A review which goes against the grain

posted in: Jon Klassen | 20

If there’s one picture book that has had the kidlitosphere buzzing excitedly this year it has to be I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. I had read rave review after rave review after rave review of this book before I finally got a copy to review myself.

I read There’s a Book’s review (“I Want My Hat Back is destined to be a Classic among the finest in Children’s Literature“), Waking Brain Cell’s review (“Klassen’s wording is perfection“), the New York Times review (““I Want My Hat Back” is a marvelous book in the true dictionary sense of “marvel”: it is a wonderful and astonishing thing“) and 32 Page’s review (“A book about a bear looking for his lost hat, with simple yet breathtakingly lovely illustrations, and even simpler (but hilarious) text is a perfect creation.“) amongst others.

But when I finally read it myself, and more importantly read it with not only my children but with as many other children as I could, the reactions this book received were not what I had come to expect they would be.

The story is simple. A bear has lost his hat and asks fellow forest residents if they have seen it. Finally bear realises he himself has seen it somewhere and returns to claim his hat. It is told well (simple here = eloquent, precise, well honed), it will (probably) make you laugh. The illustrations are beautiful, fresh and full of charm. But. But…

This book turns on its dry wit. Dry wit is great for cynical old folks, but it isn’t something I think young kids revel in. An appreciation of wry humour is something that comes later in my experience, and that has certainly been borne out every time I’ve read this book with children.

My experience is that they enjoy the book, but the punch that the adults will enjoy simply hasn’t registered with my audience of 3-7 year olds. They like the story, yep, but don’t “get it” in the same way adults do (and to be honest, not all adults I’ve shown the book to have enjoyed it either – if you’ve a slightly sardonic sense of humour you’ll probably enjoy it, but otherwise….)

M and J didn’t think it was a bad or boring book but didn’t take it particularly to their hearts. Determined to find some kids who would fall in love with it, I took it to several story reading sessions at school. What worked amazingly and surprisingly well was acting out the story. The dialogue in the book is colour coded, and the text is just right for many 6 year olds to read themselves, so before I knew it, my small groups of kids had taken over the storytelling session and I was being the grumpy old bear, whilst they read the different animal parts. This was tremendous fun, but still the ending didn’t grab them as I’d hoped. Several didn’t understand the ending, and those that did reacted very matter of factly to it, as if what happens in the final pages is not at all surprising.

So you see, my review can’t be as glowing as many of the others you might find for I Want My Hat Back (although I’m relieved to see that the Kirkus review hints at the problems I think I’ve encountered with Klassen’s picture book).

Still, do I think you should read it? Absolutely. Am I confident you’ll love it? No, I can’t be. But please do go get a copy from your library, or read a copy in your bookshop and report back to me. I’d love to know what you think of it, and I’d especially love to know what your kids think of it.

Even if the kids haven’t wanted to re-read I Want My Hat Back hundreds of times, they did want to get up to “something crafty” after our first reading and so we set about making hats for the soft toy menagerie that the girls own. I liked the look of this tutorial from Oh Happy Day, but wanted something the girls could do pretty much themselves.

So here’s what we did. M and J draw round saucers on coloured card…

…then cut out their circles.

They put a dot in the middle (or thereabouts) of their circle and draw “a large pizza slice” to cut out.

The pac-man shaped card was turned into a cone, sellotaped shut and then a little bit of elastic was threaded through two holes made by a hole punch.

Hats were decorated with stickers (and lavender sticks!) and then proudly worn by all sorts of sartorially savvy animals.

Whilst we made our hats we listened to:

  • Gonna Take My Hat by Mister G (you can watch the video here for free)
  • This Hat by Laurie Berkner (you can watch the video here for free)
  • An Old Straw Hat by Maria Muldaur

  • Instead of making hats like these we could have:

  • Made hats from felt again as we did in this post.
  • (Re)learned out to make newspaper hats using this tutorial form Skip to my lou.
  • Gone animal tracking in a nearby wood – Parenting science has a useful set of resources all about animal tracking.

  • What books have you read where your opinion of them differed from that held by most other readers / reviewers? How did that make you feel?

