I Want My Hat Back by Governor General Award Winner Jon Klassen is my favourite book of the year. Yes, there are still three months left in 2011, and yes, I have lost my heart to several wonderful books in the last nine months, but I stand by by my statement. A book about a bear looking for his lost hat, with simple yet breathtakingly lovely illustrations, and even simpler (but hilarious) text is a perfect creation. And I kinda knew it would be just from the cover. Some books, like some people, have a charisma that precedes them. Maybe it’s the bear, who looks like a beaver, all alone on the cover, with a slightly accusatory expression on his face. Bears already hold an esteemed place in children’s literature. Who doesn’t love Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Eric Carle, or the perpetually troubled Berenstains? We may fear bears in the woods, but in picture books, a bear is a slam dunk, and in I Want My Hat Back, the bear is a star in the making.

What's a hat?

“My hat is gone. I want it back.”

Simple enough. A bear loses his hat, and begins making polite enquiries around the woods. “Have you seen my hat?” the bear asks the fox. “No, I haven’t seen your hat.” “OK. Thank you anyway.” He then asks a frog, a snake, a curiously attired rabbit (‘nuf said) and a strange little creature resembling an opossum, who replies, “What is a hat?” Clearly he is getting nowhere, and the poor bear sinks into despair, wondering if he will ever see his beloved hat again. A deer wanders by and asks the bear to describe his hat. “It’s red and pointy and…

…I HAVE SEEN MY HAT!”

With all due respect to the icons of bear literature, what happens next is more Gorey than Berenstain.

My niece has a saying to mark a particularly surprising or unusually awful event, like losing half your cookie in a cup of coffee: “That just happened.” It takes the element of denial out of a situation. No time for the other stages of grief, just plain, unvarnished acceptance. I found myself uttering this sentence after turning a certain page toward the end of the book. “Wow. That just happened.” The resolution to I Want My Hat Back is not only surprising, it’s also funny and more than a little whacked. Yet another element (in addition to the stunning artwork) that elevates this book to the realm of a classic, or at least to a level that transcends genres, appealing to those who seek out weird and wonderful reads. Or books about bears.

Wait a second!

Klassen’s illustrations are absolute gems, incorporating gouache, ink, collage, and computer manipulation. Every creature sports a pair of generic almond-shaped eyes, which in spite of their cut-out appearance, manage to relay surprise, guilt and suspicion, the trifecta of ‘human’ emotion. The entire effect is one of 60′s era simplicity, with sparse background details and a pleasing two-dimensionality, reminiscent of the work of Charley Harper, and Marc Simont’s The Happy Day, but with considerably more quirk. The long pages, tinted cafe au lait, are the perfect canvas for Klassen’s impressively odd cast of characters, who occupy the space without adornment, tethered only by the right amount of splatter, a scattering of foliage, and their own irresistible charm. I Want My Hat Back is as good as it gets.

After studying animation at Sheridan College, Jon Klassen moved from Toronto to Vancouver and shortly thereafter accepted a job offer with DreamWorks in Los Angeles. From there, he went to Portland, Oregon, to work on Tim Burton’s Coraline and then back to Los Angeles, where he currently resides. Klassen is a bit of a visual polymath, jumping from animation to working on U2’s music video, I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight, and the BBC’s promotion of its 2010 Winter Olympics coverage. Last year, he received the Governor General’s Award for Cats’ Night Out, Canada’s highest honour for illustrators (other than appearing in this blog, of course.) I suspect it will not be his last.

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen, published by Candlewick Press, September 2011. ISBN: 978-0763655983

Cats’ Night Out by Caroline Stutson, illustrations by Jon Klassen. Published in 2010 by Simon & Schuster

Check out his Jon Klassen’s website Burst of Beaden, and in particular his blog, which is a showcase for his amazing art.