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Books Help You to Know Yourself with Jon Klassen

Jon Klassen, author illustrator of The Skull (Candlewick Press), proposes there's something about books that make you braver.

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About the book: The Skull by Jon Klassen. Published by Candlewick Press.

Caldecott Medalist and New York Times best-selling author-illustrator Jon Klassen delivers a deliciously macabre treat for folktale fans.

Jon Klassen's signature wry humor takes a turn for the ghostly in this thrilling retelling of a traditional Tyrolean folktale. In a big abandoned house, on a barren hill, lives a skull. A brave girl named Otilla has escaped from terrible danger and run away, and when she finds herself lost in the dark forest, the lonely house beckons. Her host, the skull, is afraid of something too, something that comes every night. Can brave Otilla save them both? Steeped in shadows and threaded with subtle wit--with rich, monochromatic artwork and an illuminating author's note--The Skull is as empowering as it is mysterious and foreboding.


Matthew: Welcome back to the Children’s Book Podcast, where we dive deep into the world of creativity, storytelling, and the magic behind the art of children’s books. 

I’m your host, Matthew Winner. Teacher. Librarian. Writer. Fan of kids. 

And today we have a very special guest who has enchanted readers young and old with his unique blend of humor, wit, and stunning illustrations.

Joining us today is the incredibly talented Jon Klassen, the award-winning author and illustrator behind beloved books such as I Want My Hat Back, The Rock That Fell From the Sky, and Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, written by Mac Barnett.  Jon's work has not only captured the imaginations of children around the world but also earned him prestigious accolades, including the Caldecott Medal and the Kate Greenaway Medal.

Today, I’m thrilled to discuss Jon's latest book, The Skull, a captivating and mysterious tale that is every bit as enchanting and thought-provoking as his previous works. We'll explore the inspiration behind The Skull, Jon's creative process, and the fears that help steady the focus of his storymaking. Whether you're an aspiring artist, a lover of picture books, or simply curious about the world of storytelling, this is a conversation you won't want to miss.

So, without further ado, let’s welcome Jon Klassen back to the show.


Jon: Yeah. All right. Hi, my name is Jon Klassen. I am an author and illustrator of books and I am the author and illustrator of The Skull. 

Matthew: Jon, is there anything that scares you that you are comfortable sharing with us?

Jon: Oh, lots of things scare me. Most things, I think, scare me to a certain extent. I was a really, and especially when I was a kid, I was scared of lots of things. And so, but that made me enjoy being scared in certain ways.

I think that the first time I really liked being scared on purpose was in books, was reading books that were scary stories. And I felt so brave in them. If they were done a certain way, they gave me. Bravery. And I remember being really proud that I enjoyed scary stories because I didn't know that about myself before I started reading like that.

I thought I was kind of a wimp because I didn't like scary movies or scary TV. I would leave the room and I didn't that that's not every kid. I had friends who loved scary stuff like that and they would stay and get excited about it and I didn't have it. And then I started to find out that I would.

When we went to the library, I would go to the scary story section and open those books because I was in control of those. There's something about books that make you braver, at least me. Um, but I was scared of all sorts of stuff. I was scared of the dark, certainly. I've always been very, very scared of snakes.

Super scared, and even as a grown up, I take my kids to the zoo and I don't go in the snake room. I can't do it. Um, I'm scared of, I think there's a term, and I don't know if this is true for like all wide open spaces, but I remember, I have a very specific memory of being in the ocean, snorkeling for the first time, and it was far away.

It was in Egypt, and um, the water's very dark there. The way the water was, it was like a big cliff. in the ocean that you jumped into, and you would, and so the water wasn't blue or clear, it was black. And I put my mask into the water to look down, and I saw my feet with my flippers on, and then everything was black, and then my eyes sort of adjusted, and I could see fish, and then I could see more fish, and then my eyes adjusted more, and I saw very, very big things.

Like, you know, it felt like miles below me. And the size of the ocean suddenly sort of fell on top of my brain. And I crawled back out of the ocean as fast as I could. Something about the ocean, the size of the ocean. I grew up with lakes. Maybe that's part of it. But the oceans always scared me. The scale of it.

