One snowy night, a little girl named Otilla runs away from home, into the deep dark woods. She runs all through the night, escaping we know not what, but in the best tradition of spooky tales, she comes upon an old and neglected house. Here lives a lonely skull, separated from his body and in need of a friend. We join this odd couple in The Skull by Jon Klassen. Adapted from an obscure Tyrolean folktale, it’s a strange and charming story of facing fear and finding friendship in unlikely places.
At sunrise, an exhausted Otilla knocks at the house, hoping for shelter, and with a lack of surprise emblematic of imaginative children everywhere, appears completely unruffled when the homeowner turns out to be a skull.
A necessarily bony chap, he offers to show her around, but requests that she carries him as incessant rolling can be difficult and frustrating. His ancestral home is a grand affair, blessed with a fireplace room, where he tells Otilla he once supped tea by the fire every evening, a ballroom where he had loved to dance, and, gulp, a dungeon with a bottomless pit.
Otilla and the skull strike up a tentative friendship and enjoy a wonderful day together. Nightfall brings a secret shared and both of them tucked up warmly in a four poster bed. Unfortunately it also brings an unearthly rumpus, and Otilla must summon courage and resourcefulness to resolve a uniquely unpleasant situation.
Klassen, beloved award-winning author and illustrator, has created a deliciously odd story, his brilliantly expressive artwork offsetting the spookiness with a comforting glow of friendship and support.
The Author’s Note explains how The Skull began as a misremembered folktale, whose plot had evolved in Klassen’s subconscious into something quite different. This is what is supposed to happen to folktales he suggests, shapeshifting with each telling to give us what we need.
Surely a future classic.
The Skull by Jon Klassen is published by Walker Books, 112 pages.