Review of the Day: The Rock From the Sky by Jon Klassen
I do not think I would want to be Jon Klassen. Not because he isn’t a nice guy or anything. He’s nice as they come. But when he broke, he broke hard. I Want My Hat Back was a sensation above and beyond the predictable. One minute it’s just a cute book about a bear and his missing hat, and the next you’re seeing Dr. Who memes referencing it on Buzzfeed. Klassen’s style also became replicated far and wide. I well remember an illustrator of my acquaintance grumbling that everyone was trying to make their books look like Jon Klassen now. Klassen wrote three picture books about animals and their hats and has since spent the rest of his time illustrating books by a variety of cool authors. So I think it would be hard to be Mr. Klassen. If you’re him people probably think they know what you’re going to do next. Perhaps that’s why I was so excited to see his art for Amy Timberlake’s Skunk and Badger, which (amongst other things) showed animals SMILING for crying out loud. In light of that sea change, The Rock From the Sky might feel like a step back into familiar territory. Here we have animals and hats and mysterious goings on. But read it cover to cover and you’re just swept up in a book that cultivates a singular sense of comic timing and tone policing that never falters or strays. It is, in fact, his best book to date. Period.
Five chapters illustrate the small adventures of three behatted creatures: A turtle, an armadillo, and a silent snake. In the first story, the turtle is very fond of a spot, but the armadillo has a bad feeling about it. In the second story, turtle has fallen but refuses to concede that it may need help. In the third story, the armadillo and turtle imagine what the future might be like, but this goes in an unexpected direction. In the fourth, the armadillo and snake are enjoying the sunset . . . until they aren’t. Finally, in the last story, turtle is peeved that there’s no space to sleep beside the rock and decides to make its friends feel bad about that fact. On their surface, they don’t sound like much. Taken together, they’re sublime.
Every Jon Klassen book is a play. Or, more precisely, a play on plays. The mistake comes in trying to identify what kinds of stage productions they are, which is precisely what I’m going to do here. I Want My Hat Back? A school play, with characters breaking the fourth wall in precisely the same way a child would break the fourth wall if they saw their parents sitting in the darkened audience, watching. This Is Not My Hat? Shadow puppet theater. We Found a Hat? Not sure. A movie musical with a balletic dream sequence? I’m still deciding. But The Rock From the Sky? Pure Ionesco mixed with Beckett (I was half waiting for the words “they do not move” to show up at some point), only it makes sense and has time travel and aliens stomping around. Some day, mark my words, a director will take each one of these books that Klassen has both authored and illustrated, and either turn them into a series of animated short films utilizing a wide variety of styles and tones, or a stage a play that encompasses all these different styles as different scenes. And why not? If picture books have been breaking down the fourth wall for years, why not break out the experimental theatrical performances?
But see, that’s the thing about Klassen and the fourth wall. It’s commonplace for book characters to talk to their child readers these days. Thanks to Grover, The Pigeon, Press Here, and more, children are told precisely what to do with each one of those books. Touch this! Press that! Klassen never tells you what to do. He never tells you what to think. His characters look right at you but you’re not being encouraged to react directly to them. Instead, those eyes are encouraging you to do the exact opposite: to watch them react as a series of ridiculous events are (or are not) thrust upon them. Even when you know that tragedy is imminent, you don’t feel inclined to call out and warn anyone. Does anyone warn the coyote when his plan to catch the roadrunner is about to result in a bad physical end? So you read this book luxuriating in how it puts you, the reader, into this place of uncertainty. Something terrible could happen at any moment. Isn’t it delicious?
Which brings us to the meticulous utilization of dread in children’s literature. Or, since this is kids we’re talking about, anticipation. Anyone who has ever read the book Fortunately by Remy Charlip to a large group of children knows perfectly well that half the fun of that book is the possibility that you are about to see your hero impaled on a pitchfork or torn to shreds by sharks or flattened by a fall. Klassen is working off of much the same feeling. In the first story you know that a rock is falling. It’s in the title. You really can’t get any clearer than that. So the question is less IF the rock is going to hit than WHEN it’s going to hit. Or, for that matter, who. And by some miracle, if a rock falls it feels surprising. And you laugh both out of relief (on behalf of the characters) and when you see their expressions. Such as they are.
In a little press packet that came with my copy of this book (which stole the phrase “deadpan gem” away from me, so that I cannot use it in this review, curse the marketing team’s eloquent hide) Klassen talks a little about why he gave his animals hats (“The characters wear little bowler hats (though the snake has a beret for reasons I’ve not explained to myself)”) and how he has spent some time giving them a nice big sky. What he doesn’t talk about is the facial expressions. I don’t think you’d go out of your way to say that Klassen was the most emotive illustrator out there. You’re not going to get some Chuck Jones-esque on-camera mugging from these characters. In a way, Klassen is the Buster Keaton of the picture book world. But that said, I found these to be MUCH more expressive figures than Klassen had ever tried before. How so? Their eyes. With just the deftest touch, Klassen will widen or narrow the eyes on his characters and the gesture will tell whole novels. I’m thinking of anytime a rock falls or, my personal favorite, when the turtle refuses help in turning over and says to the sleeping armadillo “I am never tired.” Its expression, as it glares into the distance with equal parts stubbornness and determination, is worth the price of the book alone.
It is also, as it just so happens, a book that may be impossible to encapsulate well in a review. Let me put it this way then: Would you like to read a book that will make you laugh and your kids laugh, and all of you are laughing for real, no one faking it, and enjoying this book for the exact same reasons? Because what we have here is a bit of a unicorn. It’s a book that is amusing to children and adults in precisely the same way. It straddles ages and even, I’d suggest, different kinds of senses of humor. Add in the fact that it’s beautiful to look at (yes, kudos on those skies, Jon), a tiny bit poignant, and contains funny hats and I’d say it’s a winner to its core. The kind of book that comes out of the blue and just hits you with its charm.
On shelves April 13th.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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