There is a lot that can be learned from children’s picture books, no matter how old you are. And while it may be easy to consider such works to be shallow or simple, due to their flamboyant illustrations and lack of SAT words, upon closer inspection, one might find that actually the opposite is true. Because, while it may take some authors 25K+ words to convey their thoughts, the writers of children’s books have mastered the craft of conveying messages just as complete while only using less than one-hundred words, all of which can be found in a first grader’s vocabulary. There are few better examples of such great pieces of children’s literature than Jon Klassen’s This is Not My Hat, which may be the deepest sixty-three word book you ever experience.
This story is the narrative of an unnamed, small fish who is, in the story, trying to justify his kleptomania that has recently manifested itself in the form of this tiny fish stealing a hat right off the head of a much larger, sleeping fish. Small Fish admits right off, just like the title states, that “This is not my hat.” He goes on to claim that the hat did not even fit the big fish, and everything is okay because Big Fish didn’t see him and he is going to go hide in the tall grass until this whole stolen-hat business blows over.
If you are listening to the audiobook version of this text, then that is the end of the story; however, the real gem of this work and what really sets it apart from most books is that what is being conveyed in the narrative is the exact opposite of what the illustrations are showing us. While the tiny klepto-fish is telling us that everything is fine and the big fish victim is still sleeping, the pictures are showing us that the big fish is in fact already awake, is aware that his hat is gone, and is on the hunt for the thief.
The story, and possibly the short life of the aquatic narrator, ends with a series of illustrations depicting Big Fish swimming into the tall grass and coming out with not only his hat back, but a satisfied grin on his face. This literary tragedy holds nothing back, as the author does away with the sense of security typically supplied by first-person narration. It is universally known that such perspective “takes the teeth out of the monster’s mouth” because, since the main character is telling the story, he cannot die. However, Jon Klassen throws that concept out of the figurative window and leaves this story open-ended for the reader, whether he is 4 or 45, to decipher. Did Small Fish get killed? Who is the protagonist in this story, the big fish whose motivation is to simply retrieve what is rightfully his, at virtually any cost, or the narrator who, while a self-proclaimed burglar, is conveyed as a sympathetic character, who, in his own right, had his reasons for taking the hat in question? Also, why are fish wearing hats all of the sudden?
This story represents a writing and story-telling style that is not only unheard of for a child’s book, but is rare in the realm of books offered to adult readers as well. This book can teach us numerous important life lessons including the understanding that, as humans or fish, we are all the protagonists of our own stories, and, on a literary level, narrators are not always to be trusted. Overall, I feel that Klassen’s This is Not My Hat is an important and entertaining read for all ages and is definitely worth the two-and-a-half minutes it will take you to read it.
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