Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: THE SKULL by Jon Klassen
Introduction by Heavy Medal Award Committee Member Sarah Threlkeld:
A young girl on the run. A lonely talking skull. A decrepit mansion with a bottomless pit. An aggressive skeleton in search of a head. Certainly not typical fare for modern children’s stories, but in Jon Klassen’s hands it seems like an obvious choice.
Klassen both wrote and illustrated The Skull, which is an adaptation of a Tyrolean folktale, and, while his familiar graphite and ink illustrations perfectly complement the text and contribute to the spooky tone of the story, the prose stands on its own. In just 1885 words Klassen conjures forth two characters that feel fully formed and even have a touch of back story, while also constructing a specific world that drives the plot forward. Small details, like the skull’s enjoyment of pears despite his complete lack of internal organs, immediately paints him as a charming character who manages to find humor in his absurd situation. The small actions Otilla takes to comfort the skull, such as making him tea and inviting him to dance, coupled with her willingness to risk her own safety by destroying the headless skeleton that’s after the skull, gives the character dimensionality. If one of the Newbery criteria is delineation of characters, Klassen nails it in impressively few pages.
The same is true for delineation of setting. Simple sentences like, “She came out of the woods and into an open yard. In front of her, in the distance, was a very big, very old house” (11) and “The latch turned and the door cracked open against the snow” (23) quickly set the scene, transporting readers to the dark, empty mansion surrounded by a cold, bleak forest.
While The Skull’s unusual format–not quite a picture book, not quite a novel–challenges Newbery’s usual honorees, the book still deserves consideration. Klassen succinctly weaves a suspenseful and humorous tale that will appeal to readers of all ages and that happens to tick the boxes required for the Newbery award.
Heavy Medal Award Committee members and others are now invited to discuss this book further in the Comments section below. Let the Mock Newbery discussion begin!
About Emily Mroczek-Bayci
Emily Mroczek (Bayci) is a freelance children’s librarian in the Chicago suburbs. She served on the 2019 Newbery committee. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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