When, when boats sink in the ocean and when any sort of hint of how big it is always has scared me. I think probably the same thing would happen with outer space if I made it up there anytime at the scale of the thing, but the ocean's always done that. 

Matthew: That's interesting. I, I wonder why I, here's my connection to you that leads perfectly into the next question.

And, and, and that is that John, I actually love I don't know why I love the ocean and I love the thought of space because I love the feeling of feeling really small. 

Jon: Oh, I do too. I get the feeling like 

Matthew: that in a forest in a, where it's almost like a weird vertigo, but that doesn't necessarily mean the same fear that you're feeling.

Just, it makes me think that. So I guess my question for you is why do you think we fear some things that others don't or others fear things that we don't? What's going on there? 

Jon: I don't know. I think there's lots of mysteries. I think that we probably have fears that were built into people going back hundreds and thousands of years, probably, that are deep in there.

Maybe you have an ancestor that was in a shipwreck or something like that, and that stuff got passed along. It's interesting. I don't find, I, I take a lot of solace and I get relaxed when I think of myself as small too. I like reading about physics and about geology and things that make me feel like I'm just a blink.

in the time, you know, of the universe, that kind of thing. I always, it actually calms me down. I don't think that's what's going on with the ocean. My relative size to the ocean isn't what's scared. There's something else going on with the ocean. I think it's like, I'm not sure I have the brain to calculate the size of it.

And so when it tries, it gets scared. Um, I think the same thing would happen with outer space, but not because I'm all of a sudden small and I'm realizing it. I think I know I'm small. There's something else out. There's something physical going on with it that isn't about me. I don't know what it is, but yeah, I feel like we all have different fears for different mysterious reasons.

I think they're interesting. I think it's worth exploring and it's exciting to, you know, think about the things that scare you because they're very much yours. They're, that's, you don't have a lot of things that are yours, yours, but your fears are very personal. I don't think you have to know why you're scared of them, but, um, but it's interesting.

Matthew: It is.

It's wildly interesting. Um, especially being a person that's done many years of therapy to be able to go, wait, this is all because I had that like bad piece of cheese on that one sandwich. That's the thing. I don't think that we're, yeah, so often 

Jon: we don't know. And I think that, yeah, when your little something happens or, you know, or even something happened, yeah, you just don't know what builds these things.

And we're very interesting machines that way. But it is, I, I, I appreciate the fears though. They make me, and they make my work do. I'm scared of lots of things in my work too. I'm scared of drawing certain things. I'm scared of writing certain things. And I don't know why that is, but when I leave them out, so I don't get too scared, it turns into what I make.

And so your fears, define a lot of who you are. And that doesn't make it mean they're bad or that you're too scared to do anything. It just makes you who you are. 

Matthew: Love that. So I love that you included this wonderful note in the back of the book, but for the sake of those people that haven't encountered the book, I wanted to ask you that, um, I'll just read what I wrote that the skull is an original retelling of a tale you discovered in a book, a book called the book of ghosts and goblins by Ruth Manning, Manning Sanders.

John, could you please share Briefly, how you discovered that book and why you chose to retell one of these stories. 

Jon: Yeah, well, the first bit I was in a library because for work I go to libraries a lot and I do events and presentations and this time I was in a library in Juneau, Alaska. And I was there with a group of people.

We were all up there in Juneau, making presentations at the library and I had my turn hadn't come up yet and so I was wandering around the library. And usually when I'm in libraries or even bookstores that are kind of far away. I try to find the folktale section because folktales, there's so many, you know, when you go to like a national park or you go to a museum or something, and there's always like some local book of folktales that somebody, you know, down the street has collected and published like 10 copies of.

And they're like, these are the ghost stories or whatever it is from this town. And you never find them in other places. You can only find them in that town where you're at. And I always try and look for that shelf because it's like, what am I going to find? I always like that stuff. And so I went to the folktale section in Alaska and the book that I found was the Ghost and Goblins one, and it's not local to Alaska.

I think it got around a little bit, but it was first time I'd seen it and the title sounded good to me, Goblins and Ghosts and things. And so I pulled it down and just opened it really quickly and looked at the table of contents. And one of the stories was called The Skull. And I was like, that is a great title.

