Thursday, February 6, 2014

Analyzing Picture Books, more to say on THIS IS NOT MY HAT.

My January 25 post about Jon Klassen’s book, THIS IS NOT MY HAT, prompted two responses from readers who didn’t like the message given in the book.

I’m guessing my mention of how cute I thought the rationale the little fish used to justify stealing the hat didn’t help. Thank you so much for your comments. I do appreciate and respect your different views, but at the same token, I stand my ground. Naturally, I would not want to read a book that might encourage a small child to take something that didn’t belong to him, or to teach him to rationalize theft, or that makes stealing sound like something cute and adventurous.

But I firmly believe all kids, especially those with a sibling, will at sometime sneak a big brother or sister’s toy without permission; therefore, this book might let a child who’s feeling guilty see that he’s not the only one who has made a mistake. And he will see (through this nonthreatening story) that in the end, crime doesn’t pay. The culprit gets caught.

When evaluating this book, here are some questions to consider: Is showin g someone doing something wrong all this book does and is that the only thing the author intended? What other ways does this story speak to a reader? Is the message really all negative?

Consider that last question when you go back and reread the end—the little fish didn’t get away with it (and there is no proof he got mangled by the big fish or anything gory, but just a picture of the big fish coming back out of the tall weeds wearing the hat that had been stolen from him.)

Maybe he simply took it back. Or, maybe the big fish asked for his hat back and then the little fish shivered a bit and gladly returned it. (Much like having a big brother demand the return of his remote control race car.) Little brother is probably going to return it.

The interpretation of the ending is expertly left to the reader, and I think it would make a good discussion between an adult reader and the listening child.

A quote from Ann Whitford Paul: A picture book is a book for people who can’t read.

Klassen’s story doesn’t pound a message into the reader; he tells an entertaining story that promotes thought. It’s much better than giving kids a lecture on why they shouldn’t take something that belongs to them, because the story is talking about somebody else. A little fish. But in discussing what happens in the end, the non-preachy message (disguised in an entertaining tale organically) will seep into the child’s subconscious in a way that shows why taking something that isn’t yours isn’t good.

Further, if the reader leads the discussion in a positive way, perhaps suggesting that the big fish asked, with no violence, for the return of his hat, and the little fish relented, then doing the right thing will blossom in the child’s mind. A reader might mention to the child, what do you think the little fish is doing now? Do you think he’s sitting in the weeds feeling a little embarrassed? This would be my conclusion, and who’s going to want to do something they suspect will cause them embarrassment?

My grandchild, however, would wittingly guess that the little fish is now in “fish jail.”

A family big on science might go into a discussion on the difference between people and mammals. The big fish would probably eat the little fish. Not so with people.

On a couple other notes, consider authenticity and how a child can relate to this book. Would it seem more realistic to show a main character who never does anything wrong, the perfect little fish swimming around, never tempted or lured into mischief?

 I didn’t raise kids like that. Mine invariably touched the knickknack they knew they shouldn’t be near, started flipping through a paperback with clumsy fingers (yes, they ripped a few), and slipped a cookie into their pockets when I wasn’t looking.

I’m sure they’d be able to see themselves in Klassen’s books.

Children will see what it’s like when a character makes a mistake. Everyone makes a few, and everyone learns from them. Should life be any different in a picture book?

To me, this book is perfect to give to a little sister who thinks about hiding her brother’s Buzz Lightyear figure. She might think twice, and though she might feel a little guilty hearing this story, because she already took his crayons, she’ll know she isn’t alone in the world. Other kids make mistakes too.

So what will she learn from this book?

That she’s normal, and that it’s best to leave her brother’s belongings alone.

That’s what I see in this book: a character a child can relate to, rather than one so perfect no child would think, This character is just like me, or, I did that once.

I’m glad Jon Klassen wrote for kids like mine.

            Some children learn more by coming through the back door to a lesson, seeing the wrong done and the result of their bad choices. I think I was one of these kids.

            So, tell me readers, what do you think? I’d love to hear more thoughts on this, whether for or against Klassen’s theme and how he handled it.

            Now, for those of you who considered this book a revenge story, watch for my future post about one of Roald Dahl’s books, which covers revenge in the most delightful and humorous way. Who better to deliver such a story?

Happy Writing!

Note: I did not see this as a story of revenge, but more as a story of justice. I did not picture the end with violence or vengeance, but I did picture the big fish getting the restitution of reclaiming his hat, so justice prevailed. And though I did see that there was a consequence to the little fish’s action, I did not imagine it was violent or circled vengeance. Really, I think the little guy saw the big fish coming and immediately offered up the hat. I always gave my big sister her doll when she came for it. J


  1. I only have one kid, so I don't witness this, but growing up with two sisters, yes, I took her toys and she took mine, and yes, I slipped a cookie into my pocket when no one was looking. So, yes, reading about similar characters makes sense. They are true to life. Showing characters who are perfect makes absolutely no sense. No one is perfect, child or adult. Writers would do themselves a world of good by writing believable characters.

  2. Thanks, Silvia. You are so right!