I know I promised you all Judith Kerr as my first blog feature, and as you can see from the title, this post is not about her and her incredible illustrations. It’s about Jon Klassen instead. I surprised even myself! It’s for two reasons really, firstly I was advised to look at his characters by Jenni Saarenkylä back at the start of my course, as I kept finding myself wanting to draw characters with very blank expressions and limited movement. How to do that and still make them dynamic? Secondly, I really had to return the library books I borrowed - thankfully my library has scrapped late fees but I couldn’t get anything else out until I returned them, and I was starting to feel a bit guilty about hoarding the libraries entire Jon Klassen catalogue.
Before I get into Klassen’s characters, I have to take a moment to appreciate his composition and page design. It's where my true love lies, and his too I think. He creates atmosphere with the minimalist of backgrounds, and positions his charcters in such a way that the balance of space not only helps in telling the story, but measures the pace through out. I particularly love his clean lines, simple shapes and use of negative space. They impart a beautiful stillness and quietness to the background, for his characters to play against.
The key to understanding Klassen’s characters, is understanding how he views character design. He freely admits that he finds drawing humans difficult. And that he prefers to draw scenery and inanimate objects.
I think animals are his compromise. Animals don’t have overt facial expressions, so the situation they're in (think of a dog sat next to an empty plate of biscuits),or in a books case the text, tell us what they are feeling. In the same way, as humans we read emotions in animals faces that are not necessarily shown (or felt?)
Klassen’s characters don’t explicitly express emotions. For the most they don’t even have mouths, or eyebrows. So it’s all in the eyes. The size and shape of the whites, and the position of the pupils. It’s through subtle changes to the eyes that we read the emotions (in conjunction with the text), see connections between characters, and follow movement. In The Dark (above) not even the eyes change, there's just one tiny upward tweak of the boy's mouth on the last page.
In Klassen’s debut author/illustrated book, I Want my Hat Back, his main character is exactly the same in the first 7 spreads. Same pose, same blank expression, looking directly out of the book. But it somehow works. If you listen to Klassen talk about his creative process in interviews, we get a clearer understanding of why it works. For Klassen, the book pages are a stage. He’s the director, and the characters are reluctant and - arguable bad - actors. They break the fourth wall - all the time!
An audience at a theatre knows that the set isn’t real, and the actors are pretending, yet they suspend their disbelief to engage with the story. And it’s that act of suspending disbelief that makes the audience an active participant in the experience. Klassen acknowledges the artifice of his charcters being moved around a page. He invites the reader into the secret. More specifically he invites the child (who is looking at the pictures) into the secret that the adult (reading the text) is missing. And children are excellent at holding both truth and lie in their minds - as Klassen’s often authorial collaborator, Mac Barnett explains here (I like to think Nico is still leaving messages for his whale).
The secret is referred to as décalage (French: gap, discrepancy, time-lag) in illustrated fiction and we can also see examples of it in my favourite Quentin Blake picture book, Cockatoos.
Klassen is a master at it. All his comedy comes from the tension created when the text doesn’t exactly match up with the illustrations. My favourite of his books, alongside The Dark (with Lemony Snicket), is Sam and Dave Dig A Hole (with Mac Barnett). My children and I laugh out loud on every page.
Linked to décalage is Klassen’s love of the unreliable narrator. We see the characters lie, feign ignorance, or admit wrong-doing outright - combined with their deadpan expressions they’d be formidable in a poker game. And it means that the sometimes comedically dark endings, play with the moralities of who you’re supposed to be rooting for.
Jon Klassen’s book are much loved in our house, but taking time to look closer (I’m constantly told off for stopping half way through stories to study the illustrations) I can really enjoy and marvel at his skill as a both an illustrator and director of stories.
What's your favourite Jon Klassen book, and why? Tell me in the comments.