The Skull

Given the cover, you might think this book, based on old Tyrolean folktale, will open, “Alas, poor Yorick!” But, no, it opens with a young girl on the run, and as Otilla runs through the snowy forest, readers are plunged along with her. It’s an unusual story and completely engaging. But is it a picture book? (At my local bookstore, it is in the early chapter books section.) That is one of the first things the Caldecott Committee will consider. See the Caldecott manual’s definition of a picture book: “A ‘picture book for children,' as distinguished from other books with illustrations, is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience. A picture book has a collective unity of storyline, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.” A look through Caldecott winners over the years yields varied interpretations of this definition, from wordless picture books to books with substantial text. My idea of the classic picture book is one in which there is an effective interplay of illustration and text, the illustrations adding to and extending the text. Though this concept of a picture book that many picture book reviewers adhere to is not explicitly delineated in the manual’s definitions and criteria, it has always been uppermost in my mind as a reviewer and Caldecott committee member.

One thing committee members are often asked to do is ignore the text completely and see if the illustrations work alone, as a “visual experience.” It’s fascinating to do this with The Skull, which seems like a regular old chapter book with illustrations, because the illustrations DO work alone to tell the story. The illustrations do delineate the plot, theme, and characters, one of the bulleted criteria in the manual. Thus, the overall package is that much more remarkable — text and illustration working together to create something bigger and richer.

Now, let’s look at those graphite-and-ink illustrations. This is Klassen at his best, and that’s saying a lot. The eyes have it, those signature Klassen eyes, big whites and long, vertical pupils that somehow show a lot of emotion. The woods are not so lovely, but they are dark and deep, and Klassen’s artwork is stellar. The illustrations have real texture; you can almost feel the bark of the trees, the speckled snowflakes on your cheek, and the eerie blue-gray forest light. My favorite illustration is the “very old house” when Otilla first comes upon it — cold and seemingly uninhabited with swaths of light behind. (I’ve seen this light described as peach, burnt umber, apricot, rose — take your pick.) The interior of the house is empty, and the dark, grainy, smudgy illustrations infuse enough light to never be truly scary, only deliciously creepy. Besides, Otilla’s new friend, the skull, is there to guide her through his abode and give her a heads-up about the lurking headless skeleton. There are masks on a wall, a bottomless pit, an empty ballroom.

Many full-page illustrations and double-page spreads make illustrations an equal player with the text. They are not simply illustrating the text, they are extending it; you must read the pictures, as in the scene when the skeleton yells, “GIVE ME THAT SKULL.” The chase scene is six pages long and told mostly in pictures, including a wordless double-page spread that shows Otilla saving her friend by being heroic and not losing her head. The Skull certainly satisfies the five criteria in the revised Caldecott manual (March 2023): excellence in the execution of the artistic technique employed; excellence in pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept; appropriateness of the style of illustrations to the story, theme, or concept; delineation of the plot, theme, or characters, as discussed above; and excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience.

Committees have taken some bold stances on certain books in recent years; I hope this year’s committee will see it as not so bold to consider The Skull as a picture book worthy of the Caldecott Medal.

[Read The Horn Book Magazine review of The Skull]

Dean Schneider

Dean Schneider teaches eighth grade English at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.

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