Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Friday, May 15, 2015

A Funky Follower

One animal given a wide berth by humans is a skunk.  If you have a dog, your vigilance is continually on high alert.  The slightest glimpse of a furry flash of black and white will send your heart racing.  A skunked dog is a miserable incident for everyone but the potent pest.  A peek in pantries of people with pooch pals should show baking soda, hydrogen peroxide and liquid dish soap at the ready, specifically for a deodorizing concoction.

Despite all precautions, these smelly critters have a way of appearing as if from thin air.  The Skunk (Roaring Brook Press, April 14, 2015), story by Mac Barnett, art by Patrick McDonnell, offers readers a preposterous possibility.  It will leave you with more questions than answers.

When I left my house there was a skunk on my doorstep.

Wait a minute!  Stop right there!  There's a skunk on your doorstep?  Not only is there a skunk on this fancily-attired man's porch but after edging past him with extreme caution, the skunk trails behind him on the sidewalk.

As they get closer to the city, the man is fairly certain the skunk is shadowing his every move.  Regardless of his speed or random turns, the skunk is persistently in pursuit.  In apparent desperation, the man inquires as to the skunk's intentions.

Obviously, he receives no reply.  But then again, how often do skunks follow in your footsteps?  Frustrated to the max, the man takes a taxi to his destination.  So does the skunk.  (Yes, you read this correctly.)

Upon his arrival at the opera house, the man takes extra measures.  Once inside he sighs with satisfaction, sure he has evaded the determined follower.  Guess who shows up on the head of the woman seated next to him?

Panic filling him from head to toe, the man runs from the performance.  There seems to be nowhere he can go without the skunk.  As a last resort he sinks into the sewer system.

Appearing above ground after some distance, the man makes a series of decisions.  The skunk seems to have made some choices too.  With great care, dressed in black and white, a creature moves through the night.

You have to wonder what triggered the idea for this book in the mind of Mac Barnett.  I seem to recall several close encounters his dog had with a skunk from posts on Twitter.  However it happened, readers will laughingly agree this book is like no other they've previously read.

Each sentence is an attentive phrase in a symphony of silliness building to a startling and remarkable conclusion.  Readers are up close and personal with the man due to the first person narration.  It's like reading an entry in a diary but the puzzle has missing pieces.  Here is the passage where Barnett sets readers up for a huge dose of hilarity.

Success! I bounded up the steps and took my seat.  I was relieved to find myself between a lady and a gray old officer.  But then of course skunks can't buy tickets to the opera! ...

When you open the dust jacket you are introduced to the color palette used by Patrick McDonnell throughout most of the book.  The similarities between the man and the skunk, the fur and red nose and the tuxedo with a red tie, accentuate the ridiculous situation in which the man finds himself.  On the back, to the left, a circle is set in a red background.  The man is running from the skunk.

Six large black and white stripes supply the canvas for the front and back of the book case.  A circle on the front repeats the illustration found on the jacket.  The opening and closing endpapers continue the black and white pattern with representations of the two characters respectively.  Above the red text on the title page, a zoological, textbook-type image of the skunk is shown.

McDonnell has provided page after page of gentle tension, comedy and surprise.  With the subtlest of shifts in the characters' eyes and through the use of body language we are taken into the moment.  Regardless of the landscape in which the characters appear, we first look at them.  All of the illustrations are single pages or several on one page.  Most are loosely framed by white space.

One of my favorite illustrations in this title is the first one.  The man is looking out his front door nose bent toward the nose of the skunk.  All we see is his face and stunned eyes behind his glasses.  Calmly looking up is the skunk seated on the porch.  There is the barest hint of the house siding with a blooming rose bush and grass along the bottom.  Ever time I see this, I laugh out loud.

When you finish reading The Skunk written by Mac Barnett with illustrations by Patrick McDonnell, you can't help but read it again immediately.  You are seeking solutions.  This book is filled to the brim with possibilities.  This is a story leaving you wanting more.  It's up to you now.

I know you'll want to learn more about Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell and their work.  Please follow the links attached to their names to access websites.  To view interior images from the book, follow this link to the publisher's website. You will enjoy reading this recent interview with Mac Barnett at School Library Journal, Avant-Garde Children's Lit: Mac Barnett on "The Skunk" and Writing Picture Books.  TeachingBooks.net has numerous resources on Mac Barnett.
UPDATE:  Mac Barnett was interviewed at Bookish, Mac Barnet on Skunks, Good Art, and the Occupational Hazards of Writing for Children.  

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