Portraying Pax in Pencil:
A Q&A with Illustrator Jon Klassen

by the Brightly Editors

You probably know Jon Klassen from his delightfully humorous, fan-favorite books I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat, each featuring adorable animals and a missing hat. Now you’ll also know him as the artist behind the poignant illustrations in Brightly’s fifth Book Club pick, Pax by Sara Pennypacker.

We had the opportunity to ask Jon exactly how he went about illustrating another writer’s novel, what kind of challenges arose during the process, and what he’s been working on lately (hint: it may or may not be a picture book featuring adorable animals and a missing hat).

When did you first envision Pax and how he looked?  Where do you usually find your artistic inspiration?

Pax himself was a little tricky because the first part of the book I worked on was the cover … the cover that’s on there was one of the first ideas we tried, and in that image he’s facing away from us, so his face didn’t really need to be resolved until later on. It was weird to have the cover finished for a quite a while and still not really know what he might look like if he turned around.

If I’m illustrating someone else’s work, I try and pull as many cues from the story as I can. My responses to it are kind of the whole job, but they are also kind of the only part I don’t control, so the best thing I can do is just think about the story and what it points to, and try and support that as best I can.

Fox in Pax

What’s your process like? Are you constantly sketching or doodling until something hits you or does the character come to you all at once?

I don’t do a lot of sketching or doodling, but I do a lot of sitting and thinking. I have a really hard time drawing without knowing why I’m drawing. That’s not to say the idea can’t change as you’re working on it — it often does — but I need to have a few things solved in my head just to get me started before I sit down to draw anything.

Scene from Pax

How were the various moments or scenes in the book chosen for illustration?

Doing illustrations for a novel is a little different than illustrating a picture book, because the pictures don’t really NEED to be there, so the job of the illustrations becomes a little murkier. You’re more of a book “decorator,” which is great, but it’s a little harder to pin down why you’re choosing certain moments or even why things look the way they do.

I picked out a few as I read through the book, things I thought would make good drawings or moments and that seemed like they might benefit from a picture. After that, the editor suggested a few other things I missed in the book and we went to work!


What materials did you use for illustrating Pax? What materials do you most like to use?

For the jacket I used colored pencils, which I’ve been liking a lot lately. You can do solid shapes with them but they have movement inside the shapes that gives it a nice vibrate-y feel. And it’s a warm, kind of a familiar medium. Almost everyone has used colored pencils, especially when they were a kid, and it’s partially a story about a younger boy, so it seemed to fit.

The interior illustrations were done with pencils, for largely the same reasons. I like dryer materials rather than wet ones like paint or watercolor. I feel more in control, and it looks nice when you print it.

Barn in Pax

What are you working on right now that you are most excited about?

I’ve just finished my third picture book that I wrote myself. It’s called We Found a Hat and it’s about two turtles who … have found a hat.

What’s the best name for a color you’ve ever heard?

I like all the different variations on white that there seem to be. When you work in print you have to get very specific about whites, and there are about two million different ones to choose from. I think last week I sounded ridiculous when describing a white — I said something like “a warm, medium off-white that looks white next to a beige but doesn’t have the harshness of straight-up white. But not beige.”


Click here to learn more about Brightly’s Book Club, discover activities and tips for discussion inspired by Pax, and join in on the reading fun.

Jon Klassen is the author-illustrator of I Want My Hat Backa Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Book, and This Is Not My Hatwinner of the Caldecott Medal. He is the illustrator of two Caldecott Honor books, including Sam and Dave Dig a Hole and Extra Yarnboth written by Mac Barnett, as well as House Held Up by Treeswritten by Ted Kooser. Originally from Niagara Falls, Ontario, Jon Klassen now lives in Los Angeles.