May 25, 2023

The Skull: A Tyrolean Folktale (Canadian Edition)

Written and illustrated by Jon Klassen
Candlewick Press
112 pp.
Ages 6-9
July 2023

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Otilla who ran away in the dark and cold of a winter night. She heard her name being called but could not tell the source. As she struggled, even falling in the snow, scared and crying, she reaches the end of the woods and finds a large, old house with a skull in the window.
From The Skull by Jon Klassen
When she asks for shelter, the skull agrees but only if she will carry him because he is tired of rolling everywhere. (It did take him a long while to open the door for her.) Inside, he shows her around, including a garden room, a dungeon with a bottomless pit, a magnificent ballroom, and a great room in which he'd enjoyed tea by the fire under his portrait.
From The Skull by Jon Klassen

Before they head to bed, he warns her that a headless skeleton comes around looking for him, but he doesn't want to go with the skeleton. Otilla devises a plan. As the two sleep in a lovely bed, the skeleton appears, shouting, "GIVE ME THAT SKULL. I WANT THAT SKULL." (pg. 61) Otilla grabs the skull and carries it to the tower balcony, the skeleton chasing them all the way. Standing back, she lets the skeleton look over the edge before pushing it off.

But Otilla is a clever girl, and she knows that that may not be the end of the skeleton, so she finds a way to make sure it never comes back, and, in doing so, finds herself a new home.
From The Skull by Jon Klassen
If it weren't for the fact that there is no ghost, I would call this a ghost story. It's the kind of story that could be told around a campfire or at a sleepover or on Halloween. But, because The Skull is also from Jon Klassen, it has dry humour, remarkable artwork, and a touch of sweetness. The humour comes in dark playfulness, like Otilla feeding the skull pears and tea that go right through him but which he still enjoys. And the graphic and ink artwork in quintessentially Jon Klassen: dark and sombre with limited splashes of grey green and peach. From the chilling forest to the monolithic house of shadows and stone, Jon Klassen sets The Skull in places of gloom. Yet he pulls out some tenderness for both Otilla and the skull.  She, who has run away from an unknown situation, is able to connect with a skull who needs her help as much as she needs his. She carries him around like a stuffed animal, both respectful and comfortable, and she puts him to sleep so that she can take care of the skeleton's broken bones. There may be a skeleton and a skull and a creepy house and a scared little girl, but The Skull is more than a ghost story. It's one of reciprocity and compassion. With reciprocity comes connection and with connection comes benefit. And, with that, comes a happy ending.

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