The best children’s stories – the best stories, period – often start in ways that feel familiar, even hackneyed, only to go places you could not have predicted. Think of celebrated author-illustrator Jon Klassen’s picture book I Want My Hat Back: the tale of a bear seeking a beloved red hat is not exactly groundbreaking, but who would’ve guessed it would end with the bear eating the rabbit that stole the hat and lying about it to a squirrel?
That casual upending of expectations – along with gorgeous and painterly illustrations and a deadpan and frequently grim sense of humour – has helped to make Klassen a kidlit superstar. The Skull, though it represents a subtle and interesting shift away from his previous output, abounds with all of those qualities. According to the author’s note, the book is an illustrated tale very loosely based on a Tyrolean folk story Klassen found in an anthology that later changed considerably in his memory. (This book is the altered version.)
The tale itself is simple: a young girl named Ottila runs away in the middle of the night, from what or whom we never find out. In the forest, she stumbles upon a large house occupied by a skull, who offers her food, drink, and shelter, but warns her that a skeleton will come in the night to try and take him away. The skeleton does appear, and – in a very Klassenian moment of dark humour, told entirely through the illustrations – Ottila pushes it over the wall, causing it to plummet and shatter.
Ottila’s next moves are the ones Klassen came up with himself: the girl gathers all the skeleton bones, smashes them to bits, burns them, and drops the ashes into a bottomless pit. The skull then invites Ottila to stay, and she accepts. Despite the cold-blooded violence we just witnessed, it’s a touching moment of two troubled souls finding one another and becoming friends.
Klassen is working with a slightly darker palette here, both narratively and visually. The graphite-and-ink images are rich and textured, despite the relative lack of bright colours. The prose is almost entirely fat-free, but still makes room for small, seemingly unnecessary but pleasure-inducing moments – for example, every time the skull eats or drinks, it all just falls out the bottom, and yet the skull is always grateful. And so are we: Klassen has once again crafted a book that is among the best.