Jon Klassen and The Skull

In August, writer and illustrator Jon Klassen was interviewed by AOI on publication of his new book, The Skull, at a sold out event at London’s City Lit. Jon made an excellent interviewee with thoughtful responses and great insights into his process and influences.

Derek Brazell reviews The Skull below:

There’s a faintly ominous ‘finally’ in the first sentence of The Skull. We are introduced to the book’s main character, Otilla, when she has ‘finally’ escaped into the forest, but from what terrible thing is she fleeing? She might only be a child, but it appears Otilla is already a tough cookie who sets her mind on things.

As Otilla runs and runs through the forest, her resilience briefly fades, until pulling herself on she comes across a large, old house. Klassen introduces a soft orange glow as morning breaks as Otilla arrives at what proves to be her destination.

Seeking refuge, she knocks and a solitary skull peering down from a window agrees to let her in. The warm glow adds an element of optimism to the unfolding story, as the sun illuminates more of the house, but is it an indication of a happy ending?

Klassen’s droll sense of humour ensures that the images and dialogue imply more than is necessarily evident to our eyes. He leaves space for the reader’s imagination, with what’s in front of them almost a starting point. The Skull gives Otilla a tour of the house and when they reach a range of masks displayed on a wall, observes ‘you are not supposed to wear these’. By the next spread the skull and Otilla are both wearing a mask over their faces. It’s one of the many amusing elements throughout. Skull couldn’t really stop her attaching a mask to their face, but also maybe didn’t want to.

The tour reveals a bottomless well in the dark dungeon; ‘It’s a long way down if you fall’ states Skull. Something to note for later on in the story. Hearing that every night a skeleton comes to the house to claim Skull, Otilla takes on a protector role. She has empathy for Skull’s precarious situation – maybe she understands the loss of control Skull may fear if they are captured by the skeleton. But a solution is forming in her mind…

As benefits a folk story (the story is loosely based on one) of the good and wicked, Klassen utilises his expert approach to the use of light and dark on the page. The growing bond between Otilla and the skull is enhanced by the lighter tones towards the end of the story, and the fate of the skeleton is wrapped in darker tones.

You’ll need to see the book to find how Otilla finds a permanent solution for her friend to being claimed every night by the skeleton. You certainly won’t forget what she comes up with!

The Skull is published by Walker Books ISBN: 9781529509571

14th September 2023

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