Reviews /

The Skull

Authored by Jon Klassen
Illustrated by Jon Klassen
Published by Walker Books Ltd

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The Skull is Jon Klassen’s delectably macabre reimagining of a traditional Tyrolean folktale.

Otilla is a young girl who is running away through the dark woods. There is a house in the woods and in that house lives a skull with a secret. When Otilla reaches the house, she is invited in by the skull, and so begins an unlikely friendship. In return for shelter, Otilla helps the skull rediscover the lost pleasures of eating pears, drinking tea, and dancing. The skull warns Otilla of the skeleton who comes searching every night for him. Fortunately for the skull Otilla is both brave and ingenious as she finds a way to vanquish the fearsome skeleton and thus find a happy ending for her new friend and herself.

Jon Klassen is an exceptional illustrator and The Skull is no exception. The muted tones create an atmosphere of quiet understated menace in places and his use of light and warmer hues add a sense of new beginnings and optimism in the closing pages. At points where the story could tip over into being too frightening for younger readers, the use of pinky tones signalling warmth in places such as lighting up the abandoned house when Otilla first reaches it.

Character depiction is superb and Otilla’s eyes draw the reader to her and offer subtle clues to her inner thoughts. Klassen’s writing style is perfectly suited to this genre. The story is told using beautifully simple prose which gives plenty of space for the reader to add their own interpretation. The illustrations and words work in perfect harmony and the story rolls along at a lovely pace, just right for younger readers.

This is a book that would work well as a read-aloud with five parts to the story meaning it can be spread over a week. Some may find the way Otilla dispatches the skeleton unsettling but I suspect that adults will find this a greater problem than children, who will probably cheer Ottlia’s resourcefulness. The author’s note offers a fascinating insight into the origin of the story and the way Klassen remembers it differently from the original version. A book to be shared with younger readers and one for KS2 readers to savour alone.