The Skull: A Tyrolean Folktale

Candlewick. Jul. 2023. 112p. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781536223361.
Gr 2-4–Reducing an old tale to, appropriately enough, bare bones, Klassen puts a distinctive spin on the “unlikely friends” trope. Fleeing an unspecified danger as creepy, disembodied voices call her name, young Otilla comes upon a large house in the middle of the forest where she meets and bonds with a lonely skull. Soon they are dancing together in a silent, empty ballroom, and she is tenderly pouring tea into the skull’s mouth—“‘Ah, nice and warm,’ said the skull. ‘Thank you.’” Learning that the skull is being relentlessly hunted by a headless skeleton, Otilla stages an ambush that night and methodically smashes the bony bully to bits. The next morning when the skull, still (in a departure from the original story) a skull, thanks her and invites her to stay, she responds with typical restraint: “All right.” Like the laconic, stretched-out narrative, the stripped-down art echoes with notes both gothic and comical; the tea bit has a slapstick feel, particularly as the skull is drawn with solid bone in place of jaws or teeth, and for all the intimate mutual regard that readers sensitive to emotional nuances will see developing between the lines, Otilla, who is likewise deadpan throughout, has staring eyes that will give even hardened fans of Edward Gorey shivers. In a perceptive source note, the author justifies the changes he has made with the insight that our brains automatically make every story we read or hear our own.
VERDICT Twists aplenty for younger audiences in an eerie, atmospheric, and, unsurprisingly provocative outing.

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