The paths people take to find the work they love always interest me. Sometimes what may not have been all that much fun early in a career turns out in retrospect to be valuable training for what comes later.

Jon Klassen, an animator who is best known as the author and illustrator of the picture book, I Want My Hat Back, is a case in point. I heard him speak at the National Book Festival this past weekend here in Washington, DC. His first solo book was a breakout bestseller and it won a Caldecott Award. It tells the story of a bear who asks a succession of animals whether they’ve seen his hat.

Spoiler alert: Although all the animals deny having seen his hat, he realizes that one was wearing his hat. (Could you spot the shifty-eyed creature in the book trailer above?) The final image is of the bear sitting on what looks like something of a debris field. He is wearing his beloved hat. The culprit is nowhere to be seen.

That book was published in 2011. A more recent book, This Is Not My Hat, is about a fish who stole a hat.

Klassen has clearly found his metier, but he did not start out as a children’s book illustrator/author. His first work was in animation. “Kungfu Panda” was among movies he worked on. It can take four years to animate a film. That translates into drawing 24 frames per second or 12 if you’re lazy, he told a packed audience. In contrast, it took just five months for him to illustrate his first book.

Klassen credits his animation experience with helping him develop a storyline. “Picture book structure is like film structure,” he says. Unlike novels, there aren’t any subplots. “I think animation kicks your butt. You have to have the story humming.” Animation in general is all about arcs, he says. There’s a slow beginning, a fast middle, and a slow end.

After the first book, Klassen told the publisher he had more book ideas, although he did not. He considered prequels to the bear’s story. And he tried out storylines that involved a deer asking animals if they were lonely at night. Another story idea had a deer offering to trade a stick for something else.  Nothing seemed to work. Along the way, he realized, “There are lots of beginnings, but not a lot of endings,” he says.

When asked by one of his younger readers what goes into making a book, Klassen said, “You cry in the tub a lot.”

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