The Rock from the Sky

Sometimes there’s a book you know you need before the deal is even made, much less the writing and art finished, much less printed and distributed, etc. For me, that’s… basically every Jon Klassen book ever written or illustrated, if we’re honest. Definitely it’s true of The Rock from the Sky. I knew I would need it, but I had no idea until it arrived and I read it how much joy it would give us all.

The back cover shows– you’ve guessed it!– a rock, falling from the sky. Crazy surprise.

Hey, did I tell you I sent a copy of Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett with Jon Klassen illustrations to the South Pole? That’s the kinda fangirl I am. (Yeah, they sent the Changeling a beautiful thank you letter and NOAA gear. She’s planning our trip to visit them.) (Dear Family: You all are looking forward to the end of covid-times so we can get together again? See you at the South Pole!)

The point is, though, this is the first book where I actually wrote to a publisher requesting a review copy. I straight up told Candlewick, “I’ve pre-ordered this, actually. In fact, I’ve got two copies waiting at two local indie shops. But I do want to see it and review it ahead of time, so if you’ve got a spare copy…” Inexplicably, they sent it to me. (They were so nice: “Sure, happy to! Send us your review!” I’m like– I love you, Book People, but why do you care about me?)

Look, Jon Klassen and I both love hats– a hat photo was inevitable. Judge not. (Hey, Jon Klassen? I wanna see a turtle in a hat with a feather!)

But in this case it was so much more than simply wanting the book. (Even though, clearly, I wanted the book.) It was more, even, than wanting to slot it into my calendar. I wanted this book, even though I hadn’t seen it yet. I knew roughly what it was “about,” as it were. There would be, the title strongly suggested, a rock, and the rock would be coming from the sky; also I anticipated animals wearing hats. I was not disappointed. Thorough prior research of the Jon Klassen oeuvre suggested he tends toward the “deadpan,” with muted expressions, evasiveness, and animals playing it straight. I felt, rather strongly, that this would be a different experience from my recent reading in the arena of lyrical, gut-punching, earnest books.

It was. The reading was incredibly fun, with delightfully suspenseful page turns and absolutely gorgeous art.

And it’s very, very hard to write about. One reason (and this I know) is that today it’s hard to write about “fun.” The real is surreal today, and it’s bitter and bizarre and heartbreaking. The books about Real Life for adults are, almost without exception, heartbreaking if they let you have a heart to break. The books about reality for kids range from hauntingly wistful and beautiful to desperately peppy “sure it’s crap but you can change it, and sorry we let it get so bad!” books of activism.

It’s very, very hard to pull back from that to say, “Uh, here! This book is funny and will make you feel happy. Are… are we allowed to be happy…?”

And then, quite apart from giving permission to access joy and animals in hats, I was puzzled by what I might write about. I absolutely knew I had something to say… but what? My ever-so-kind husband decided to help out: “You should say…” he began, eagerly. I sputtered in utter fury: “I SHOULD SAY??? You start your own review, then!” So he did:

What first struck me about The Rock from the Sky was Klassen’s use of a sans serif font. Whereas the Hat trilogy is typeset in an easy-to-read serif font (New Century Schoolhouse), The Rock is set in a bleak Helvetica. One character’s lines are in black, the other’s in gray. In We Found A Hat, you know who is talking without the typographic cues. In The Rock, the typography is pointing to the disconnect between the characters. They stand far apart. They cannot hear each other, THEY NEED TO SHOUT. 
The Rock reminds me of Waiting for Godot, down to the bowler hats that the characters wear. (The hats in The Rock are simply there, they don’t have the same aura of spunk and individuality that they possess in the Hat trilogy). “What happened?” asks one character. “Nothing.” Later, “OK. What are you doing?” “We are not doing it anymore.” There is certainly a fun undercurrent throughout the book, but in the end I came away a little unsettled, thinking about closeness and intimacy, the meaning of life, and other existential questions. 

“I should do guest reviews for you!” No, no you should not.

I needed real help, so I talked to the Changeling, who always has insights to share. She loved the book, had things to say, but hesitated a lot about how to say it (so I wasn’t alone). She found it “funny but not ‘hahah laughing out loud funny.'” Please note that all funnies appear on a spectrum from “bathroom humour funny” (which is a fine and legitimate form of humour, too, allow me to refer you to I HAVE TO GO! by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko) on the “hahah laughing out loud funny” side of the spectrum and the dry, the deadpan, and the “my father developed this sense of humour in both me and, by extension, the Changeling” humour which turns up in Pokko and the Drum, for example, on the other side. She noted that the friend who would like The Rock from the Sky best is the friend with whom she reads the heavier duty novels. Usually she wouldn’t think of him for picture books at all, so I was very intrigued that this one (labelled “4-8 years”) struck her as being suitable for her High Intellectual Buddy.

