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The Skunk is a book I’ve been wanting for ages but I had no idea that I was.
I’m going to spoil this podcast interview for you, and you should still listen to it anyway, but when asked where he got the idea for this book, Mac said it was a writing prompt on an old poster in a school library:
A skunk won’t stop following you.
A fun thing is knowing Mac, and hearing his booming and contagious laugh, and picturing his long, lean self hunched over a desk with eight-year-olds hunched over their desks, writing about a skunk who won’t stop following you. I think Mac would love that too, because there’s a thing that resonates in all of his work for kids, which is a true and uncanny understanding of kid-ness, and a willingness to give them stories that grownups can’t observe in their own natural habitats.
(Sidenote: I wrote a whole thing about this recently, about honesty as a necessary thing in picture book writing and a necessary part of understanding the audience. Check it out here!)
I’m also going to spoil a big design piece of this book, so if you like to read things untainted, unspoiled, and fresh, bow out now. You’ve been warned!
But: the skunk and his man. A story you didn’t know you were dying for.
Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell didn’t collaborate on this book; rather, in publishing’s traditional sense, Mac did words and Patrick did pictures, and they didn’t speak of it until it was finished. In that same podcast, you’ll hear them speak of what an honor it was to work with lumps of clay the other had thrown down.
That, of course, is the very nature of a picture book. The text is incomplete without pictures; both parts are needed for the dance. 100
Here’s how I read a book.
First the endpapers.
Then the case cover. (Have I told you how angry my students get when a book does not have a secret underneath?! Also, see Travis Jonker’slatest post on this for more. A treat for sure.)
And the title page.
This is so interesting to me, this differently styled skunk here. His etched-ness gives me pause, and is a little bit dizzying. Because here’s the thing: this small moment gives the whole story true plausibility. This skunk, this real skunk, did all of the things in this book. But I’m seeing it through an artist’s lens who might have represented it in a way that I can understand, that I can see.
The color palette here is a smart choice. It maintains this noir experience, but also serves to connect the duo physically: the skunk’s red nose, the man’s red bowtie. The skunk’s black and white tail, the man’s tuxedo tails. (Both of those with a flip and a flourish.)
There is no other color, save for a muted peach, a brightness in the shadows.
Soon, the man understands what’s really happening. His eyes speak fear.
This standoff is one of my favorite parts. The offerings here–an apple, a saucer of milk, a pocket watch–are of no interest to a skunk. But it’s a moment of connection, the first time the man has turned to face his follower. That’s some bravery.
Then things get dire and the pace quickens, and if you haven’t felt it by now, we’re talking some serious Twilight Zone stuff.
This man moves to a different part of the city, buys new things, and perhaps breathes a bit easier.
The man misses the skunk, because things like that worm and weasel and skunk their way into your routine, and all of a sudden, the missing it part is very real.
And here’s what else you probably noticed. The color!
Without the skunk, in a new house, with new things, the man is different. Transformed? Suddenly aware? What’s happening?
As he searches for his skunk, the colors mute. The world returns to whatever that normal was before.
And the endpapers again. Bookends, that duo.
There’s a thing that happens with books when your eyebrow wrinkles and you’re not quite sure where you are anymore. Those are the best kinds of stories–the honest and the daring ones and the ones that make you look at your own world with a mix of wonder and skepticism.
Thanks to Mary Van Akin at Macmillan for the images!
“The Caldecott Medal was named in honor of nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott. It is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.” ~ALSC
by Patrick McDonnell
Little Brown 2011
A picture book biography that's more picture book than biography. And that's not a bad thing.
A little girl named Jane is given a stuffed chimpanzee which she names Jubilee. She treasure Jubilee and takes him with her wherever her boundless curiosity leads. Together they climb trees and observe chickens and take a full interest in all the natural
As picture book biographies go, this is one of the more irreverent ones. What did you make of it?
What about the visual mix: McDonnell’s cartoon-style art, vintage stamps, Goodall’s childhood drawings, and photos? The year this was published, we had lots of discussion pro and con about the final photograph and the book’s editor actually responded in one of the comments. You can read that post here.
Would you share this book with children? What ages? I’d also love to hear from anyone who HAS shared this book.