It jumped right out at me. I hadn't even read it yet. And I was like, I love that title. So I went to it and it was only like three pages long. And so I had time to read it before my presentation. And I read it and I put it back on the shelf in the library and ran away into my presentation. Cause I was already late cause I read The Skull.

And then I thought about it a lot on the ride home. You have a lot of time after you do one of those things. You have time on the plane and you have time in the cars and all that stuff. And so I thought about the story and then I kind of didn't for a while. And every now and then it would come up and I would think about it some more.

Um, and then like a year later, I finally thought, you know, I've been thinking about this story a lot. I've never adapted one before, but maybe I should give it a shot. And so I wrote the library in Juno to say, Hi, I read a story called the skull in one of your books. I didn't remember the title, the ghost and goblins thing.

I didn't remember who wrote it or anything. I just said, it's called the skull. It's in your library. Can you please find the story for me? And they did, they found it in like two hours. They sent me a scan of it, librarians or magicians that way. And then, uh, I read it and I was surprised because I had changed so much of it in the year between my having read it in the library and then having the story in my head.

Now, a year later. My brain had changed all these things and I didn't know that I'd changed it. I'd just been sort of like, I'd been wandering away with it in that, in that middle time. And I read it and I was like, I can't believe all the things I've done to this story without knowing, but I liked what I'd done.

I could remember it still after having read the original, I remembered my version too. And I thought I should write that down. And so I did. And then You know, half my job is illustrating, and I always have to make sure if I'm going to tackle a story that I can draw it. And with this one, so much of what I liked about it was that I knew I could draw it.

Um, Otilla, the main character, the girl, is a very brave girl, but she doesn't, in my mind, do very much. She's very stoic, and she's very brave, and she doesn't have a lot of emotions on her face. Most of the time, the way I thought of it, and that's how I draw too, is most of my characters don't show very much.

They kind of stare blankly at you. And I thought we could, we could do Otilla like that. That wouldn't be inappropriate. She could, that's how she could look. And then what was even more exciting was that the skull in my mind didn't do anything at all. The skull talks, but he doesn't move. I don't think he rolls around, but you can't draw something rolling around.

You draw one picture. And so he doesn't, he just, he's a statue as far as I'm concerned. And so I had this very stoic little brave girl and a skull to draw, and then a bunch of forests and old houses. And I thought, man, I can't wait to get into this. And so all those things together, that's, that's how that book sort of solidified itself.

Matthew: Stoic is a word that I often forget. And so when I wrote this next question for you, you mentioned the word stoic and I'm like, that's a word. 

Jon: But 

Matthew: I wrote you that Otilla, I thought this character was really fascinating. And it's interesting to hear you reflect that, that you feel that you often draw characters, just sort of staring to a blank spot.

Um, Because I think then any, any face, any illustrator puts on the character, we are going to naturally put ourselves in as that character. That's what we do. 

Jon: Yeah. And 

Matthew: so that. that has an effect. I wrote to you that Attila seems to be a particularly brave individual running away from her own troubles. We don't even know what and where you've left that a mystery for us that whatever it is, she's running away.

That feels brave to me. There's a threat there that has caused you to be brave enough to run away no matter what it is, right or wrong. Um, But then she's facing her own, with that new company, she faces this trouble that's afflicting the skull, that there's this, this body, the skeleton that comes. Um, so I wonder again, sort of big picture, you big, big John reading this story, sitting with it for a year, reflecting on it, how it's changed.

When you approach the story, is it bravery that helps the story not become too scary? Because I admire her. This is absolutely a book that kindergarteners and first graders will read. Those easier readers. This is the section we were mentioning beforehand that you're very specific when you have this many words on a page, when it's laid out this way, when it's whatever it puts it in this very specific audience.

And yet, 

Jon: Yeah. 

Matthew: This story has the potential to be very, very scary if the knobs aren't turned just right. And I feel like you, you turned those knobs just right. I wonder what that. 

