I think that, hands down, the year’s most distinctive picture book thus far is Lemony Snicket’s The Dark, illustrated by freshly minted Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen. To be released next week, the story is about a young boy named Laszlo. He’s afraid of the dark, and the dark lives in the basement.
How does a child overcome the fear of dark shadows? Laszlo does so with the dark’s assistance, as it reaches out to give the boy a much-needed tool to assist with his struggles.
Anyone knows that a fear of the dark is a fear of the mysteries and possible dangers such shadows conceal. Children know about such mysteries all too well, in the dark and beyond, as they daily navigate the world. Snicket has an opinion—and a compelling one, at that—about the dark’s function in their lives. (Not that he’s heavy-handed about it, by any means; I suspect Snicket would rather the Baudelaire children break into song and dance than ever sincerely preach to a child.)
And the illustrations? “Bold palette” gets overused in reviews, but Klassen’s palette is truly intrepid here: There’s much use of a pitch-dark blackness that saturates many spreads. It’s all about light and shadows, and Klassen nails it.
Today I chat with the book’s editor—Little, Brown and Company’s Susan Rich—about the Snicket-Klassen meeting of minds.
Tell me about the origin of this particular story.
Years ago, when we worked together at HarperCollins, the very talented art director Alison Donalty would occasionally point me to an artist who caught her eye. She sent me a link to the work of Jon Klassen. Intrigued, I reached out and found Jon at his desk, working as an animator on the movie adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Our first exchange confirmed that we had much in common: We were both born in Winnipeg and were both interested in children’s books.
Our conversation continued with Jon sending me some ideas and images. One of the images was of a small boy shining a flashlight down a flight of stairs. Outside of the beam’s reach, in the pitch black, sat the words, “Over here,” said the dark. The story’s DNA was so evident in that image, and with Jon’s permission I sent it over to the master of the dark, Daniel Handler, to see if maybe Lemony Snicket would find the story embedded here. He did, masterfully, and The Dark was born.
As a postscript, these many years later, Neil Gaiman is the voice of The Dark for our audio and digital editions of the book. The work of Gaiman and Klassen cross paths at both ends of this story.
Did you all have a clear vision for the palette, compositions, etc., or did it take a lot of art directing?
Jon tackles light and dark brilliantly here by establishing rules around how it all works in Laszlo’s world. For instance, the dark speaks in white type knocked-out of black; Laszlo speaks in black type set against light. Laszlo is immune to light so that when everything disappears into darkness, we can still see him. Otherwise, we’d have several completely black pages in the book.
A lot of attention was paid at Little, Brown to finding just the right ink and paper to get the desired black—a black that wasn’t slick or reflective. The black of the dark needed to be warm and deep. We tested many inks on many sorts of paper before Jon chose the ink and the paper you see in the book.
The production aspects of a book are always important, but here, where color plays a character, the physical details were vital. In fact, there’s a subtle change in the coming reprint. The next printing will be bound in black thread instead of white, to further minimize any intrusion on the dark.
Can you talk about what one review calls the "soliloquy," the page of heavy text where Snicket talks about what it'd be like without the dark?
The philosophical aside and the heightening of dramatic tension can be found throughout the work of Snicket. Part of the pleasure of Daniel’s prose is the way he shapes experience through his use of language. This passage uses a change of pace to create a dramatic pause, to heighten suspense. You are being made to wait just when you are most curious. If it makes you feel impatient, then it is successful.
But I also think if you stop and really read it, the writing here conceals an even greater power. This passage touches back on all we’ve encountered in this spare world so far—the closet, the shower curtain, the window, the roof—and re-contextualizes it, asking us to consider these things in terms of the possibility of their absence. After all, in the absence of the dark, everything would be light, and what’s the fun in that?
So, this passage makes us wait—and asks us to think. It may be a challenging spread, but I’d like to think it’s okay to be challenged by reading. It is also okay when reading, now and again, to skip a page. Am I allowed to say that?
Assuming you learn something new from each and every book you edit, what was your most valuable take-away here?
To reach out to an unknown Jon Klassen all those years ago was a shot in the dark.
So, the take-away here? Don’t be afraid of the dark.
THE DARK. Text copyright © 2013 by Lemony Snicket. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Jon Klassen. Published by Little, Brown and Company, New York. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.