Jon Klassen on Making Art for Kids

In July I spoke with Caldecott and Greenaway Medal winner Jon Klassen (This is Not My Hat) about his most recent project, a collaboration with writer and longtime friend Mac Barnett called Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. (Candlewick, $17.99) We talked about teamwork, tone, and teaching life’s lessons through thoughtful and deliberate illustration.

Klassen first worked with Barnett on the Caldecott Honor winner Extra Yarn, and was excited to reunite professionally for Sam and Dave Dig a Hole.  “When Mac wrote Extra Yarn, he wrote with my artwork in mind. For example, ‘The town was covered in soot,’ was just for me, because he knew how much I like to make splattery, dusty art. There were many little favors like that in the book.” There’s more dirt here, where Klassen’s restrained, quirkily stiff characters dig for buried treasure alongside Barnett’s spare text, creating a superb interplay of text and art.  Still, Klassen was nervous about drawing humans. “I don’t draw people very often – I usually avoid them because people are supposed to be cute.“ (Think of his larcenous critters in This is Not My Hat and I Want my Hat Back.) Here, the boys dig in search of treasure, but miss hidden gems at every turn, and often by mere inches.  Their faithful dog frequently sports a pained look on his face, sharing the readers’ understanding that the boys are just barely digging past something extraordinary. 

Both Barnett and Klassen have similar ideas about the tone they want to set for any given project, and that may explain why their books have a seamless quality about them.  “Mac understands why I like things to be a certain way, and he backs that up with text. As an illustrator, it’s nice to work with someone who meets you in the middle.”  

While Barnett wrote Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, Klassen was already sketching. He created an image where the boys separated, digging tunnels at either end of a page, while a massive jewel remains hidden between them. Barnett hadn’t written that scene yet. When Klassen showed him the drawing, the story changed to accommodate the art.  “We designed the book so that wherever the boys were digging on the left spread, the text would line up with them in space on the right spread. I thought about what would happen if the boys split up, and if the text followed suit.” Initially, Barnett hesitated because he felt it might be traumatic for the readers if the boys separated, then realized that this could become the pivotal moment in the tale. “This became a big deal. I like when you come at an idea with a neat design, and then you ask what the emotional implications of this idea will be.”  The separation brings an actual dilemma, yet the boys push on with surprising strength and resolve. (Spoiler: they miss the gem again, but it’s a great sight gag. A nap, hidden bones, more dirt and a plunge through space follow.)

Klassen’s art is deceptively simple – his colored pencil drawings give the gems, the boys, even the dog, a scratchy, zig-zaggy, dusty quality. Children might be tempted to recreate those characters, much like Mo Willems’ Pigeon is so often imitated by little artists. “These are very simple drawings. Kids appreciate simplicity, something that looks attainable,” said Klassen. And while many illustrators are capable of creating sophisticated, complex works of art, Klassen argues that isn’t the goal for children’s picture books. “I don’t think it’s the job of an illustrator to show off. The point is to tell a story to kids. If you look at anything by P.D. Eastman, for example, the art isn’t showy, but it’s so well staged. Eastman was solving so many problems on the back end before he even started drawing. Some of his books are strange and complicated, but they work.” The challenge lies in tackling big problems with clear text and artistry. Done well, an author can tackle difficult emotional topics through accessible storytelling and illustration.

Despite earning numerous laurels from the publishing industry, the media, and fellow illustrators, Klassen remains what he calls ‘a nervous artist.’ Having grown up on classic picture books like those by P.D. Eastman and Arnold Lobel, Klassen says the bar is set pretty high. “I can’t get away from being nervous about it. These can become revered treasures for children.  It’s hard to completely understand the things these books are supposed to do, and the importance they can have in kids’ lives. So there’s a massive amount of anxiety for me, because I know how special these books can be. When I see books that got it right, it’s wonderful.” 

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