The Skull of Truth

Bruce Coville

Harcourt. $17.00
(paper, Pocket Books $3.99)

Once upon a time, way back in the second grade, Charlie Eggleston got in trouble for telling the truth. That was the Great Toad Fiasco, and since then Charlie has told nothing but lies. He can't see that it has made much difference.

Now, somehow -- was it by accident? fate? something more mysterious? -- Charlie has stolen the Skull of Truth from a magic shop that appears in the swamp where no shop of any kind has ever been before. To Charlie's horror, the Skull compels him to speak nothing but the truth; it's a dreadful fate for someone so accustomed to lying.

Charlie has no idea just how dreadful his life is about to become. In short order he manages to insult his best friend, get beaten up by a gang, and utterly humiliate himself in front of the entire sixth grade -- all by telling the truth!

With The Skull of Truth, Bruce Coville takes what seems to be a simple theme -- honesty -- and shows that it is anything but simple. The "lessons" Charlie learns go far beyond a mere "honesty is the best policy"; in any case, they are more of an exploration of the multiple and intricate levels of truth than didactic, fixed morals.

That truth can be brutal. That there are different layers and meanings of truth. That people are often more comfortable at a distance from some truths. That it is possible to tell the truth and still be less than honest. That not speaking can also be a form of lying. That there are two or more sides to every story. Being honest with others. Being honest with yourself.

Coville packs a lot into this little book. It is also a commentary on ecology, on dealing with cancer, on family secrets, and much more. By the time he adds Shakespeare's Hamlet and a lot of bad jokes and riddles, the result is simply astonishing. And it's not too much! The story carries all this perfectly and gracefully! And underneath it all is a good, fun read -- scary, funny, perceptive, and gross (I told you there was a Great Toad Fiasco) in a way kids will understand and enjoy.

Coville has written three other Magic Shop books. It's a casual series; each book stands alone with its own characters and independent plot. The common factor is the mysterious magic shop, which each time appears somewhere new. "No one enters this shop by accident," says the crotchety shop owner, and indeed, each child who visits has his or her own problems to solve and lessons to learn. All the books have been good, but The Skull of Truth is by far the best and most complex. I hope Coville continues to write Magic Shop books for a long time to come.


Vocabulary word of the day: ecdysiast


The Magic Shop books:

The Monster's Ring. Pantheon Books, 1982
Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher. Harcourt Brace, 1991
Jennifer Murdley's Toad. Harcourt Brace, 1992
The Skull of Truth. Harcourt Brace, 1997


This review copyright 2000 by Wendy Morris

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