By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jan 5, 2012
There’s a big fight raging over a very small --- 120 words, 40 pages --- book for kids.
Some people say --- along with the New York Times, which named “I Want My Hat Back” one of the best Illustrated children's books of 2011 --- that this book is wickedly funny. An instant classic. And perfectly acceptable for kids 4 and up. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here.]
Other people say: If a crime occurs in a kid’s book and the victim figures out who the criminal is and “solves” the problem for himself, isn’t that frontier justice? Doesn’t the victim become a vigilante? And doesn’t that encourage kids not just to be self-reliant but to be tough, unforgiving and --- say it --- violent?
More questions: Is this book just funny, or does it subtly endorse Old Testament values? Don’t we want kids’ books to appeal to our better nature --- that is, don’t we want to teach kids about the rule of law, so they don’t grow up to be mouth-breathing, gun-toting yahoos capable of turning an accidental shove in a bar into a crime scene?
In short, is “I Want My Hat Back” about its terrific pictures and witty punch line, or is all that just a delectable candy cover for its message --- whatever its message turns out to be?
In a word: The Times be damned, is this book safe for kids?
You tell me.
Here’s the story: A bear has lost his hat. He asks other animals if they’ve seen it. He suddenly remembers that he has seen his hat --- on a rabbit. In the next image, the bear is wearing his hat. End of story.
Ok, we can, I think, agree on this: In his first solo book, Jon Klassen --- an illustrator on the animated feature film, “Coraline” --- is a very tasty artist.
Now let’s consider some of those 120 words, which are entirely dialogue.
Bear: My hat has gone. I want my hat back…. (to the Fox) Have you seen my hat?
Fox: No. I haven't seen your hat.
Bear: OK. Thank you anyway…. (to the Frog) Have you seen my hat?
Fox: No. I have not seen any hats around here.
Bear: OK. Thank you anyway…. (to the Rabbit, who is wearing a hat) Have you seen my hat?
Rabbit: No. Why are you asking me? I haven't seen it. I haven’t seen any hats anywhere. I would not steal a hat. Don’t ask me any more questions.
And so on….right to the end, when the Squirrel asks, “Excuse me, have you seen a rabbit wearing a hat?” and the Bear answers, “No. Why are you asking me? I haven’t seen him. I haven’t seen any rabbits anywhere. I would not eat a rabbit. Don’t ask me any more questions.”
Fit for kids --- or for the trash?
My view: Our kid got it. And laughed. And then I put “I Want My Hat Back” on the coffee table so the grown-ups can enjoy it. too.