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Thursday, 3 May 2012

I Want My Hat Back: Don't ask me any more questions.

I Want my Hat Back by Jon Klassen
Walker Books, 2011

Click above to listen to the way we read I Want my Hat Back

The first book both written and illustrated by Jon Klassen, I Want my Hat Back is a debut that makes you roar for more.

I Want my Hat Back has a cumulative structure, with repetition and mirrored dialogue for read-aloud enjoyment, using tension and timing masterfully for narrative -and comic- effect.  

It is a delightfully naughty and subtle story told in deceptively simple dialogue and illustrations that captivates small and big readers on many different levels. It has lots of thank yous, some rather pathetic lying, one painfully slow brain or two, a double-paged anticipation of a true Western showdown, and a refreshingly pitiless, rather amusing, ending.

The Story (spoiler alert)

A big, cuddly forlorn bear has lost his hat and wants it back. He wanders about asking all the other animals he encounters whether they've seen it. The fox and the frog are concise and to the point: they haven't seen it. The rabbit (we readers notice he's wearing a lovely pointed red hat himself) is more lengthy in his explanation: "No. Why are you asking me. I havent' seen it. I haven´t seen any hats anywhere. I would not steal a hat. Don't ask me any more questions". The bear thanks them each anyway and walks on. The tortoise hasn't seen it but can do with some help climbing a rock. The snake once saw a blue and round hat, but that's not the hat our friend is looking for. The armadillo doesn't even know what a hat is.

Depressed, he lies down and looks up at the sky. "My poor hat. I miss it so much". Then the deer appears and asks him what his hat looks like. As soon as the bear starts describing the hat he remembers where he's seen it, or rather, who he has seen it on. He jumps up and runs back past all the animals, now standing in a neat line next to each other, until he reaches the thief and recovers his hat. "I love my hat".

An ellipsis gives us the full story, though, and when a squirrel comes and asks the happy, hat-wearing bear whether he has seen a rabbit wearing a  hat, the bear answers in a familiar fashion: "No. Why are you asking me. I haven't seen him. I haven't seen any rabbits anywhere....".

The Illustrations
The illustrations in I Want my Hat Back are simple-lined figures on a pale background with at most a few leaves and weeds as props. It is all told in muted colours (shades of grey. brown and beige), except for the red of the hat, which stands out from everything else in the images and is given clever narrative use.

An interesting visual element is the text, colour coded by character (the animals each speak in a different colour).

We love the expression in the bear's eyes. How can such deadpan illustrations convey such despair?
Check out the fox peeking out at us
Why are you asking me? 

We love this snake, his irrelevant chit chat and the colour coded dialogue. 

My poor hat. I miss it so much. 

The moment of recognition! Again, check out those eyes!

Running back to catch the culprit
Western showdown. This is my favourite. You can almost hear the score. 

I love my hat. 

The endpapers, featuring all the book's characters including a hatless bear at the front of the book and a hattted bear at the back, look like gorgeous silky fabric. I wonder who will be the first to produce it for funky children's bedrooms!

Reading it out loud

I Want My Hat Back's cumulative text with repeated dialogue structures makes for great read aloud material, even for very young children, who will also be captivated by the expressive eyes of the bear and the funny looks of the other animals. There's also plenty of occasion for doing silly voices.

But I think this book offers many other powerful reasons for children to engage.

Small children can really identify with a) losing something precious and desperately needing it back, b) finding something nice and wanting to keep it to the extent that you c) try to cover up by lying badly and often verbosely, d) finding the rat who stole your precious something in a) and e) taking it back rather forcefully: "It's MINE". (Or as the bear says, "I like my hat").

I think it is this multi-layered identification that makes children oooh! and aaah! and giggle here, and, at least in our case, we get plenty of the three!

Other comments about I Want my Hat Back

It's the closest I've seen a picture book get to a silent film.