    20 Responses

    1. Z-Dad

      We had similar reactions at our house.
      I’d read enough reviews that I had guessed the ending (even though every reviewer takes great precautions not to reveal it). Still, because of all the raving, I expected my kids to bust a gut when we all finally sat down to read it together. But they were pretty indifferent. They “got” the ending, but no one laughed. They didn’t dislike it, didn’t love it. Just “meh.”
      However my wife read it later on her own, and she LOVED it. So I think you’re absolutely right — while it is a book for all ages, I think it is grown-ups who like it a LOT more than kids. Hence, all the rave reviews from grown-up reviewers.

    2. Even in Australia

      Same here. A post is in the works about it! Glad I am not alone. I knew the ending (not sure where I read it, but at least one review gave it away) so I thought maybe that spoiled it for me… but I don’t think that was the only reason.

    3. Zoe

      Hi Z-Dad, Hi Even in Australia
      I didn’t technically know the ending (and now I’m wondering if I’ve given away too much in my review), but I did wonder if all the reviews I’d read had built me up to expect something somewhat more spectacular. Perhaps a case of favourable reviews not aiding the enjoyment of a book. But I feel immensely reassured to read that you too had a similar reaction – I was nervous about posting this review as it seemed to go against the grain and of course this left me wondering if it was just me and I’d “got it wrong”.

    4. The1stdaughter (Danielle)

      You know, not every book is for every reader. That’s absolutely to be expected and I’m happy there are so many varying viewpoints on books or life would be rather boring, wouldn’t it? I think you did an excellent job pointing out the pros and cons of the book from your vantage point, so no worries. Obviously, I still disagree and think it’s absolutely a favorite for our household. In fact my son asked me to read it to him again today.

      All of that being said, this reminds me of the situation I was in last year with both Chalk by Bill Thomson and Art and Max by David Wiesner. Everyone raved about both of these books, but my interaction with them was completely different. In fact, both terrified my son to the point of tears and sometimes nightmares. I still have yet to review either because I can’t bring myself to put myself out there like that, so consider yourself brave!

      Great job with the review! Hopefully your kiddos will grow to appreciate the dry humor in time, but if they don’t…there are always many many more books to read! 🙂

    5. Isil

      Now I haven’t seen/read the book but I watched a youtube video on one of the blogs (was it yours?) during the blog tour and to be honest I felt a bit disappointed,too. My almost 5 year old wouldn’t get it either. Then I thought I should read the book before deciding about it but haven’t had the chance yet.

    6. maggy, red ted art

      Aaaah I do find that sometimes – that there are books that “us adults” really enjoy and the kids find it so so… so tempting to make them read i over and over again when they are not bothered particularly by it! I am intrigued though and would love to read the book now – esp, as you say, the illustrations look lovely!

      Love your hats 🙂


    7. Library Mice

      I totally agree about dry wit, in fact I doubt a lot of my secondary school pupils would get it either! There are many picture books which seem to bypass the child reader and mainly “talk” to the adult reader. Kate Wilson touched on that in a post about British illustration on the Nosy Crow blog a few months ago: http://nosycrow.com/blog/is-there-a-place-on-uk-publishers-lists-for-new-british-illustration-talent
      As I was saying last night on Twitter, this is often an issue with many French picture books. My kids do not like Kitty Crowther (who is not actually French!) at all for example, and yet she is hailed as one of the best. I don’t see her work as child-friendly particularly, and I think they find it scary! Same with people like Benjamin Lacombe. Gorgeous artwork but I am never sure who the intended audience is.

      My children’s booskeller friend Gaelle has a great blog who shows a lot of French picture book if you ever want to have a look: http://tourner1page.fr/

    8. Zoe

      Thanks Danielle, your comments are very thoughtful and a great counterpoint to my review. I hope everyone clicks through to see what you had to say in full about the book!

      Isil, hopefully you’ll be able to find the book in the library and then you can read risk-free!

      Maggy, do track down a copy and let me know what you think! The hats were lots of fun to make. Definitely put us in a party mood!

