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'The Skull,' Jon Klassen's latest children's book, is darker than his previous ones


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 folktale. It features his signature lush illustrations and wry humor. NPR's Julie Depenbrock spoke to the author about "The Skull" and also about why so many kids love scary stories.

JULIE DEPENBROCK, BYLINE: Ever since he was a child, Jon Klassen has been drawn to a certain kind of reading material.

JON KLASSEN: 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. But books I always really felt brave with, especially books that I knew were meant for me. I think that that was a big deal. And it's something I still sort of try for - is that, like, aesthetically, you want to make sure that the kid knows that they're in territory that was aimed at them, right? And then you can go a lot of places. As long as the type is the right size and the trim is the right size of the book and everything, they feel like, OK, 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.

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

KLASSEN: 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.

DEPENBROCK: But Klassen wants to be clear 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...

KLASSEN: Hopefully they trust you, as a storyteller, to kind of take care of them through a scarier part 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.

DEPENBROCK: Klassen first discovered a version of "The Skull" at a library in Alaska.

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

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

KLASSEN: 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.

DEPENBROCK: 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.

KLASSEN: (Reading) 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.

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

KLASSEN: Right away they seem gentle with each other. And I really wanted to write that without sort of writing it explicitly - just be like, these guys really like each other.

DEPENBROCK: 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.

KLASSEN: A lot of my favorite stories - they aren't necessarily about a moral or a lesson. 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.

DEPENBROCK: I used to teach first grade, so Klassen's work was familiar to me. I've seen the smiles kids get on their faces after reading his books and looking at the pictures, which Klassen says are just as important to understanding the story. Julie Depenbrock, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE PHARCYDE SONG, "SHE SAID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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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).