On the one hand, I Want My Hat Back is an introduction to a slightly more sophisticated type of humour than one normally finds in picture books, where double meanings play a key role and the funniness lies in showing and saying something different from what is happening. I've read a few reviews of this book, some off them well argued and interesting  that pose the question as to whether this might be a case of a book that is in fact far more appealing to adults than to children, a book that adults "get" far more than children.

So what is my experience? Do children "get" it? I find, at least in my son, that he has shown a peculiar kind of attraction to the way the story is told, to the mystery and the suspense that forms part of the humour in the book, that I hadn't seen before. I'd venture to say that it's the beginning of an education in humour. Slapstick you do not need to learn, but there is another type of humour that does need to be learned, and the way of learning it is through exposure to it. You might not get it at first, or you might not think there is anything to get (so what?), but the exposure to the playfulness of language and narrative for humourous effect is the beginning of an interesting and joyful learning process. My three-year old son was definitely drawn to it from the first time we read it a few months ago now. Would I say he is drawn to it because of the humour? It would probably be truer to say that many more elements are responsible for him liking it, but definitely, the use of narrative suspense for comic effect works for him, and manages to make him giggle.

Now I'll ask you a question. I think this dim little chap is an armadillo, but other people seem to think it's an opposum or a mole. What do you think? (Note added later: I see Klassen himself describes it as a "mole... thing". But those stripes still throw me...).

I see Jon Klassen's next book is due out on October 12. It features a fish wearing a Magritte-style bowler hat and is called, yes, you got it, This is Not my Hat

Read this super interview with Klassen at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. I have to say I jumped at his boyish face! Somehow I expected him to be/look older.

(c) of all the illustrations in this post, Jon Klassen, 2011.
(c) of the text, Ellen Duthie. By all means, copy or reproduce it, but please be nice and cite your source (author and site).


  1. I love this book for the amount of conversation it has created amongst reviewers - it's brought people together, and made us all think and share our ideas, and that has been such an exciting experience for me. I'm still not a massive fan of the book (nor my kids, but then they can probably sense my slight antipathy towards it, try as I might to disguise it why I read this book to them), but I will get it off the shelves again today, thanks to you! Thanks for linking to my post too :-)

  2. My kids still dig this one, particularly my son. He likes to read the "Thank you, anyway" parts. It is a book that lends itself to a read-aloud with fun deadpan voices!

  3. Thanks for your comment, Zoe. It definitely has sparked quite an exchange of opinions and it's been fun reading through some of them.

    I agree about children sensing our antipathy towards books, although interestingly my son loves some books I cannot stand!

  4. And thank you too for your comment, Janelle! Somehow I missed your review of the book. I've just read it now.

    I like your point about not needing to apply things to real life and not needing to 'like' every behaviour in a book.

    It always strikes me as funny why with children's literature there seems to be an immediate assumption that children will imitate and take as prescription absolutely every single behaviour portrayed in every book. Why would they when they don't do so in real life with real people? And what happened to kids' right to fiction? And to giving them credit for understanding the difference between fiction and reality?

  5. I love this book! Those illustrations crack me up. I read this aloud to a group of school age kids (K-2nd grade) and they really enjoyed it. Have you seen the book Extra Yarn? It's a new book illustrated (not written) by Jon Klassen. The illustrations are just delightful. I read that one aloud to the same group of kids, and they liked it more than I thought they would.

    Loved listening to you read this!

  6. Thanks a lot for reading and commenting, Emily. I've had Extra Yarn on my to-buy list for some time, but haven't yet got to it. The problem with being in Spain is that I need to buy most books in English, as our local library obviously has a rather limited selection of books in English. So it can get expensive!

  7. I really love how you read it!!! I'll share your blog on mine http://misslucysteachingfun.blogspot.com
    So every ESL teacher will be able to enjoy it! Thanks for your great idea!

  8. Thanks Lucia! It's nice to hear the blog is useful! Thanks for mentioning it on your blog too!