      Ahh Library Mice, so much in your comment I love! Thanks. Off to read Kate’s post and then explore Gaelle’s blog. I’m not passionate about Crowther either, and don’t know Lacombe, but will definitely seek some of his work out.

    9. Donna McKinnon

      Interesting! I am completely aware at all times that my viewpoint is skewed toward adult collectors of picture books, a crowd I frequently encountered at the bookstore where I worked. Nevertheless, your point is well taken. The illustrations and the text are simple enough for younger kids, but the wry humour at the core of the story might be lost to them. I don’t see that as a problem with the book, but the glowing international reviews might be doing a small disservice to parents by assuming that what adults find funny children will as well. Bugs Bunny cartoons-which I also consider to be perfect creations, had a lot of wink wink nudge nudge humour that I only got when I was older. My appreciation deepened as I grew up and got more cynical 🙂 Nevertheless, I Want My Hat Back works on all levels for me…and perhaps for that rarified crowd of adult picture book collectors. But as you say, it may not be for everyone.
      Thanks for the lively discussion Zoe!

    10. Zoe

      Hi Donna, Thanks so much for engaging generously with my review. I’m with you pretty much on all you say, and I hope that comes through in my review, that I think adults will enjoy it a lot, and that it’s certainly a lovely book, just not out and out a *children’s* book (nor is there any reason why it should be.

    11. debbie

      I’m glad that you wrote this review…

      As much as I adore this book, I was wondering if young children would “get it”. I do think it’s possible that slightly older kids would really appreciate the humor – although sadly they don’t often read picture books anymore. It reminds me of a librarian friend who told me, after the first Pigeon book came out, that of all her elementary classes, the 6th graders liked it the best!

      Love, love, LOVE the hats!!

    12. Myra from GatheringBooks

      Very interesting. Haven’t read this book yet nor have I seen it around in our community libraries. Your review (and the other commentaries I’ve read here) makes me want to do that NOW. I’ve missed visiting your site (note to self: drop by every now and again). 🙂

    13. Sandie Mourão

      Hi Zoe,
      My copy of this picturebook arrived a couple of weeks ago and when I read it I wondered why I’d ordered it. Only upon re-reading did I get it – bit of a slow adult!
      I’m so glad you tried hard to see what lots of children thought, well done you! I asked myself if I would use it in my classroom (my students are all language learners) and shook my head. But maybe I will, just to see what they think and what they say.
      I’m encouraged by all the different comments here – isn’t that what makes picturebooks such incredible objects, the diversity of response and their broad audience?
      I too must drop by more often 🙂 Thanks for all your stimulating posts.

    14. Zoe

      Hi Sandie, the dry wit might work well with your older readers – the text is quite simple and they may enjoy the humour more than little kids I think. If you do try it with your students, please do come back and let me know how you get on! At the risk of a bit of selfpromotion, you can subscribe via email to my blog – at the top of the 2nd column you just need to submit your email address and then you’ll get sent an email everytime I publish sg on the blog 🙂

    15. sathish


      I have had similar experiences with various other books(including some David Weisner’s) – I would be extremely happy about it – but, it would never work with the kids. I will try to pass on my enthusiasm to them;but, they will look at me as if I have gone mad. 🙂

    16. Jen

      I had to read it with different people just like you did to see if I was crazy for not “getting” the book. I had to explain it to my 3yo and that was hard to do. I read it with a 4th grader who got it and from the discussion we’ve had on Twitter, it seems like this book is definitely for an older crowd. Kind of like Lane Smith’s It’s a Book…that definitely is better for older kiddos and definitely adults.

      I agree with many of the commenter’s that part of the fun of book and talking about books is that we all have different perspectives! If we all had the same thoughts it just wouldn’t be fun! 🙂 Great review!

    17. End of Year Book Survey for 2011: A 3-in-1 Collaborative Blogpost from the GatheringBooks Ladies «

      […] Myra: Zoe’s review (from Playing by the Book) of Jon Klassen’s I Want my Hat Back definitely made me want to read the book for myself – given her review which ‘goes against the grain.’ As was Danielle’s review of the same book (but with contrasting views) in There’s a Book, and Joanna Marple’s own insights about this book in Miss Marple’s Musings. […]

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