by Sam Juliano
Master picture book stylist Jon Klassen won the Caldecott Medal several years ago for the second book in his eventual “Hat Trilogy.” He also won two Caldecott Honors for Extra Yarn and Sam and Dave Dig A Hole. The first two books in the trilogy, I Want My Hat Back and This is Not My Hat are not reliant on each other, as their stories if not their premise are independent. The final work, this year’s We Found A Hat is story-wise and stylistically the best one yet, so you have to wonder if a sequel has a chance to follow-up on the same author’s previous win in an ongoing series. Caldecott rules explicitly state that the committee is not to consider whether an artist won or not previously; the issue is the craftsmanship of the current book being scrutinized. Though all the books veer off in different directions, they are of course thematically linked. If there is a better artist out who more effortlessly uses space to superlative effect I’d sure like to know of that person. Even the typography is incomparably elegant. And Klassen’s economical use of language in this three-part work is cunning and laugh-inducing, not to mention it is one of the very best read aloud books of the year. In the first two books the perpetrator of a theft get their comeuppance in an implied act of violent retribution. The Caldecott winner features a small fish who acknowledges that what he did was wrong, but he justifies it by saying the hat is much too small for the whale he swiped it from. Despite a promise from a snail that he will keep secret his hiding place in a in a maze of sea plants, he is betrayed, and the last image in the book shows the triumphant whale wear his hat after a raid on the greenery. No such conclusion transpires in We Found A Hat, though like the other books one feels the ending is proper. The scheming turtle after all never did pull the trigger on the intended heist unlike the aggressors in the first two books.
Another Klassen cover gem showcases two turtles looking at the reader. Between them is a white cowboy hat. The outer space end papers, black and speckled with distant stars portend the narrative’s finale, but a first time reader may be more inclined to feel they showcases the night sky over a desert. The beige bleeding into gray is exquisitely rendered. Chapter One is titled “Finding the Hat” and the dilemma is laid out straightaway: One hat for two turtles. The math doesn’t work. The close-ups of the turtles – brown on grey with distinctive eyes and shell designs is trademark Klassen. Then the humor connected to a turtle wearing a hat: How does it look on me? It looks good on you./How does it look on me? It looks good on you too. Both turtles have their turn at wearing the hat. The drama is played out sparely without ostentation with the help of Klassen’s remarkable eye for design. Two turtles near the bottom of one creamy white-gray page and two six word sentences set in the middle of the opposite panel. After they agree that the hat looks divine on each other the moral dilemma is set directly: But it would not be right if one of us had a hat and the other did not. The solution from the standpoint of what is fair is a no brainer. They must leave the hat and forget they ever saw it. Klassen’s double page spread makes it clear that one of these turtles appears to be thinking of a way to own it for himself, as the following panel speaks volumes when he lags behind the other so he can keeping his eyes on this left-behind item.
Part Two – “Watching the Sunset” is quite a sumptuous section, as Klassen brings in that sumptuous color on the cover back, adding cactus plants and a setting sun. The beautiful spread of them “Watching the Sunset” is picture book art at its most economical, and its wholly ravishing. The hesitant one with the shifty eyes asks the honest turtle What are you thinking about? The response: I am thinking about the sunset. Then the same question is asked by the honest turtle to the other, and the answer is a lie: Nothing. He says that while staring at the hat.
Part 3 is titled “Going to Sleep” and it quickly turns into a “When the cat’s away, the mice will play” scenario. They both confirm that will be going asleep together, but the conspirator waits for his opportunity as he asks the other turtle if he is asleep yet. The quickly tiring honest turtle responds I am almost asleep, to which the scheming turtle adds as he moves towards the hat Are you all the way asleep? The honest turtle responds that he is indeed all the way asleep, and that he is having a dream, one where he is floating in space sporting a hat that “looks very good on me.” But here’s the magnanimous hitch: he envisions the other turtle wearing a hat as well as likewise it looks splendid on him. Klassen’s canvas of these sombrero clad turtles floating in a spacey expanse is one of the most charming in any picture book this year. The plotting turtle gives pause just inches from his pilfering deceit and answers: We both have hats? He then joins his friend in peaceful slumber, leaving behind that most desirable ten-gallon, opting instead to enter the world of dreams. The last spread set in the deepest expanse of space is one of 2016’s real picture book treasures and alone should have the Caldecott Committee swooning. There is simply no getting around it, these turtles think big, and their irresistible soul-bearing has produced the finest book in this trilogy. So what does the committee do now?
Note: This is the fifty-sixth entry in the ongoing 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include in the neighborhood of around 50 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 23rd, hence the reviews will continue till two from the days before that date.