfying and surprising, if only because we don’t often see death at the conclusion of humorous picture books starring personified animals.

So I Am Not Worried About That

STORY SPECS OF THIS IS NOT MY HAT

Pictures have a black background, so on most the text is laid over a white band at the top.

Landscape shaped book.

204 words

Marketed at level K-3

The Candlewick edition is 36 pages.

The FollettBound edition is 32 pages.

This Is Not My Hat Big Fish

COMPARE WITH

Another picture book with a retributive conclusion is The Story of the Little Mole who knew it was None of his Business by Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch.

Another illustrator with a distinctive colour palette is Nick Sharratt, who works closely with Jacqueline Wilson.

A lot of picture book artists start off as painters, but Sharratt’s style has not evolved from that tradition, and you don’t find subtle references to the world of fine art. He doesn’t go for a painterly look; his pictures are arresting in their almost schematic simplicity, and he favours strong flat colours. He speaks directly to a young audience – his pictures are easy to read and humour is his first concern.

Books For Keeps
Nick Sharratt Colour Palette
Nick Sharratt most often uses a bright-on-bright palette of colour.
Caveman Dave Nick Sharratt
Sharratt also makes use of black to set off otherwise brightly coloured shapes.

Jon Klassen’s art background is quite different — he studied animation and has worked as a concept designer in film (notably Coraline). There is definitely a graphic design/fine art feel to Klassen’s art — you could hang these pictures in an upscale restaurant or dining room and they wouldn’t look out of place. What these guys have in common is distinctiveness of style.

This Is Not My Hat Fish Leaves
Jon Klassen’s Ochres and Greens

Some adults don’t think this art is ‘for children’. Another 1-Star review on Goodreads comments on Klassen’s colour palette, which brings up an interesting expectation among some adults and many children, who have been trained to understanding that most brightly coloured things are designed for them:

I didn’t care for this book at all, and it is not a book that I would read to any children. The pictures were all dark and not very fun colors. Jon was trying to show that it is not okay to steal someone else’s belongings. The thing is, he could have done this by having bright fun colors so children would be more apt to want to read this book.

See Also

7 Questions Over Breakfast With Jon Klassen

A Pinterest board collection of picture books in which someone gets eaten

Other first person picture books

If you enjoyed the art in This Is Not My Hat, check out artwork by Philip Giordano.

Philip Giordano
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