by Sam Juliano
The droll humor on display throughout The Skunk is the creation of one of children’s literature’s wittiest luminaries, who for the first time has pooled his inimitable talent with celebrated cartoonist Patrick McDonnell. The result is one of the best picture books of 2015. The review of this most curious Theater of the Absurd fever dream is the final act in the 2015 Caldecott Medal Contender series. Every imaginable artistic component comes together flawlessly in this irresistible confection that has many of us crossing our fingers for a re-teaming of this inventive duo. McDonnell, who presently is writing a screenplay for an animated film with a major studio, previously won a Caldecott Honor for Me…Jane, and Barnett, ever-prolific, authored two books with illustrator Jon Klassen that also won Caldecott Honors, Extra Yarn and Sam & Dave Dig a Hole. Barnett’s Battle Bunny, an irreverent homage to Golden Books, left the box like few picture books have, and this year’s teaming with Christian Robinson on Leo: A Ghost Story was a big winner.
The Skunk, surrealist in essence and execution is far more convincing as a dream than as a slice-of-life friendship story, though the budding friendship, never acknowledged as such by either of the conspirators is the emotional hook that will resonate most compellingly with readers. In this sense it seems McDonnell’s decision to scale back on the details and place emphasis on the bare essentials bring this bizarre relationship more emotional heft. From the very fact that the mammal chosen for this story of human and animal bonding is just about the most detested creature out there alone underscores the improbability of such a development, again pointing towards horizontal nocturnal imaginings. The title page is the one place in the book where we get to see a drawing of real skunk, and it ain’t a pretty sight, nor was it meant to be. As those who live in areas where these stenchmeisters can attest to the odoriferous residue from a skunk spraying have maintained astonishing staying power, with seemingly no logistical panacea other than prompt relocation.
This insular tale begins when the main opens his front door to find a skunk on his doorstep. As the fluffy tailed and red-rubber-balled nosed creature was undaunted the man maneuvered away, proceeding down the street. The skunks continued down the street, as the man thought it odd that it could be going in the same direction. After a mile, it was clear we had a case of stalking at hand. This skunk was most adept at keep pace, parroting the man’s various speed strategies. A stop at a coffee shop depicts man at skunk at separate tables. Many wild turns intended to lose this dogged follower are replicated to maintain the status quo. Finally the man turns to confront this unwanted interloper, and asks him “What do you want?” Barnett can’t resist answering “The skunk did not answer. The skunk was just a skunk.” The man offered up an apple, saucer of milk and pocket watch to his erstwhile travel companion, but of course this one-minded creature would have no interest in such things.
From there the story leaves the realm of conceivable possibility when the skunk hails its own cab to follow the man who initiated the quick ditch attempt. Then, the story goes farcical when the man arrives at an opera house, hiding behind a shrub, that isn’t detected by this most dogged of pursuers. The man attempts to take refuge in the opera house, bolting down the middle aisle to claim front row seat, confident in knowing skunks can’t buy tickets to the opera. Yet, after the first solo that unperturbed pest comes scampering down the aisle, nesting on the lady-with-the-binocular’s head, causing the man to inform her that a skunk is now sitting on her head. In another sly lampoon of how some opera patrons feign involvement in the performances Barnett has the woman hush him up, not wanting any interruption .
By the now the man is completely beside himself, and he dashes across the city, through a graveyard and into a carnival, where the skunk is on the very next ferris wheel car. One might recall the Tex Avery classic cartoon “Northwest Hounded Police” where the wolf cannot shake Droopy the Dog no matter where he goes, even traveling into space. The conceit in that cartoon takes things to the limit but therein lies the hysterics. The Skunk isn’t so extreme of course, but the man is no less exasperated than the wolf. As the ferris wheel turns it becomes apparent that nobody is losing any ground. Then in a series of vignettes that made me think of the classic film noir Night and the City by Jules Dassin the man finds himself running past a wharf and into an alley, and beyond lifting a manhole cover and climbing down into the sewers. When he finally came back to street level he was in a different part of the city and availed himself of the ‘For Sale’ sign on a brownstone. Young readers know full well what to expect when our thoroughly exhausted protagonist opens his bedroom door on the first night, but alas he finds nothing in a markedly anti-climactic moment. He threw an elaborate party in his apartment, where he cooked dinner and received gifts. But by now he was much too smitten with the skunk to think about anything else. He dashed out of the party and checked all the previous places he’d been seen at, until, he spots him and embarks on his own measure of stalking. The man’s excuse is that he will “keep an eye on him, and make sure he does not follow me gain.”
The illustrations in miniature, full page or in circular vignette format are utterly magnificent, though McDonnell is a master whose work is universally venerated. For the most part the book is black, white and red, beautifully controlled, balanced and accented. The work here is exhibition standard and each drawing in a treasure onto itself. McDonnell has that rare talent to create an entire city with sparing employment of his strokes, yet you seem to feel and understand more here than you would with a far more auspicious palette. The expressions on the man’s face -his eyes particular- are a hoot. The end papers, simple but with a crucial changeover from black and white vertical bars to the same with red bow tie shapes say a lot more than far busier designs. The cream colored dust jacket cover with red tree and first encounter of man and skunk, and the inside hard cover may be the most exquisite of the year in that department. In the end this gorgeously illustrated and designed book would delight both Eugene Ionesco and Italian neo-realist Vittorio DeSica with its seamless blend of absurdity with some heartfelt repercussions.
The Caledecott committee would be committing a grievous mistake by overlooking The Skunk.
Note: This is the thirty-eighth and final review in the 2015 Caldecott Contender series that has been published at this site since late October. The books that have be examined are not necessarily ones that are bonafide contenders in the eyes of the voting committee, but rather the ones this writer feels should be. The order they have been presented is arbitrary as some of my absolute favorites were published near the end.