Pity the picture book biographer. Theirs is not an easy lot. Seems to me that if you want to introduce a six-year-old to a famous person there are two ways of going about it. The first way is the David Adler method. He’s the fellow behind all those “A Picture Book of” books. Adler’s specialty is synthesizing a person into 32 or 40 odd pages. Along the way he has to boil down a human life into as pure and simple a telling as possible. Sometimes this method works well, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it used to be the only way of creating children’s biographies. Then there’s method #2: You take your subject and select just a moment from their life. Which is to say, you give them breadth and depth and meaning, then do the whole summary of who they actually were in the Endnotes. The advantage to this method is that you can actually explain a concept to a kid, by making the biographical subject into a kind of literary character. Biographies of famous people that limit their focus almost entirely to their subjects’ childhoods are actually kind of rare. Famous people do not necessarily arise out of interesting, cheerful childhoods, after all. So really, one of the many things that I admire about Patrick McDonnell’s first foray into non-fiction is that his subject, Jane Goodall, presents him with early years that were practically custom made to be relayed. The result, Me . . . Jane is the rare picture book biography that manages to please biography fans, fiction fans, and chimpanzee fans (albeit, stuffed) alike.
Young Jane noticed things. Outdoorsy things. With her stuffed chimp Jubilee at her side, there were lots of mysteries to notice too. Jane was the type to climb tall trees on sunny days, or to hide in the chicken coop to uncover the source of eggs. When she read her Tarzan she’d want to be in Africa with all the animals just like him. And when she got older, her dreams really did come true. Backmatter include a short section “About Jane Goodall” and a “A Message from Jane” herself.
Odds are that McDonnell’s a familiar name on the comics page of your local newspaper. Known primarily as the man behind the MUTTS comic strip, I think it’s fair to say that McDonnell wasn’t the obvious person to write this book. I say that, even though I’m aware that animal rights are his passion. We’re talking about a guy that’s a member of the Humane Society’s board of directors and who has used MUTTS as a way of drawing attention to everything from The Wildlife Land Trust to New Jersey’s animal population control fund. However, I have seen his previous picture books. They have names like Just Like Heaven and Hug Time and for my desiccated, not to say sardonic, heart and soul they do nothing for me. Animal cuteness is not one of my weaknesses. So when I discovered that McDonnell was tackling a real person and a real life I approached the idea with more than a mite bit of trepidation. Jane Goodall, let’s face it, would be easy to cutesy up (all the more so when you learn about her life). Though it was his idea in the first place, was McDonnell the right guy to tell her tale? Answer: Yup. This isn’t to say that I wouldn’t like to see her life de
Earth Day is coming up on this Friday, April 22, and it’s the perfect time to celebrate the natural world with Me…Jane! This inspiring portrait of the young girl who grew up to become groundbreaking primatologist and environmentalist Dr. Jane Goodall is beautifully rendered by New York Times bestselling author and illustrator Patrick McDonnell.As Booklist raves in their starred review: “This remarkable picture book is one of the few that speaks, in a meaningful way, to all ages.”
Take a look at the book's website where you can listen to an interview with Patrick about creating Me…Jane, send E-cards, download fun activity sheets, and find out how kids can enter the Go Ahead and Dream! Drawing Contest.
Oh, wow. Just . . . wow. Some of you may already be aware of the Boogie Woogie blog, run by author/illustrator Aaron Zenz and his three kids. The fact that it may be the best blog out there in which kids participate in the discussion of children’s literature is evidenced by nothing so much as today’s video. I hope you stayed for the credits. This is their contribution to the James Kennedy 9o-Second Newbery Film Festival (to be held in my library in November) and if it doesn’t rock your socks off, nothing will. Failing that, James received some more submissions on his blog the other day, including this magnificent take on The Witch of Blackbird Pond from Mrs. Mrs. Powell’s 5th grade class at Laurelhurst School in Portland Oregon.
Remember, folks, to get you kids’ classes involved! Have them make a video of their own and submit! I admit that the bar is high, but there’s a lot of great stuff going down. We’d love more submissions. Keep ‘em coming!!!
Speaking of contests, I was tipped off about this fantastic video contest the Ottawa Public Library held for its teens. The Teen Tech Video Contest may sound like it’s YA fare, but many of the videos submitted were definitely of children’s books. And of the children’s books they covered, my favorite (hands down) was this take on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:
It came it second to The Outsiders which, this being Ottawa, says that they are on the “outside” of society in a delightfully Canadian way. Be sure to check out some of the other videos going on there. These Ottawa teens have some mad talent. Big time thanks to Jane Venus for bringing these to my attention.
