Inspiring Young Readers

posted on 10 Oct 2023

The Skull by Jon Klassen

I’m always reluctant to be anything other than evasive when people ask me what has been my favourite children’s book of the year – I think we’re living through something of another ‘golden age’ of children’s literature and there are just so many I could nominate. But I’m always drawn to those that take a risk, that do something unexpected and which don’t necessarily think of their readers as ‘children’ – writers and illustrators who go into territory that stirs the imagination of young and old alike.

This is what makes me think that Jon Klassen’s The Skull might just be somewhere near the top of my list of favourites come the end of the year. Canadian writer and illustrator, Klassen, who is now based in Los Angeles, was the winner of both The Caldecott and The Kate Greenaway medals for his 2012 book, This Is Not My Hat, which was the companion-piece to the first book he authored and illustrated, the 2011, I Want My Hat Back. Both of these books are characterised by a deceptively simple looking minimalist style and a story packed with droll humour.

The Skull gives us something a bit different – a dark, even macabre, fairy story that deals with its almost supernatural themes with wit and a deftness of touch that somehow creates a fable of friendship and trust.

In a short author’s note at the end of the book, Klassen gives us a privileged insight into his creative process. The roots of this story lie in his serendipitous discovery of a Tyrolean folk tale in a book he happened to pick up while visiting an Alaskan library. The strange story stayed with Klassen and he found himself rearranging and rewriting the story into something that was distinctly his:

“This is a very interesting thing our brains do to stories. If you read this book once and put it back on the shelf, and a year from now someone asks you how the story went, the same thing will happen: your brain will change it. You will tell them a story that is a little different, maybe in a way your brain likes better.”

In Klassen’s story, Otilla is a little girl who has run away from home and is making her way through a deep, dark, snowy forest. She stumbles on an seemingly abandoned house and, in need of shelter, she heads towards it – only to find a skull looking out at her from a window. Unfazed, Otilla asks for shelter and, seemingly in no time at all, she and skull are friends and Otilla is looking around the house.

But the skull has a problem. There’s a mysterious visitor who wants to capture the skull. Who is it? Can Otilla help her new friend? How will this mysterious story end?

Well, I know but I’m not going to tell you here – to find out, you’ll have to buy this wonderful book for yourself. Available now from Walker Books, you’ll be able to get a copy from your local independent bookshop and, if by some odd chance they don’t have a copy on the shelf, they will be happy to order it for you.

Terry Potter

October 2023