Jon Klassen Meets Samuel Beckett in a Hilariously Dark Picture Book

THE ROCK FROM THE SKY
By Jon Klassen

“The Rock From the Sky” is a children’s book that concerns, at least in part, a rock. Naturally then it calls to mind other rocks: the rock in the landscape of “Waiting for Godot,” the rock Sisyphus pushes uphill each day only to see it roll down, the rock Prometheus is chained to while his liver is eaten by an eagle. You know, kid stuff.

Rocks, even in kids’ books, such as William Steig’s “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,” bode bad things: hopelessness, stuckness, imprisonment. But in this beautiful, spare, funny book by Jon Klassen — the Caldecott Medal-winning author of “I Want My Hat Back,” “This Is Not My Hat” and “We Found a Hat” — the rock signals something different: doom. Yay.

With its muted, desolate landscapes, “The Rock From the Sky” is hilariously dark, especially about social relations. It features three main characters in five stories — a hat-wearing turtle whose favorite spot happens to be right where (unbeknown to him) a giant boulder is about to drop, a hat-wearing armadillo who’s worried about standing with the turtle in this spot and a beret-wearing snake who joins the armadillo.

These animals could fit easily into “Waiting for Godot.” They’re waiting. They’re alienated. They wear hats. And their conversation is comically flat — like “Frog and Toad” without the bonhomie. Here are the turtle and the armadillo:

“What do you think of my spot?”

“Actually I have a bad feeling about it.”

“A bad feeling?”

“Yes.”

I hope I’m not giving away too much to say that in “A Rock From the Sky” a rock does fall from the sky. Thankfully, no one is crushed. Before the rock descends, the turtle has, luckily, joined the armadillo and the snake in their safer spot. All three watch the boulder fall from a distance.

The second story, “The Fall,” shows the aftermath. The turtle gets on top of the fallen rock, then falls off it onto his back and refuses the armadillo’s help in flipping him right side up. Here’s some of their chitchat:

“Were you climbing on it?”

“No.”

“Did you fall off?”

“No.”

The third story is odder yet. The armadillo and the turtle imagine the future, which includes a ruddy forest and a fourth character that looks like a guard tower, with a giant eye on top. This lonely, angry panopticon vaguely recalls Eve in “Wall-E.” She radiates destruction.

Do things warm up before the book ends? No.

In the fourth story, the snake and the armadillo sit together by the fallen rock to watch a sunset. Nice? Not really. These two animals who now inhabit the turtle’s old stamping grounds shun him.

The last story begins with the turtle grumbling: “I see how it is. Just enough room for two. Maybe I will go to the other spot by myself. Maybe I will never come back.” His “friends” say nothing. Nonetheless the turtle returns to his spot, followed by the scary, radiating panopticon.

I won’t give away the end. Let’s just say it involves a second rock from the sky.

Though this delicately deadpan book evokes children’s tales of love and companionship, its message isn’t remotely warm or fuzzy. That’s beautiful.

If Samuel Beckett had written a kids’ book, this might be it. We’re alone, our friends can’t be trusted and doom awaits. Goodnight, sweeties!

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