The Rock from the Sky by Jon Klassen, 96 pp, RL 2

The Rock from the Sky by Jon Klassen
Review Copy from Candlewick Press

Reading The Rock from the Sky by myself early this morning, I laughed out loud. I heard the voices of Klassen's characters in my head and thought about running across the alley to see if I could read it out loud to the neighbor kids, already playing in their backyard. As it will for many readers, The Rock from the Sky, reminded me of Klassen's first picture book published as author and illustrator, I Want My Hat Back, which (surprisingly!) is ten years old. Realizing this sent me on a reverie and a look back at what was going on in the world of picture books when one of (I would never make a specific, exact list, but I do always have a nebulous cloud of five or so treasured titles floating around in my head just in case I am pressed to provide a short list of) my all-time favorite picture books was published. You can find this appreciation and reminiscence at the end of this review.

I wanted to write a review as spare and compelling as The Rock from the Sky, but it's already too late for that. And I will not give in to the temptation to write, "Jon Klassen's new book is as good as, if not better than every other book he has author/illustrated, so just buy it already" and leave it at that. I don't want to give too much away because there is suspense and there are surprises and laugh out loud moments that deserve to be discovered and relished by every reader fortunate enough hold this book in their hands. This is also why I am sharing only two page spreads here - just enough for you to see that Klassen has brought new depth to his illustrations, especially the sky. Additionally, I will not reference Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett, or the symbolism of hats. Nor will I use the word "deadpan" when talking about The Rock from the Sky. As with every book I review, I try to read it and write about it through the lens of someone reading out loud to children, which makes Beckett, Godot and "deadpan" irrelevant. 

The suspense starts with title of this collection of five short, linked, stories. With every page turn, you know there will be, at some point, a rock from the sky. In fact, you see it falling before even reaching the title page. In "The Rock," we meet a turtle and an armadillo, negotiating a favorite spot. The turtle loves this spot, but the armadillo has a bad feeling about it. A page turn shows the progress of the rock from the sky, and the tension builds. Will the turtle move from this favorite spot? How can the armadillo convince the turtle to leave? Will a snake in a (funny, not symbolic) beret be able to convince the turtle of the potential calamity we, the reader, know is impending? Klassen deliciously, wonderfully prolongs the suspense with humor. The second story, "The Fall," is a suspense-free interlude before the third story, "The Future," which has a huge surprise. In the fourth story, "The Sunset," a humorous thread from "The Rock" (a thread that allows the person reading out loud some all-caps-inspired yelling, a small subversion I always love when reading out loud, especially as a librarian.) All threads come together, suspense, danger, humor and the rock, in the final story, "No More Room," making for the perfect ending to this utterly enjoyable book. 

Of course I don't want Jon Klassen to keep creating the same picture book over and over again, even if that book is my favorite. But, I am very happy to visit this biome he has created, populated by hat-wearing animals, as often as I am invited.

I Want My Hat Back 
A Remembrance & Appreciation

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Jon Klassen's debut picture book (as author/illustrator), I Want My Hat Back. I was in my sixteenth year as a children's bookseller back in 2011, and my youngest was six, so I was reading books out loud daily, repeatedly. Rereading my Best Picture Books of 2011 post, I was reminded that I Want My Hat Back came out in a year when a piece for the New York Times declared, "Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children." Proclamations and challenges were made by the children's book community (thank you, Mac Barnett and Matthew Cordell) and happily, ten years later, picture books are still being published, read, and treasured by young and old. Additionally, eBooks have not replaced physical books (in fact, eBook sales are decreasing) and, during the pandemic, book sales have hit an eight-year high. 

Remembering all this, it seems deeply ironic that this tempest (in a teapot) about the decline of the picture book happened in the year when one of the all-time-best-ever-picture books was published. If you have never read I Want My Hat Back, know that it is a book that is best read out loud, with an audience. Reading for story time, I developed the habit of pre-reading a book solo and silently before trying it on an audience. This allows me to decide if it's worth reading out loud, and, if it is, familiarize myself with the pace, page turns, language, dialogue and emotional tone of the story. I will never forget the difference reading I Want My Hat Back to myself and then out loud. First of all, I misread the ending entirely (ANIMALS DON'T GET EATEN IN PICTURE BOOKS!) when reading silently in my head. Kids in the audience clued me in to the mirrored dialogue that revealed the ultimate fate of the hat theif. To me, this was a totally subversive act on Klassen's part. To the generation of kids I was reading to, it was no big deal (although, ten years later, this still is not a common occurrence in picture books). After stunning illustrations (which Klassen delivers every time), humor and surprises are what make a picture book a keeper for me. I Want My Hat Back has all three. And, it has emotion, despite the frequent use of "deadpan" to describe almost every one of Klassen's books. In 2011 as I Want My Hat Back went into heavy rotation at story time and at home, I found my "bear voice" as I read. There is something about Klassen's writing that, despite the sparse text, is filled with meaning and feeling. The sadness of the bear is as palpable as the paranoia of the rabbit. Klassen writes with voice, a distinct clear voice that resonates with readers. 

And, while I Want My Hat Back is absolutely an all-time favorite, as a reader and someone who reads out lout to kids, This Is Not My Hat (the second book in Hat Trilogy) has a moment of frisson that for me is the perfect example of the beautiful connection between the storyteller and the reader/listener, the giver and the receiver. Every time I read This Is Not My Hat out loud, and I come to this line, "But I will tell you where I am going," I experience this thrill of being let in on the narrator's secret. I feel like I am in the room with the narrator, who has just leaned in to confide in me. Not only do I know their secret (because they told me) I have a secret of my own . . . I know that what the narrator is telling me (their version of reality) is NOT the reality unfolding on the page! Connection, suspense, surprise. What more could you ask for? This is the kind of brilliance that makes adults who really know nothing about picture books think writing one is easy. This is the genius of Jon Klassen. 

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