Little Otilla runs away one night into the forest to escape some unspecified horror. She knows the forest of old but eventually gets lost in the snow and collapses, crying. Eventually getting up she arrives at a ‘very big, very old house’. Knocking at the door she sees a skull at a window looking down at her. Entering with its permission, she and the skull immediately settle into a comfortable relationship, ending up sleeping peacefully in the same double bed. But they are invaded later that night by a headless skeleton in search of the skull. After a chase Otilla tips it over a wall high up on the roof and then descends to gather the now dislocated bones in order first to smash them up and then burn them into ash. She and the skull can now rest happy, and decide next day before taking a companionable walk that they should henceforth live together.
The original ending of the Tyrolean folk tale this is based on has the skull changing into a woman in white who fills the house with other children and playthings for Otilla before disappearing for good. But Klassen has chosen the way he miss-remembered this story having read it some time ago. The result is certainly striking, illustrated in minimum detail with mostly monochromatic colours and plenty of surrounding darkness by a skilled illustrator and previous Caldecott Medal winner. A skull as new best friend to dance with before joining it in bed is certainly outside the normal parameters of junior texts involving skeletons. Some children may love this unusual story; others may hate it. But both parties will surely want to read its minimum text just to find out what on earth is going to happen next.