A Q&A with Jon Klassen, Author of July/August Kids’ Indie Next List Top Pick “The Skull”

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Independent booksellers across the country have chosen Jon Klassen’s The Skull (Candlewick Press) as their top pick for the July/August 2023 Kids’ Indie Next List.

The Skull follows Otilla, a young girl who runs away from home and discovers a house in the forest inhabited by a single skull.

“An oddly delightful and delightfully odd story that is wonderfully drawn and concisely told. Follow our runaway heroine as she happens upon a kindred spirit embodied (or, disembodied) in a skull. Witty, with a dash of dark humor,” said Ernio Hernandez of River Bend Bookshop in Glastonbury, Connecticut.

Here, Klassen discusses his work with Bookselling This Week.

Bookselling This Week: All of the books you’ve worked on have a very distinct feel. When I was a librarian, they were always a go-to for storytimes because they capture not only the children in the audience, but also the adults. How would you describe the feel of your work? And why do you think your work appeals to such a large age range?

Jon Klassen: The main thing I remember from books, especially books from my childhood, is the general feel of them  what the mood of the book was or how it felt to go into the world. So that's usually where my interest starts when I make a thing. Even my really minimal-looking books, to me they have to have a strong sense of place. It's really exciting when you feel that happening with almost nothing on the page. It's a really intimate thing, how you feel in a place, even a made up one, so I try to leave it to the audience as much as possible.

I think the same thing applies to characters, which might be why these books are fun for older readers. What a character is thinking or feeling about something, I have a vague idea, but most of the time I don't think it's any of my business. Giving the characters that kind of space, I think appeals to adult readers. It's hard for readers to get emotions pushed on them, it wears you out, and I don't have the right words to describe emotions anyway. It's better to try and imply them and let them be brought out by the specific situation, or the specific thing the reader is bringing to it. 

BTW: The genesis for this book seems rather unique. The story of The Skull sort of followed you, stuck with you, until you decided to share it. How does this compare to your usual creative process? What do you usually look for when deciding what project to pick up next?

JK: It was a unique process for me for sure. Though the more I do make things, the more I'm just as interested in arranging known quantities as I am in making new things from scratch. Writing stories for me usually feels very volatile and fraught. I'll catch a line or an exchange that doesn't sound terrible and it will kind of explain how to write the book. Once I've got a hold of that it's a full on sprint to get the text out before it slips out of my head. It's not calm at all. But you're right, this one did follow me around. It's like I'm used to going hunting and it being this unpredictable, violent scary process, and then this time a little animal just snuck up behind me in the woods and sat there until I turned around. 

I try not to have too much of a plan for deciding what to do next, but it's tough. I know I should follow my gut and just go with whatever feels the most exciting, but I do think about the whole shelf of them too. Maybe that's the designer side of me. I like a nice set. Also though, I'm coming off of a run of making straight up "picture books," and picture books are hard. They have to capture a wide audience, from babies up through whoever, and I was curious what a slightly narrower audience would feel like. This age, who The Skull is for, is the age I remember really falling for reading and books, and I hadn't tried to make one for them yet. Also I think I've always been very nervous about writing narration (even when it's pretty flat narration). I had to warm up to that, so this book finally has some.

BTW: Some versions of this folktale feature more traditional tropes like the wicked stepmother and rewards for a good deed. Your departure from the original shifts the focus more towards the growing friendship between Otilla and the skull. Though initially accidental, how do you think your version enhances the story? And, given the nature of folktales, do you think your version will be the one that starts to spread?

JK: I think the changes in this version felt kind of intuitive, like taking what the story already had and following it naturally. Otilla was already the kind of girl who is comfortable with walking around an old house with a talking skull. It just felt like we should get to see that person get to flex their muscles a little more, at the end. Also, yes, my attraction to the story was mainly in their relationship, and building that. They like each other right away. When you meet someone and that happens immediately, I feel like part of that is you being good at taking care of the other person  it feels good to do it, and you just know how. Otilla and the skull both know how to take care of each other. This version is structured, basically, like a love story. 

I hope the story starts to spread, the same way you hope any work you do gets around, but I also would love it if this version just introduced a new variation that gets played with over and over. Like I just introduced a fork in the road in the ongoing life of the story. Thinking that way about it was what allowed me to make this one, anyway. If I thought I was laying down the definitive version, I'd have frozen up. You want to feel like part of something, instead of the top or the end of it. 

BTW: Could you talk a little bit about the role of books and indie bookstores in your life?

JK: I think it's telling that, after being in books for this long, and a lot of the job being that you go to bookstores, I still can't pass an independent bookstore on the street without going in. You don't have that compulsion because you are wondering if they have different books than other stores have, though that's a little of it. You go in mainly because you want to see how they've done it, what it feels like in there, what they're choosing to foreground, and what they believe in.

I talked earlier about being just as interested in arranging known quantities as I am in making new things from scratch, and I imagine that applies to owning a bookstore too. Running a bookstore is a form of expression, and a political act, the same as any creative work is a political act. Even if the books aren't political themselves, you are saying something by how you set them up. When you are in a bookshop that you agree with, or in a shop that shows you a whole new way to be, and that's only being described to you by the particular arrangement of other peoples' books, it's profound and important. And only truly independent bookstores are capable of that. There's no other place like them.