Picture book trailer time. I think the genius behind this take on the Katie Davis book Kindergarten Rocks is the first child featured here. Methinks the the child doth protest too much. In any case, if your cute kid quotient is low for the day, here is the perfect cure:
So let’s get a grasp on what exactly it is I’m talking about here. Day of Dialog. A day when School Library Journal and roughly 1.5 billion children’s book publishers (read: 16, give or take) get together and attendees (who are mostly children’s librarians and children’s booksellers) get to witness a variety of interesting panels and previews of upcoming children’s books for the Fall season. It tends to be held on the Monday before BookExpo so that it doesn’t conflict with anything going on at that time. And since my library was closed that day for it’s big time Centennial celebration, I thought to myself, “Why not go? I could report on what went on and have some fun along the way.”
Of course I had forgotten that I would be typing all that occurred on Dead-Eye the Wonder Laptop: Capable of carrying at least two hours of charge in its battery . . . and then dying altogether. So it was that I spent much of the day seeking out outlets and either parking myself next to them or watching my charging laptop warily across a crowded room. Hi-ho the glamorous life.
Day of Dialog is useful in other ways as well. It means getting galleys you might otherwise not have access to. It means sitting in a nice auditorium with a belly full of muffin. Interestingly the only problem with sitting in the audience when you are pretty much nine months pregnant (aside from the whole theoretical “lap” part of “laptop computer”) is that you start eyeing the panelists’ water bottles with great envy. I brought my own, quickly went through it, and then found myself wondering at strategic points of the day and with great seriousness “If I snuck onto the stage between speakers, do you think anyone would notice if I downed the remains of Meghan McCarthy’s bottled water?” I wish I could say I was joking about this.
Brian Kenney, me boss o’ me blog and editor of SLJ, started us off with a greeting. He noted that he had placed himself in charge of keeping everything on track and on schedule. This seemed like a hazardous job because much of the day was dedicated to previews of upcoming books, and there is no good way to gently usher a sponsor off of a stage. Nonetheless, Brian came equipped with a small bell. Throughout the day that little bell managed to have a near Pavlovian influence on the panelists. Only, rather than make them drool, it caused them to get this look of abject fear that only comes when you face the terror of the unknown. For some of them, anyway. Others didn’t give a flying hoot.
Luann Toth came after Brian to introduce our keynote speaker though, as she pointed out, “Does anyone really need to introduce Katherine Paterson?” Point taken. Now upon entering the auditorium this day, each attendee had been handed a signed copy of a new novel by Ms. Paterson and her h
Used to be that a kid who “didn’t like to read” could be found perusing the newspaper every Sunday for the colored comic pages come rain or shine. Now thanks to a host of different factors the comics page is no longer the go to place for kids to get their comic fixes. That honor now belongs to the world of webcomics, where kids can find all their favorite funnies in one easy-to-locate spot. The golden age of the funny pages has passed, but comics will always be there for kids in one format or another.
Thinking about all of this got me to considering those comic strips souls who over the years have tried their hands at picture books. Though I would have thought the transition from one to another would be intuitive, oddly few folks have ever gone for it. So out of curiosity I thought I might try to round up those cartoonists who have made bold stabs at also conquering the world of small fry book publishing to (as you shall see) various degrees of success.
Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County, Outland, Opus)
Of all the author/illustrators on this list, Breathed seems the most dedicated to trying a wide variety of children’s fare. Rather than limit himself to picture books, he has also gone so far as to pen the occasional novel for kids as well (Flawed Dogs). The problem is . . . well . . . doggone it, I love the man. I do. I consider early Bloom County to be a stroke of genius that twisted my young reader self in the perverse woman I am today. But the simple fact of the matter is that he’s not particularly good at children’s books. There are far worse writers than him out there. Of course there are. But when all is said and done his books don’t wind up on that many Best of the Year lists for a very good reason. Even when they’re turned into films (Mars Needs Moms) they flop. Though, to be fair, Hollywood credited that flop to the fact that folks don’t want to see films with the word “Mars” in the title.
Lynn Johnston (For Better or For Worse)
There are two ways for a cartoonist to make a picture book. The first is to come up with original ideas and characters. The second is to take already existing beloved characters and just give them more space. Breathed has done both (his characters from his strips have appeared in the books Goodnight, Opus, The Last Bassalope, and A Wish for Wings That Work). Johnston, to the best of my knowledge, has only written one picture book so far called Farley Follows His Nose. Starring characters from For Better or For Worse it’s actually not half bad. Were it not for its prominent creator, of course, the book would not stand out in any particular way, but it’s a nice extension of her talents.
