Lemony Snicket—aka Daniel Handler—saw a drawing by Jon Klassen that showed the dark talking. "As soon as I saw that, the entire book came to me," Handler said. In The Dark by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen, the dark talks to a boy named Laszlo. No wonder the boy is afraid of the dark. But their relationship evolves over the course of the book. "For a moment, it looked like The Dark was going to be Jon Klassen's first book," recalls Handler, "and then it looked like it was going to be his lifetime achievement award."
Daniel, your Series of Unfortunate Events plays on the fears of the Baudelaire orphans, while this book is about Laszlo overcoming his fear. Would you say that, over time, you have become more compassionate?
Daniel Handler: Over time, have I become more compassionate? I'm totally fascinated by that question. I haven't had my compassion level checked for a while. I know with diet and exercise you can maintain it. I guess I'm interested in picture books as a form and the different ways of storytelling that they inhabit. I don't know if the tone of what happens to the Baudelaires would work in a picture book.
One thing that's really scary is the unknown, and the dark starting to talk to you is unnerving. If there were something terrible down in the basement, where the dark wanted you to go, it would immediately shatter the fear in a nasty way.
Jon, the palette for The Dark echoes your palette for This Is Not My Hat. Were you working on them both at the same time?
Jon Klassen: My taste in color has to be encouraged. I don't know what color is for a lot of the time. I probably could have been happy with any number of palettes. It was more about the value than anything else. Against black, I didn't want to pop it too much. You have the license to keep the colors down. Those two books were many years apart.
But you do know what color is for: When you submitted a drawing of the bear [from I Want My Hat Back] for the Society of Children's Illustrators exhibition, your only use of red was in the matte for the frame. That was brilliant!
JK: I like color when it's an idea. The idea in The Dark was the black, so the color didn't have to do anything specific. I can go saturated with a color when there's a specific job for it to do. With the bear, his hat had to be red and you had to notice it; so, for sure, let's go all the way with red. But when it doesn't have a specific job, I go the other way and let it be a wash of stuff.
DH: I think the short answer is that Mr. Klassen's genius is entirely accidental. He has no idea what he's doing. Often he does something good, but it's purely by chance.
Jon, Laszlo begins the book on the landing; by the end of the book, he's partway down the basement stairs. Can you tell us about this progression?
JK: One of my favorite parts of the book is the fact that the last line Laszlo says is white text on black. Until then, the rules have been that only the dark talks with white text on black. Laszlo's text has been dark on light. He's talking in the Dark's language now. He knows what's down there. It's probably not his favorite place in the house still, but he can go down the stairs partway.
DH: That's an example of things I learned from working with Jon. Jon would say, "The rule is this, and that's what I've been doing."
JK: Light is complicated, especially for me. I don't deal with shadows or light sources, because it's a big design problem. But in this particular book, the light is a clear graphic idea. We need to establish the rules. If all of a sudden we had a drop shadow underneath something, it would change the rules of what light is supposed to do. Even if kids can't point it out, they'd feel it if you drifted too far from what you'd set up.
DH: I agree, it's an invisible logic, and storytelling is like this, too. If you're not interested in what makes a story tick, you still can read a book and be satisfied or unsatisfied and have a sense when a story is well-made. Mr. Klassen taught me that, which surprises me, because he has a general aura of incompetence, so to learn he'd been very thoughtful about things was...moving, actually.
Jenny Brown is the children's editor of Shelf Awareness, an e-newsletter for the publishing trade and consumers. She also serves as the interim director of the Center for Children’s Literature at the Bank Street College of Education in New York City. To read how the editor of The Dark helped create the book, check out Kirkus blogger Julie Danielson's interview.
Photo above of Jon Klassen.