REVIEW: THE SKUNK, BY MAC BARNETT & PATRICK MCDONNELL

The_Skunk_FCThe Skunk
Written by Mac Barnett
Illustrated by Patrick McDonnell
Published by Roaring Brook Press, May 2015


The Skunk is essentially a kindie version of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, or North by Northwest, by the great Alfred Hitchcock: It’s about a man to whom something is happening, but he doesn’t know why it’s happening, or how to stop it, or even what it is that’s happening, really.

In this case, a man steps out of the door of his house only to find his front step occupied by an anthropomorphized skunk with a red nose. The man carefully inches past the skunk and starts on his way. He notices, however, that he is being followed by the skunk, and sets about trying to lose him: He goes to the opera, he goes to a fair, he takes a taxi, but to no avail; this is one determined mephitid.

Barnett’s text is wonderful; he employs very short sentences, which adds to the tension, and the feeling of a great chase. Like the protagonist of the story, Barnett never lingers long; he stops, makes an observation or two and gets on with it. He tells a story, too, with humor, dramatic strain and details. There’s more text than the average picture book that will come out in 2015 –Not Library Lion more, but more nonetheless…– but every word is necessary and well-chosen, and makes the case for writers writing without unnecessary concern for brevity: If you write well, kids will listen.

Barnett also does a great job of establishing a very specific voice for his character. There are times when I read a picture book and I think to myself, “What must this have been like as a text-only manuscript??? The words are secondary to the images…” The Skunk is not one of those cases; this is a character and narrative that would be just as engaging and fun devoid of illustrations.

For his part, Patrick McDonnell’s drawings are similarly quick and simple. He uses a primarily black, white, and shades-of-red pallet, which explodes into the full range of primary colors when the man loses the skunk finally; the limited color scheme reminds of the classic children’s books, from the day when artists had to be concerned with the number of colors the employed. The quick-sketched feeling of the pictures furthers the chase scenario, in the same way as Barnett’s short sentences. McDonnell does what he does and he does it well; he’s not an artist who –as far as I know– dabbles in styles or reinvents himself, but he plays to his strengths always, and you really can’t argue much against the results: This is a remarkably well-illustrated story.

The Skunk is a fun book, mysterious and disarming. It feels more complex than most, and evokes wonderful memories of watching a certain genre of film I love… Though I can’t help but re-mourn Anthony Perkin’s passing, as he would have made a wonderful Man in the film adaptation.

–J.H.

 

 

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