Bears have much in common with people. We're both mammals. We're both omnivores. We are protective of our young. Also, if a bear happens to lose something very important, they will search for it. Especially if that something is their hat.
I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen is a clear-cut observation of a bear in his natural habitat, asking other animals if they have seen his missing prized possession.
What that description did not tell you is how unbelievably charming and oddball Klassen has made this story. Bear, standing upright, interrogates a different animal. Nearly every conversation is alike. No one has seen his hat and bear retorts, "OK. Thank you anyway." before he goes on to the next creature. The whole thing reads like a classic comedy bit.
My favorite exchange is with the armadillo who asks "What is a hat?" I guess armadillos aren't privy to the innovation of clothing. Then again, none of these animals should know what a hat is, but I'm okay with that.
Klassen also illustrated his story. His distinctive style is simultaneously simple and intricate. The pattern on a turtle shell or the tiny speckles representing pebbles on the ground help accentuate the geometry of the bear and the rocks. The canvas of negative space that all of these animals exist in keeps us focused on the task at hand.
The artistic choice that makes the story even funnier are the animals' eyes. For the first half of the book, none of the animals make eye contact with each other. So though bear is just chilling on his hind legs, he has the sort of vacant bear stare that filmmaker Werner Herzog described as "...no kinship, no understanding, no mercy...only the overwhelming indifference of nature." That quote sounds much funnier in Herzog's stone-cold German accent.
Things take a drastic turn when bear realizes that he has seen his hat, and that one of his animal peers told a bold-faced lie to him. The page flashes a deep red and the indifference in his eyes disappears. He will get that hat back!
Ultimately, we wind up with is a surprising example of swift predatory justice, though no violence is shown. Klassen has the confidence to take his story to a slightly dark place that aligns it with animal folktales that came long before. It caught me off guard, but some children will like the fact that the liar and the thief got what was coming to them.
I Want My Hat Back is delightful and daring. Hopefully we will see more dryly hilarious surprises from Mr. Klassen in the future Hold on to your hats!