Jon: Oh, that, that, that was the, that was the challenge of it. And that's what I wanted to. Yeah. Is that I remember, and even pretty late in life into my twenties after college, watching movies, Specifically movies, I think, that were scary movies, but if they're done right, even if what's going on is scaring me, or making me sad, or making me wonder why people are the way they are.

If the movies are done in a certain way, and it's hard to describe that particular way, but you know it when you feel it. If the person is taking care of you, the person making the book or making the movie is taking care of you, and you know they're not going to drop you, then you'll go with them. You'll grow into the scary story, and you'll follow the scary events.

if you know that the person making it is good enough to take care of you. And I think that it is a matter of skill. It's a choice, partly too. If you go into a scary story, if you go into telling one and your goal is to jump out and scare the audience, or you're building towards really scaring them, I don't, I think you pick up on that as the audience and you don't trust that because this person's out to do you harm.

I always felt like, but if you want to tell a scary story, but you still want to take care of your audience. It's a very amazing thing and it makes you brave. And you didn't know you could do that. You didn't know you could go through that. But this person is showing you how. And I wanted to try for that.

And I think that Otilla being brave, Otilla is a big part of that. She doesn't give away what happened to her. And we don't know. It doesn't really matter. I don't think. I think that you're watching it through her, her reaction. If she met a skull in the window, who was talking to her, you know, some people would run away, screaming back into the woods, she takes it in stride.

It doesn't affect her. And that both shows how much she's been through because here she is taking that normally. But it's also, you are with her. You want to see how she's reacting and how she reacts as some is a little bit, how you react and you feel brave because she's being brave and she can take you through this thing.

Um, later on in the book, she gets a chance to really, you know, exercise some of this emotion. She gets a chance to take it out on this headless skeleton. And for a minute, it's as close as she comes to breaking. We've seen, we've heard that she cries before. She cries when she runs away, but we don't see it.

That was important to me, not to show it. And once she cries, she gets up, she gets out of the, she gets it out of the way and she keeps going. Near the end, it's the same thing. She sort of has this time to work it out a little bit. And that's it. That was important too. I was very interested in that, that she sort of almost understands that she needs to do it.

And once it's done, it'll be done. And I don't, you know, I'm not sure I've always treated myself that way, but I like to, and I admire her for that sort of knowing what she needs to do to take care of herself. She's good at taking care of herself and she's good at taking care of the skull. And I always liked I admire that in her.

I think that those two things, the skull and Otilla taking care of each other, was going to make whatever happened in this story okay, I think, because they, they really like each other in a sincere way. And as long as I believe that and try to get it out in the pages, I think we can go through a lot of scary stuff.

Matthew: Yeah. I mean, I think, I think it's what makes there be a bond when the skeleton is chasing them. The like truly scary part of the book, if anything, and maybe that's a trigger for me, that a truly scary is, could be looking down into a pit, could be whatever. For me, a scary thing is being chased. I don't like, I don't like that.

Jon: I don't like being chased either. I think a headless skeleton kicking open your bedroom door at two in the morning would probably, you know, ruffle most feathers. And so I don't know if it's a niche fear. That's what I kind of liked about it too, is that like, you know, the book promises that, or at least tells you that in the middle of the night tonight, a headless skeleton is going to come to the house.

And then five pages later, sure enough, he just kicks open the door and he's like, here I am. And like, just a very direct payoff that there isn't a surprise, really. You feel surprised that it's actually happening, but also you knew it was going to happen. Um, I really like that because you're sort of prepped for it.

It doesn't jump out and scare you, but it's kind of does anyway. You can't believe it's actually happening. That was my feeling on it. 

Matthew: I think that that. It doesn't feel, it feels earned. I, I'm agreeing with you about what you had said before, and it's making me reflect. Oh, there, of course, there are directors that want me to be scared.

That's their goal. I don't like jump scares. I don't like that. But that could be the goal of that person, but also some of the suspenseful, uh, movies. books that I do love do feel like I trust this author that like, we're going to make it to the end, however is going on. No, I think I'm, I love, I love your reflection on this.

It's good. It works. You did a good job. There's 

Jon: suspense and there's fear, right? I think we've talked about before the distinction between the two and building suspense and, you know, jumping out of a closet and scaring someone are two very different things. And building suspense is so much fun. And it's like a mechanical, you can get good at it.