Here’s the thing: I don’t need to tell you what The Rock in the Sky is “about” because, as noted, it’s in the title. And that’s my favourite kind of book. I had a conversation with a buddy recently in which I enthused forever about James Branch Cabell, he asked me “what sort of things he wrote,” and I simply couldn’t figure out how to describe it. How to define that level of bizarre, different, new… even when the new is nearly a hundred years old? That indefinability is absolutely key to me in literature. If I can define it, it might be very good, but it’s unlikely to enter the “I need it before the book deal is made” zone.

I did far too much reading and advice-seeking, in fact. A short list:

Candlewick posted a fantastic video of Jon Klassen himself talking about the influence of Hitchcock on his storytelling.

Over at SLJ, Elizabeth Bird wrote a review distilling everything I think into a beautiful, fun-to-read review so why am I even bothering? (I shouldn’t admit in public how badly I want to be her when I grow up.)

Even the New York Times compares it to Beckett— my husband was doubly scooped, let me note.

At least no one else thought of James Branch Cabell. (“Deb, sweetie, nobody else knows about him or reads him today.” Neil Gaiman does, so there.)

What I think all of this misses is a very simple fact:

Jon Klassen is not writing for Hitchcock fans. Nor is he writing to replicate Beckett, Ionesco, and I wonder if he’s heard of James Branch Cabell? (Hey, Jon Klassen! You should read Cabell!) Let’s look at his art.

I swear my whole life feels happier for uploading this image.

Look at the armadillo’s eyes, tilting up the rock face. The armadillo is slightly baffled, trying to process the sequence of events, piece things together. The turtle, in respectable denial, saving face, keeps those turtle eyes perfectly level, willing the armadillo to go quietly away. (Genders are not vouchsafed, and while I have my own private thoughts, I will not share them. Make your own canon. I mean, my daughter has decided that Lear’s “Owl and the Pussycat” are a gay, interspecies couple, so go for it.)

The colours are muted, as ever, but just look at the glowing, dangerously, gloriously louring sky! One rock has fallen already– what may come next? Turner could infuse no more breathless ideas into a sky than does Jon Klassen…

And we’re giggling at the turtle, hatless and yet not precisely hatless, precariously balanced on the ground, upside-down, while the armadillo puzzles out the past.

Parents may think of Ionesco, Turner, etc. but

But.

The glory of Klassen is that he does not write or draw for parents at one level, kids at another. Parents and kids will both bring ideas to the page, and laugh at the same pictures and ideas on the page.

Another sample:

Is this my favourite page? I haven’t decided. Maybe!

The armadillo and snake are enjoying the sunset– and what a sunset! We, the readers, are breathless, watching the sun descend… and the poor, blundering turtle is breaking the peace, the beauty, with loud shouts, creeping closer against the glorious colours and the deepening intensity of the moment…

And the suspense present over the falling rock is precisely the same, inverted for “oh no the turtle’s going to block the sunset” from “oh no the rock will fall,” but we giggle away…

With parents who have probably wiped tears over an intense movie while the kid is saying “why are you crying I don’t get it” wondering how their kids found this artistic sensitivity.

Jon Klassen is quietly linking parents and kids with glorious storytelling and art.

I recently almost smashed my laptop out of anger over some dude sneering that he’d always thought of Dr Seuss as junk food for kids (but now they’ve decided to stop printing 6 old, desperately out-of-date titles Dr Seuss is sacrosanct to this dude, obviously) with the implication that children should be carefully trained to Appreciate Higher Things and so on.

Jon Klassen is a perfect answer to that kind of snobbery. Instead of saying kids have to be mini adults, he simply provides the same quality for everyone, kids and parents. Instead of “making art accessible” by carving it down to kid size, he takes the best of the kids’ world and joins with it the level of artistry that goes into art “for adults,” so we can all enjoy it together.

In case you, like me, have been worried you have to seek permission to access this joy? I grant it to you.

Get this book, read it with a kid, and maybe stick one in a Little Free Library or something.

We all need this. We need the joy, the art, the fun.

To sum up in Elizabeth Bird’s words: “It is, in fact, his best book to date. Period.”

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