A friend reminded me recently how much I love Jon Klassen’s This Is Not My Hat, a book which demonstrates very clearly that in picture books the illustrations are often doing at least half the work of telling the story (one of the reasons illustrators should be listed as prominently as authors). Klassen’s story is told from the first-person (er, first-poisson?) perspective of a tiny fish who has stolen a tiny hat from another fish — who, from a reader’s perspective, seems worrisomely enormous. The joke that runs through story, however, is that the brazen hat-stealing fish, who thinks he’s getting away with his crime, isn’t so clever after all. All of the little fish’s assertions (that the enormous fish won’t wake up and notice his hat has disappeared, and that even if he does wake up he won’t be able to find the fishy thief, etc) are belied by the accompanying illustrations showing the big fish waking up and setting off on a direct course after the culprit. The pictures don’t just show what the words say — a visual mirror of the verbal text — rather they tell the second part of the story going on literally behind the tiny fish’s back. And they do so hilariously. I read this book to about four other adults before reading it to a friend’s three-year-old child, and all the adults laughed to see the reactions of the big fish with his expressive eyeball, rolling upwards to his hatless head, and narrowing as he closes in on the unsuspecting thief. My favourite illustration in the book is one where a tattle-tale crab who witnessed the little fish passing by fearfully points the way to the thief’s hiding place.
The combination of illustration and text work together beautifully and subtly on different levels. Very small readers can follow the story of the fish who tries to steal a hat but ultimately gets caught on their own, or adults can read with them, pointing to the illustrations and asking whether the things the little fish is saying are true; older children and adults will, I expect, enjoy the animals’ hilarious facial expressions and the book’s darkly comic ending. (This ending is another brilliant aspect of the book: the final few illustrations hint at a somewhat tragic end for the little fish, but they are also subtle and innocuous enough to be interpreted more cheerily by younger readers who may not want their tiny anti-hero to be eaten.)
16 December 2013 ~ Hamilton
Klassen, Jon. This Is Not My Hat. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2012.