It's like a skill you can get in building suspense. And I really admire people who can do that properly. I don't really have a lot of admiration for someone who hides in my bedroom closet and jumps out at me. Anyone can do that. And so those two goals, one, I think is very admirable and interesting. And the other one just seems like sort of exploiting you.

Matthew: I love this. John, do you mind reading to us? Whatever I just want to read. from the skull. I would love for you to read to us. I'm going 

Jon: to read the first section because that seems to make the most sense. Um, this book is divided up into parts. I couldn't, I had it in chapters at first, but it didn't make much sense.

The chapters were unevenly sized and they didn't feel like chapters. I liked parts. I like calling them parts. I don't know why it just made more sense. And so we're going to read part one and every part has a little subtitle where we outline what sort of happens in this part. And so part one is subtitled the forest, the dark, the house,

Otilla ran and ran. She ran through the trees. She ran for a long time, all through the night. Otilla had grown up in this forest, but after a while the trees began to look different. They were getting closer together. Otilla kept running. As she ran, Otila began to hear her name being called. She couldn't tell if it was someone's voice or the wind in her ears.

Otilla, Otilla.

And now she's, in the pictures she's getting more and more into the dense trees where you can only see her face and trees in the picture. And the words say, Otilla, Otilla. Otilla suddenly tripped on a fallen branch and fell hard into the snow. She didn't get up. She could not run anymore. She listened for her name, but now it was quiet.

Otilla lay in the snow, and the dark, and the quiet. And she cried. When she was done crying, she got up and began moving forward again. All at once, the trees stopped. 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. Otilla went up to the house. It looked abandoned, but when she tried to open the door, it was locked.

She knocked loudly to see if anyone was inside, but nobody came to the door. Hello, she called out. Hello, someone answered. Otilla looked up to where the voice had come from. In a window above the door, she saw a skull looking at her. That's the end of part one. 

Matthew: Thank you for reading to us. Um, this is that was fun.

I hadn't read 

Jon: it out loud before. That was the first time. 

Matthew: Oh, I love that. Yeah, I'm honored. I can't wait for. I can't wait. It's rare too. This 

Jon: is so interesting because usually my books don't work with, unless I had to, I had to describe one picture in there, but other than that, yeah. And I've never done that before.

I don't think I've ever written a book where you could do that and not describe the pictures. Usually it needs them to make any sense of what you're hearing. 

Matthew: You made a book that works on a podcast. 

Jon: I made a podcast book. What do you know? 

Matthew: On that note. Um, I want to ask you that, that standard question that I always do.

And I have everything I need to make a wonderful episode. Then this was really great, but I'll ask you before I, before I wrap up, but I'll see a library full of children, not tomorrow, but soon, uh, is there a message that I can bring to them from you?

Jon: I know this one's always tough.

I feel like a good one, especially in reference to libraries, is to make a habit of grabbing books almost by accident and giving them a shot. I think libraries are so good at that. Big bookshelves are so good at that. And so many of my favorite books, like this stuff, was ones I found by just grabbing a book very quickly and not thinking about it too much.

Mac, who, I do a lot of books with always says this in presentations where he's like read things you don't even like read books you learn just as much from books you don't like as books that you do it's hard to keep with them if you don't like them I don't blame you for putting them down but you would learn about them even if you read a little bit of it you're like well I don't like that that's good information to have and it it sharpens your mind to decide that you don't like it even if you don't read a lot or only read books that you think you're going to like.

You don't know as much about yourself, but if you grab random books every now and then you'll hit one that you don't like, and you know more about yourself after that. So grab books by accident a lot, if you can. 


Matthew: Thank you to Jon Klassen for joining me on The Children’s Book Podcast. 

You can pick up your own copy of The Skull (Candlewick Press) wherever books are found. Consider supporting independent bookstores by shopping through You can also use my affiliate link by clicking on the book’s name in our show notes. I highly recommend checking out the audiobooks! Both are available through and you can support independent bookstores in the process! 

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And on that note…

Be well. And read on.

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