THIRD GRADE by Jon Klassen
If there is some kind of a clock inside us that ticks as long as we’re alive, marking days and years and things, it feels like the main ticking hand of the clock sometimes pauses a little bit and leaves a sort of ghost impression of itself at key parts of our life. It’s hard to pin down what exactly makes that pausing happen, and I don’t think you know it’s happening when it does, you just realize it later. But when it happens, you sort of freeze a part of yourself there, and that part stays the way it is after that, and you get to visit it, if you want to.
Actually, that’s not even right: that frozen part of you doesn’t stay back, it comes along in its frozen-ness and weighs in on things that happen to you as you get older. When you react to a situation or have to make a choice about something, there are little parts of you that are still you as a toddler, still in grade school, still in high school or college, all saying how *they* feel about what you’re currently looking at. I’ve heard that some older people are perpetually shocked that they are old, because they don’t *feel* old inside, and that maybe goes along with this idea – maybe, at a certain point, an especially big piece gets frozen and you basically operate there from then on, and that’s the piece that’s kind of shocked every now and then that your knees don’t work or that your children have gotten older.
But those frozen pieces can be useful too. If you make things for children, like the books we concern ourselves with, it probably means you’ve learned how to tell those younger pieces to hold still so you can talk to them and show them things and have them show you things back. There are a lot of answers to the question of how you begin to make things for children; the answers might vary from person to person, or even at different stages of life, but talking to myself as I was as a kid is an answer that’s always felt pretty true, for me, anyway.
I froze a pretty big piece in third grade (in Canada we say “grade three”). Again, hard to say why – maybe you freeze parts at times when you really feel comfortable, and I really really suited third grade. It was great. It was the first year we got desks to ourselves, instead of the communal tables, and I love a desk to myself. It was the year we learned how to write, and really read, and the year I remember starting to draw things I wanted to draw rather than things I’d seen drawn elsewhere. It had a lot of the ingredients you’d seen “actual school” have, but I didn’t feel out of my depth (yet). I felt like “ok. If this is what it is, I can do this.”
I really like talking to kids in third grade, still. Talking to kids in person is not a huge strength of mine. I’m not catastrophically bad at it, I get by, but I’ve seen the people who are truly meant to do it (Mac Barnett), and I’m not like that. I feel a little lost with the very young ones, and the frozen third grade piece of me still gets intimidated by the older ones, but with third grade kids I settle right in and we can usually talk.
Part of the reason for that is the frozen piece, for sure, but I think another reason is that it’s generally really fun to talk to people who are in the middle of learning that they can make things, like I remember feeling, but they’re at an age where those things aren’t perceived as a reflection of themselves yet. If they write a story, they’re not thinking “what does this story say about me?”, or if they screw up a drawing they don’t think “maybe I’m a failure”. It doesn’t have much to do with them yet. My memory of making things then was that I felt very separate from the things I was making. I was kind of amazed to be making anything at all.
My proudest creative third grade achievement was a ghost story. I wrote it in a journal that was supposed to be for writing down what we’d done that day. What happened on the bus or at recess or something. And maybe the story started that way, maybe I was writing down a dream I’d had (I dreamt about ghosts a lot), but then it just kept going.
We were given a certain amount of journal time every day, and then we would bring our journal books to the front of the class and put them on the teacher’s desk. I remember many times taking the book up slowly, putting it carefully down in the pile and just staring at it, amazed at what had happened with the ghosts that day, and wondering what would happen tomorrow. (For those curious, it involved a boy who saw a ghost in the forest and followed it to a cave, where he saw a meeting of many ghosts. One of them had a medallion on, like he was the leader, and there was a sense that he was a bad leader, so the boy took it upon himself to sneak in while all the ghosts were asleep, post-meeting, to steal the medallion and give it to the first ghost he’d followed, who’s character he judged to be pure, or at least more pure that the current guy’s).
That was the first time I remember drawing pictures for a story also. I hear sometimes about authors who say they write because they have to. There’s a deep need in them to do it. I’ve never really felt that way in my professional life about drawing or writing. But I do remember feeling that way about the ghost story – “I have to draw this.” But as personal as that sounds, there was also the separation I mentioned earlier. The story wasn’t about me, it wasn’t about my ability to tell a story, it didn’t feel like an expression of anything. I didn’t know where it was going, I didn’t have a plan. I was going line by line, scared out of my mind, as surprised as anyone by what was going on in there.
I bring all this up, and my interest in third grade generally, because I think, all these years later, it’s slowly become the creative state of mind I want to return to, and have been trying to return to for a while. The cynical part of me wonders if the impulse is just regressive. A lot of the school years after third grade were stressful for me. I don’t think I really felt truly comfortable again until college (another frozen chunk there for sure). But whenever I hear artists or designers that I admire talk about their process, or read about the making of things that resonate with me, there’s a common thread of the creator’s separation from the work, of finding ways to get yourself out of it, somehow, and that freeing you up to make it. Samuel Beckett writing in French instead of his native English; Anni Albers weaving with a loom; Agnes Martin learning to paint her grids with a completely blank mind; Matisse drawing with his long stick. Those people all said things that feel like arrows to me, pointing the way I want to go, in my own way. I don’t see the work as a tool for self-discovery. I’m not interested in myself that much. I don’t find I even have a lot to say until I get to work on something that feels outside of me somehow (then I have a hard time shutting up). And, by now, I have enough work of my own to stand back and judge the better work from the not-as-good work and say that my best stuff comes when I’ve gotten close to getting myself out of it completely, and feeling like I felt in third grade, where the stories surprise me as much as they would (hopefully) surprise anyone.
Maybe I’m feeling this way because I’m in another comfortable part of my life – I feel very suited to it and I’m enjoying the work a lot and feel very lucky to get to do it. So the me of today and the frozen third grade piece have a lot in common to talk about, and we’re both still kind of amazed to be making anything at all. That probably means I’ll freeze this part too.
PS I’m still working on the ghost story.
Jon Klassen is the author-illustrator of I Want My Hat Back, an E. B. White Read-Aloud Award winner and a Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Book; This Is Not My Hat, winner of the Caldecott Medal and the Kate Greenaway Medal; and We Found a Hat. He is also the illustrator of two Caldecott Honor Books, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole and Extra Yarn, both written by Mac Barnett. Jon Klassen lives in Los Angeles.