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The Skunk


I admit to being a leeetle unsure of what to make of this one.

In an SLJ interview, author Mac Barnett was less than definitive: “What is The Skunk about? Is it a comedy? A romance? A ghost story? A tale of paranoia? An allegory of trauma?” And the Kirkus review called it “peculiar, perplexing, and persistent — training wheels for Samuel Beckett.” I guess I’d add Ionesco as well (that scene at the opera? “Excuse me, madam, but there seems to be a skunk on your head.” Pure The Bald Soprano).

But we are here to talk about The Skunk as a Caldecott contender, and that’s maybe a little easier. We don’t have to know what it’s about; we just have to look at how the text and pictures interact to tell the story.

I think artist Patrick McDonnell made a wise choice to keep the palette super-simple and not try to add too many visual bells and whistles to this enigmatic story. The one absolutely necessary role of the pictures here is to link man and skunk — fuse them into one — and McDonnell accomplishes that for sure, through color scheme and attire: both figures are starkly black and white with a spot of red (for the skunk, his nose; for the man; his tuxedo’s bowtie); both sport tails, often echoing each other in curl and flip.

On the title page appears a sketch of a realistic-looking skunk, standing on all fours in an implied natural/country setting. For me the contrast between this realistic skunk and the skunk character in the book — who walks on two legs and is a bon vivant urbanite — underscores the surrealism of the story that follows and again helps reinforce the connection between man and skunk.

Plus. The Skunk wins the Wittiest Endpapers of the Year contest, hands down. The opening endpapers are vertical black and white blocks of color. The closing endpapers are exactly the same — with the addition of some red triangles, which immediately transform the black and white blocks of color into … a tuxedo. The whole theme is captured perfectly, and wordlessly.

What do people think of the abrupt change in palette — to bright, cheery primary colors without a hint of the noir that has thus far permeated the book — after the man moves to a new part of the city? I think it would have made more sense thematically to change the palette as soon as he emerges from underground, since once he gets to the new neighborhood he is no longer stalked by the skunk. But I guess that would have stolen the drama from the “when I opened my bedroom door, guess who was waiting there for me?” page-turn…

Thoughts on this droll, perplexing book? (And … are we looking at it? Or is it looking at us? Aaaaaaaaahh!)

Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.



  1. Safranit Molly says:

    I, too, find this book perplexing–thought provoking. Is it a parallel for mental illness? However what makes me think and ponder leaves my 8 and 9 year olds confused. Perhaps with a bit of discussion one of them will make some illuminating observations. I’ll let you know if they do!

    In answer to you question about the shift in color palette, Martha, I think it works with the metaphor of the book. The color comes when the narrator is free of the skunk. When he is living fully and freely with other people. However, when he turns to pursue the skunk again, the color disappears and we’re back to the “noir” palette again. It seems to me a very purposeful and illuminating choice in the illustrations.

  2. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Thank you so much for commenting! Yes, I agree with the REASON for the change in palette. What I was questioning was the TIMING. I was thinking that the man was free of the skunk as soon as he moved to the other neighborhood. And so the palette ought to have changed on the spread where the man is emerging from underground. But, as you say, he might not have FELT free of the skunk until he’d spent time with other people. So perhaps the color change makes sense as it is…

    Something for the Caldecott committee to discuss. Perhaps!

  3. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    And with terrific timing THE SKUNK has been named to the New York Times Best Illustrated list:

  4. Susan Dailey says:

    According to what I could figure out, three of the books on the list wouldn’t be eligible for the Caldecott–“Madame Eiffel,” “Only Child” and “Sidewalk Flowers.” Can anyone confirm this? Four of the books will be or have been discussed on the blog. Has anyone seen the other three titles? They are “Big Bear Little Chair,” “Funny Bones” and “Tiger Who Would Be King.”

  5. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Hi Susan: Yes, those first three books are ineligible for the Caldecott Award due to the nationality of the artists. We had already planned to cover Big Bear Little Chair and Funny Bones. Tiger Who Would Be King is a picture book version of a 1956 Thurber story. If there is a lot of interest in it (and if someone out there would like to volunteer to discuss it, hint hint), we can add it to the list.

  6. Sam Bloom says:

    Late to the discussion, but I think the color palette-change works where it is; I think it *IS* all about that page turn, to answer your question, Martha. Just read this to a preschool group and that page turn just blew them all away: they were SURE the skunk was going to be there. Wish I had the book in front of me so I could comment more.

  7. I think McDonnell’s choice to add in the blue and yellow on that particular page turn is right for the pacing–it makes it an all-the-more dramatic moment. Overall, I’m impressed with the way McDonnell handles the pacing in the book. The text is so understated–almost bored in tone–but McDonnell adds a lot of movement and drama in his compositions.

    I also like the way McDonnell makes what could be a menacing character so stinking adorable. I just love that little skunk.

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