A wrong is righted in darkly humorous picturebook

January 26, 2013 

  • About these books

    “This Is Not My Hat,” written and illustrated by Jon Klassen. Another dark comedy for kids from the author of the bestselling “I Want My Hat Back.” Deceptively simple, it’s actually got a lot going on and may provoke lively conversation. It’s also very very funny.

    “Lost and Found” by Bill Harley, illustrated by Adam Gustavson. This picturebook has an especially strong plot in which a lost-and-found box yields surprising treasures. Will resonate with school-age children and their parents.

    “In the Woods” by Elizabeth Spurr, illustrated by Manelle Oliphant. Looking forward to spring? This rhyming pint-size board book would make a good introduction to camping for very young children.

Jon Klassen is an unassuming Canadian-born illustrator who claims he never wrote anything other than emails until his controversial picturebook bestseller, “I Want My Hat Back” (reviewed in May 2010).

Klassen illustrated Mac Barnett’s wonderful “Extra Yarn,” which I reviewed last month, but his latest as author-illustrator is “This Is Not My Hat.”

To recap “I Want My Hat Back”: A polite bear in search of his lost hat interviews his forest neighbors, each of whom denies having seen it. Belatedly, the bear realizes the rabbit lied, exacts revenge and retrieves what’s his.

The revenge takes place off-page but is apparently lethal. Hence the controversy.

It would be funny if “This Is Not My Hat” were a sequel in which the bear discovers — oops — the hat he took from the rabbit wasn’t his hat after all. But in fact the more recent book is about fish.

As the similar titles imply, though, it deals with similar issues, ones that will be familiar to any tyke that’s ever braved the wilds of preschool, or any fan of a Clint Eastwood western (think “Pale Rider” and “High Plains Drifter”) in which great wrong is avenged, the moral code upheld and the universe returned to stasis.

Here is the setup: Wearing a stolen bowler hat, a little beige fish makes his getaway through the inky black sea, all the while proclaiming guilelessly that he’s going to get away with his crime: “I know it’s wrong to steal a hat. I know it does not belong to me. But I am going to keep it.”

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the thief, the hat’s big-fish owner has awakened from his nap and … the chase is on!

This apparently simple book is structurally complex. For example, the narrator is the bad guy, and if justice is to be served, he won’t be around to narrate anymore. How will the author pull this off?

Indeed, the ending is mysterious. Something happens between the little fish and the big fish in the kelp forest. We don’t know what. What we know (spoiler alert!) is the narration has ceased, and the big fish has his hat back.

Like the story, the illustrations are deceptively simple. With the tilt of a fish eye or the placement of an air bubble, Klassen conveys both motion and emotion. I also want to give him a shout-out for his homage to Eric Carle’s hermit crab, playing a key role and serving as the literal bright spot in the appropriately subdued palette.

“This is Not My Hat” could be used effectively in discussions of morals, literature or illustration. More important, it’s a wildly entertaining book to share with a child.

Speaking of lost hats, Justin has to brave mean Mr. Markovsky the janitor to find his lost hat in “Lost and Found” by Bill Harley, illustrations by Adam Gustavson.

More traditional in look and feel, this picturebook has an especially strong, well-developed and rewarding plot in which a king-size lost-and-found box yields surprising treasures. Harley depicts school-age anxiety sympathetically. In a twist at the end, parents are invited to laugh at themselves, too.

Finally this month, I enjoyed a rhyming board book that looks forward to outdoor adventures when the weather warms up: “In the Woods” by Elizabeth Spurr, illustrated in pastel crayon by Manelle Oliphant. With dad in a supporting role, a little boy wearing a green hoodie greets the dawn, goes fishing, cooks the fish, and sings songs — all in a day’s work in the woods.

If you’re planning a trip with a new camper, this book offers a great way to build enthusiasm.

Martha Freeman is the author of the First Kids Mysteries, most recently “The Case of the Piggy Bank Thief.” She lives in State College.

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