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In "The Skull," celebrated children's book author Jon Klassen tells a dark tale

<em>The Skull</em> by Jon Klassen was released July 11, 2023.
Candlewick Press
The Skull by Jon Klassen was released July 11, 2023.

Award-winning author and illustrator Jon Klassen is best known for children's books like I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat. There are no hats to be found in his latest book, which is also probably his longest.

The Skull is Klassen's adaptation of a traditional Tyrolean folktale, originating from the Alpine region of Austria. It features both the lush, whimsical illustrations and wry humor the children's book creator has become known for.

The Skull is definitely darker than Klassen's past work.

"This new book is sort of the first time I think I've done like a let's-tell-a-scary-story kind-of-feeling one. The other ones are edgy, but I think it kind of sneaks up on you a little bit," Klassen said.

Why Klassen loves a scary story

Ever since he was a child, Klassen has been drawn to a certain kind of reading material.

"I was a real scaredy cat about most things, especially film and TV and stuff. I would turn it off pretty quick if it looked like it was about to scare me," Klassen told NPR. "But books, I always really felt brave with, especially books that I knew were meant for me."

Klassen says it's something he still aims for: making sure kids know they're in a space that's meant for them.

"Then you can go a lot of places, as long as the type is the right size and the trim is the right size, they feel like, 'Okay, I'm allowed to read this.' And I always got a real thrill out of books that felt like that. But you were still reading kind of darker, scary stuff," Klassen said.

Author and illustrator Jon Klassen won the Caldecott Medal for his book, <em>This is Not My Hat</em>.
Carson Ellis / Candlewick Press
Candlewick Press
Author and illustrator Jon Klassen won the Caldecott Medal for his book, This is Not My Hat.

But Klassen wants to be clear that this book is not too scary for kids, and there's comedy in it. That's a big part of building trust with his audience of young readers.

Klassen says if you can tell a pretty good joke, you build trust — and that carries kids through the scarier parts of a story.

"Whereas if you haven't been doing anything with them for 10 pages and all of a sudden you scare them, they're kind of wondering who you are," Klassen said.

The origin of The Skull

It was during a trip to Juneau, Alaska, that Klassen first discovered the folktale that would inspire The Skull.

"I like to go to folktale sections of libraries or bookstores when you're in a different town, just because they usually have some random local stuff that you wouldn't find anywhere else," Klassen said.

The story stuck with him. The premise was simple. A little girl named Otilla runs away from home.

"And she finds a house in the woods, and there's an animate skull living in there. And I thought, that's such a great start for a story," Klassen said.

Klassen was not a fan of how the original folktale ended — with the spell broken and the skull transformed into a beautiful lady in white. So his retelling is a bit different.

No spoilers, but here's an excerpt from the story:

When it was dark, Otilla made some tea and a fire in the fireplace room.

"Would you give me some tea, please?" said the Skull.

Otilla took a tea cup and poured the tea through his mouth and onto the chair.

"Ah, nice and warm," said the Skull. "Thank you."

The sweetest and strangest part of this story is the friendship that forms between Otilla and the Skull. They take care of each other.

"Right away, they seem gentle with each other," Klassen said. "And I really wanted to write that without sort of writing it explicitly. To just be like: These guys really like each other."

Klassen leaves out certain details from the story. Why Otilla runs away is never explained. He wants to give kids the space to engage, to think, to feel some way about all of it.

"A lot of my favorite stories, they aren't necessarily about a moral or a lesson," Klassen said. "They're just sort of like, I feel better now in a very general way. And that was sort of the idea here. It was like, 'Do you feel better?' Like, I think I felt better."

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Julie Depenbrock
Julie Depenbrock (she/her) is an assistant producer on Morning Edition. Previously, she worked at The Washington Post and on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi Show. Depenbrock holds a master's in journalism with a focus in investigative reporting from the University of Maryland. Before she became a journalist, she was a first grade teacher in Rosebud, South Dakota. Depenbrock double-majored in French and English at Lafayette College. She has a particular interest in covering education, LGBTQ issues and the environment. She loves dogs, hiking, yoga and reading books for work (and pleasure).