Top Canadian author dedicates book to St. Davids

By Penny Coles, Niagara Advance

Jon Klassen’s latest book, about two brothers digging holes in a vacant field, is dedicated to St. Davids, where his grandparents lived when he was a child. He was photographed in the library in his parents' Four Mile Creek home. Penny Coles/QMI Agency Niagara

Jon Klassen’s latest book, about two brothers digging holes in a vacant field, is dedicated to St. Davids, where his grandparents lived when he was a child. He was photographed in the library in his parents' Four Mile Creek home. Penny Coles/QMI Agency Niagara

If you google Jon Klassen, you’ll discover he is an animator and a very successful author and illustrator of children’s books, who was born in Winnipeg, grew up in Niagara Falls and now lives in Los Angeles.

You’ll find he has won so many prestigious awards he is considered, at the age of 33, one of the most successful Canadian authors - ever.

But what you might not find is that his love of children’s books and a desire to create books himself comes from spending some of the best hours of his childhood in his grandparents’ house in St. Davids, reading the books they collected for their five children. Or that his latest success, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole - written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Klassen - is dedicated to St. Davids.

His quiet time with a book often came at the end of a long day spent in the vacant field across from his grandparents’ Warner Rd. home, where he and his two younger brothers would dig for hours at a time, imagining where they might end up, and what they might find there, says Klassen.

He’s more an admirer of that earlier generation of books than those most kids his age were raised on, he says, and that is reflected in his work - they have a vintage flavour to them, and a darkness lightened by an appealing, dry sense of humour.

“I like a book that will make kids laugh and also scare them a little,” he says.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, on meeting Klassen, is that such a successful author could be so sincerely humble, likable and engaging - a genuinely nice young man, who loves to hang out with his parents John and Karen in St. Davids when he gets the chance - a world away from LA.

He certainly looks like he belongs more in small-town Ontario than in one of the most sophisticated cities in the world - he appears to favour slightly wrinkled, lived-in checked shirts, well-worn ball caps, and the two-day stubble now in vogue that might also be an effort to hide how young he looks.

He’s always understood the importance of family, he says, but had to leave home to discover the importance of roots. St. Davids, he thought, was a place to call home - but just a place. He now understands its significance in his life. He backs off from saying it grounds him - too much of a cliche - but when he’s not there, “I miss it. This is where I feel most comfortable. I just get here and I relax.”

His parents have purchased the old Woodruff house on Four Mile Creek Rd., recently completing an elegant renovation. And while he remembers the house from his younger days, when it was owned by the Woodruff family, as being huge and dark and scary - a perfect place for ghost stories - he’s now discovering the 30-room house is a great party place, good for inviting Toronto friends for a visit

The journey to his current success began when his graduation from Sheridan College’s animation program after high school led to a job at DreamWorks Studio - which most would consider a dream job - in Hollywood, where he was a storyboard artist.

“I learned a lot about what I liked to do, and what I wasn’t really great at,” he said. “The job wasn’t for me, but I didn’t know that until I had the job.”

He moved to Laika, a smaller animation studio in Oregon, where he worked on Coraline, the company’s first feature film.

That job, he said, was more about design and illustration, and was where he realized he wanted to try doing something on his own.

His first glimpse of what might lie ahead for him, he says, was the phone call, in 2010, to tell him he’d won the Governor General’s Award for illustrating Cat’s Night Out, a quirky story about what happens when a couple of cool cats begin dancing in the street.

“I didn’t see that coming at all,” he said about the award.

Then, he says, he decided it was time to write his own book, and what came of that was I Want My Hat Back. Five publishing companies offered to print it only if he changed the ending - a grim outcome awaits the rabbit who stole the bear’s hat - but he stuck by his work. There is nothing graphically scary about the ending, he says - younger kids may not get it, older ones will - but it couldn’t finish any other way, so he went with Candlewick Press, which embraced the outcome.

That book was followed by This Is Not My Hat, this one about a big fish, a little fish and another snatched hat. It won the Caldecott Medal, awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children - Klassen was the first Canadian to win the award that has been handed out since 1938. And if that’s not impressive enough, another of his books, Extra Yarn, was also nominated the same year, and won a Caldecott Honor - that has only happened once before in the history of this very prestigious award.

This Is Not My Hat also won the Kate Greenaway Medal - named after the renowned British illustrator and also given for distinguished illustration of a children's book.

And in 2013, The Dark was published, written by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Klassen, who had been asked to send a drawing to the popular children's author. From that drawing of a young boy standing at the top of a staircase, pointing a flashlight at a door at the bottom of the stairs, the story and illustrations of the The Dark evolved.

His two hat books were on the New York Best Seller list for more than 40 weeks, have been translated into 22 languages, and have together sold more than a million copies. At one time three of Klassen's books overlapped on the best seller list - he shrugs off that accomplishment as being a result of a "weird publishing schedule," as if it had nothing to do with the quality of his work.

Klassen now finds he spends a lot of time with kids, reading his books and other stories to them in classrooms while on tours across Canada and the U.S. He also thinks a lot about the details that make a good children's book, but in the end, he says, it's just guess work - you can't know what kids will like.

He thinks it's important for the author to have a "feeling of affection" for the story they're telling, he says, if kids are expected to like it as well.

He likes simple drawings that are clear and pretty. "I don't think kids need showy illustrations. They can tell when someone's showing off."

He's also learned along the way from agents and publishers - that 32 to 40 pages is now a desired length for children's books, shorter than those his father grew up with that were 70 to 80 pages - and that some shapes work better on store book shelves than others.

He's sure kids don't like to be spoken down to, and a story has to be established quickly, before they get bored and walk away. "They don't care how well you write - they just want to know what's going on," he says.

He likes the fact that while there may be some rules to writing children's books, "it's so much fun to break them."

And a while a moral message may be implicit in a story, he doesn't like the idea of deciding on the message and then crafting a story for that purpose.

His two solo books do have a sense of morality to them - if you steal someone's hat, something bad is going to happen. But it's the kind of fairness kids understand, he says.

Whatever the reasons for his success, Klassen is taking nothing for granted. He's delighted but also a little bewildered about the trajectory of his career to this point.

He has another book in the works his publisher is anxious to see finished that will likely not be on the shelves until next fall, but that doesn't stop him from worrying about the future.

He has his moments, he jokes, when he can picture himself a homeless old man in LA, but for now, he's still pretty much the kid who liked to dig holes in a vacant lot in St. Davids, trying to get his head around what they have led to.


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