Mutts by Patrick McDonnell is one of the best comics strips of the modern era. McDonnell’s love of classic comic strips, comic book artists and animation history is obvious – and homages to the medium’s past are a regular part of the fun. Couldn’t resist posting today’s nod to Winsor McCay:
Nursery rhymes. What’s up with that? (I feel like a stand up comedian when I put it that way). They’re ubiquitous but nonsensical. Culturally relevant but often of unknown origins. Children’s literary scholar Leonard Marcus ponders the amazing shelf life of nursery rhymes himself and comes up with some answers. Why is it that they last as long as they do in the public consciousness? Marcus speculates that “the old-chestnut rhymes that beguile in part by sounding so emphatically clear about themselves while in fact leaving almost everything to our imagination” leave themselves open to interpretation. And who better to do a little interpreting than cartoonists? Including as many variegated styles as could be conceivably collected in a single 128-page book, editor Chris Duffy plucks from the cream of the children’s graphic novel crop (and beyond!) to create a collection so packed with detail and delight that you’ll find yourself flipping to the beginning to read it all over again after you’re done. Mind you, I wouldn’t go handing this to a three-year-old any time soon, but for a certain kind of child, this crazy little concoction is going to just the right bit of weirdness they require.
Fifty artists are handed a nursery rhyme apiece. The goal? Illustrate said poem. Give it a bit of flair. Put in a plot if you have to. So it is that a breed of all new comics, those of the nursery ilk, fill this book. Here at last you can see David Macaulay bring his architectural genius to “London Bridge is Falling Down” or Roz Chast give “There Was a Crooked Man” a positive spin. Leonard Marcus offers an introduction giving credence to this all new coming together of text and image while in the back of the book editor Chris Duffy discusses the rhymes’ history and meaning. And as he says in the end, “We’re just letting history take its course.”
In the interest of public scrutiny, the complete list of artists on this book consists of Nick Abadzis, Andrew Arnold, Kate Beaton, Vera Brosgol, Nick Bruel, Scott Campbell, Lilli Carre, Roz Chast, JP Coovert, Jordan Crane, Rebecca Dart, Eleanor Davis, Vanessa Davis, Theo Ellsworth, Matt Forsythe, Jules Feiffer, Bob Flynn, Alexis Frederick-Frost, Ben Hatke, Gilbert Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, Lucy Knisley, David Macaulay, Mark Martin, Patrick McDonnell, Mike Mignola, Tony Millionaire, Tao Nyeu, George O’Connor, Mo Oh, Eric Orchard, Laura Park, Cyril Pedrosa, Lark Pien, Aaron Renier, Dave Roman, Marc Rosenthal, Stan Sakai, Richard Sala, Mark Siegel, James Sturm, Raina Telgemeier, Craig Thompson, Richard Thompson, Sara Varon, Jen Wang, Drew Weing, Gahan Wilson, Gene Luen Yang, and Stephanie Yue (whew!). And as with any collection, some of the inclusions are going to be stronger than others. Generally speaking if fifty people do something, some of them are going to have a better grasp on the process than others. That said, only a few of these versions didn’t do it for me. At worst the versions were mediocre. At best they went in a new direction with their mat
Publisher’s synopsis: When he wakes up one morning to find that his home tree is changing, the little squirrel is scared! Why are all the leaves falling off?
Quickly he corrals his sister and they gather up the leaves in colorful pawfuls. But try as they may to stick them back on the branches, it’s hopeless: Yellow, orange, red, and brown, all the leaves keep falling down!
It’s only when their wise mama explains what happens in autumn that the two little squirrels understand the seasons are changing. Green leaves will sprout anew in spring!
The Chicken House | August 1, 2009 | Ages 4-8 | 32 pages
Publisher’s synopsis: When a little bird awakens to find that all of his friends and family have gone south for the winter, it takes a surprising friendship with Mooch the cat to help him find his way. This is a wordless and profoundly moving story–by the creator of the beloved comic strip Mutts–that explores being lost and found, crossing boundaries, saying goodbye, and broadening horizons.
Little, Brown Young Readers | September 1, 2008 | Ages 4-8 | 48 pages