Man’s Search for Meaning— A Review of Mac Barnett’s The Skunk – Reviewed by Caroline Molnar
One of the great joys of reading picture books as an adult is over-analyzing their meaning and looking deeply at the author’s message and intent. In The Skunk, by Mac Barnett, the questions abound as a man is relentlessly pursued by a solemn, determined wisp of an animal. Throughout the city, the opera, taxicabs, the ferris wheel; there is no escape. The Skunk remains mere steps away. The chase becomes exhilarating and the desperation to escape palpable. The suspense builds beautifully and is never scary or overwrought. Accompanied by Patrick McDonnell’s expert illustrations; which are as precise as the words, the skunk and his counterpart are painted in black and white and red. The man and the skunk appear as mirrors to each other— the skunk with his red nose and the man with his red tie. The stark black and white scenes punctuated by bits of red— an apple, a lady’s earrings, and so forth. Only when there is a gasp and a twist in plot does the color bloom briefly on the pages as blue and yellow are added to the palette.
Barnett quietly mocks our love hate relationships with attention and recognition. We want it until it’s gone and then we desperately want it back again. Little ones will find the premise silly and nonsensical; which makes for a fun, interactive read-aloud full of easy prompts and questions. Adults might read between the lines as Barnett’s figure desperately tries to hide from the skunk he later obsesses over. A comment perhaps on modern celebrity? Sure, fame is nasty and putrid, but what happens when it’s gone? In an increasingly digital world; it is harder to find a balance between being connected and overexposure. In one scene, a yin and yang sign hangs over the man’s bed. For a brief moment, harmony is there and a celebration ensues.
As with Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, Barnett is well versed in creating stories that prompt a thousand questions and supply few answers. Similar to Sam and Dave, readers are left scratching their heads and debating the details of the ending. The Skunk is certainly clever and well-written. The plot expertly drawn-out until a suspenseful climax and then— not what one expects. Those digging for meaning and themes will conclude that it looks at some greater more serious message. Is it about letting go? Curiosity? How our quest for understanding takes us to places we never thought we would be? Part of it’s delight is in the number of directions it can be explored.
An excellent read-aloud for elementary students (the vocabulary is a teacher’s dream— rapt, wharf, gondola) and a thought-provoking premise for teachers and librarians; The Skunk’s true value is that it gets it’s audience to think. It ignites questions and sparks discussion; the conclusions not nearly as important as the ideas. Whether existential crisis or a simple cat and mouse game, The Skunk is something everyone should be talking about.
Caroline Molnar is a K-6 Librarian and Tech Coordinator in Delaware, Ohio. She can be found on Twitter at @halfpastpony.