I Want My Hat Back, Jon Klassen, Candlewick Press, September 2011
This morning Candlewick tweeted an adorable picture of a gray bunny with a little red paper cone hat taped to his head. (I'm a bunny owner. Stuff like that kills me. Though mine would NEVER allow me to tape anything to his head, & if I somehow managed to he'd rip it off & eat it.) The picture was a hat tip to the upcoming picture book I Want My Hat Back, the debut by author/illustrator Jon Klassen, & when I saw it I realized - How have I not expressed my love for this book yet?!
When my Candlewick rep came to visit in the spring she said, "There is this new book. It's going to be huge. & it is so wonderful I want to read it to you right now." So she did. (Props to Candlewick for having such enthusiastic reps!) It was like preschool story time all over again. She read the book to me - a deceptively simple story about a bear who loses his hat & asks all his friends if they've seen it - & by the end we were both laughing hysterically. A month later at BEA, Jon Klassen was there & I was giddy as 12-year-old me at a Hanson concert to meet him & get my hands on a copy of the book. "This is the best picture book I've read in years!" I gushed. I probably embarrassed him. I gushed to so many people prior to his signing that I ended up in his line with a queue of at least 10 other people to whom I had gushed earlier that day. I am an I Want My Hat Back evangelist, much as I am an Adam Rex evangelist. (Seriously, go buy all of his picture books. You won't be sorry.)
The illustrations are as simple as the plot - soft watercolors in warm browns & black with a dash of red - but they evoke the kind of brilliant dry humor usually only reserved for BBC sitcoms. Catch a glimpse by watching the book trailer. If you don't find the trailer funny, you probably won't find the book funny. & you don't have a sense of humor. I kid.
But not really.
Told entirely in dialogue, the story just begs to be read aloud, & a child reader will be a few steps ahead of the bear in figuring out where his hat went, which makes for fun interactive reading. But, like with Adam Rex's picture books, I concede that grown-ups will get more out of this book about a very droll bear & his missing hat than a child will. I concede also that those grown-ups will need a slightly twisted sense of humor, as - SPOILER ALERT! - the sneaky rabbit who steals the hat gets his, um, just desserts in the end.
Which leads me to a very important point: Kids aren't introduced to enough twisted humor these days! Books like I Want My Hat Back are so vital. It's the quest Maurice Sendak has been on since he started writing: introduce kids to darkness early, so that they'll be able to laugh about it when they grow up. (I paraphrase.) Childhood favorites of mine included Sendak's Outside Over There (kidnapping & a freaky ice baby), Guess What? by Mem Fox (a gloriously messed-up book that you have to see to believe), & In a Dark, Dark Room by Alvin Schwartz (a little girl's head falls off!). I Want My Hat Back isn't horrific in such visual ways; it's very tame by comparison. But it is the people who are in Sendak's camp who will really appreciate the book. The ones who applaud the notion of "You think this book's too scary for kids? So? Wet your pants." (I paraphrase.)
I Want My Hat Back isn't scary, per se. But when you're reading the book with your son or daughter or doing storytime in your library, be prepared to answer the question, "What happened to the rabbit?" & don't sugar-coat it. Because it won't be funny that way.
Lastly, if my evangelism isn't enough, as Levar Burton would say, you can't take my word for it! Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, recommended I Want My Hat Back in a blog post for "Dinner: A Love Story." I too have read the book almost 50 times, & yes, it sustains.
Verdict: You need this book on your shelf to love & treasure & laugh at for years & years. I cannot wait to see what else Jon Klassen has up his sleeve.