Written by Mac Barnett, Illustrated by Patrick McDonnell
Roaring Brook Press, 2015
When I left my house there was a skunk on my doorstep.
The plot in a nutshell: A man is stalked by a skunk.
The man steps outside carefully, so he doesn’t frighten the skunk, then he heads down the street. The skunk follows. When the man goes faster, so does the skunk. When he takes crazy turns, so does the skunk. He tries confronting him, but the skunk doesn’t react. He offers the skunk some food and his pocket watch, but the skunk isn’t interested. He jumps into a taxi, but the skunk takes the next available one and continues to follow. The man goes to the opera and thinks he’s gotten away, but there’s the skunk, sitting on the head of the lady in the next seat. He goes through a cemetery, a carnival and finally crawls into the sewer. He comes up in a different part of town, buys a new house and starts a new life there. He throws a party to celebrate his success, but can’t stop thinking and wondering about the skunk. He goes in search of him and when he finds him, he starts following him to make sure the skunk doesn’t follow him again.
Bookshelf favorite Mac Barnett raises more questions than he answers with this delightfully puzzling picture book. And I should clarify that I mean that as a compliment. I ended up reading through this one several times and enjoying it more each time, especially when I came to the conclusion that Mr. Barnett trusts me to come up with my own interpretations of the characters and their actions. We never learn why the skunk is following the man and somehow, that is absolutely perfect. I would love to share this book with kids and hear their thoughts on it. You can find a lot of existential metaphors in this book and kids are often smarter than we are at taking the undefined and making sense of it.
Kicking things up a notch further, the illustrations are from Patrick McDonnell, another personal favorite. His inimitable style is note perfect here. During the time that the skunk is following our main character, the illustrations are limited to black, white and red, with a few orange accents. When he comes out of the sewer and is living skunk-free, his life bursts into full color, but we return to the limited palette at the end. The man’s red bow tie makes his appearance seem to mirror that of the skunk’s (with his red nose) – are they two halves of a whole somehow? Is the skunk actually real? Why do all the man’s friends in his new life kind of look like clowns? When the man starts stalking the skunk at the end, the skunk looks suspicious, as though he doesn’t recognize the man, which made me wonder (go with me here) if it’s a totally different skunk that he’s now following incorrectly, and if so (go with me further) could the original skunk have been following him incorrectly? All in all, a very provocative book that will probably stay with me for a long while.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that sometimes you don’t realize how accustomed you’ve become to something, even something you find unpleasant, until it’s gone.