Skunk on a String, by Thao Lam; Owl Kids Books, $18.95, 40 pages, ages 2-6.
This wordless picture book about a high-flying skunk is a surprisingly adorable tale about overcoming adversity and prejudice. Young readers will adore following the hapless critter as he tries to enlist Good Samaritans to untie him from the tail of a balloon. Instead, he’s shoved away–he is a skunk, after all–and he floats above a parade, over a zoo, and even under water. Eventually, the skunk is released from his aerial bondage, only to realize he rather enjoyed the high life. Thao Lam’s charming paper collage art in a dizzying array of spots, stripes, and polka dots evoke a bustling cityscape. (Readers may recognize Lam’s art from Cricket and Highlights magazines, where she’s a regular contributor.) Skunk on a String is a subtle riff on the old adage, “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” without uttering a word.
In part one of my Q&A with children’s book author Jim Arnosky, we explored how he got his start in picture books as well as how he became a naturalist. Today, he shares his transition from cartooning to illustrating,
the importance of great editors, and how his books take shape.
Basbanes: What made you decide to go the children’s book route?
Arnosky: Well,on the first day of each month, Deanna and I mailed out drawings to see if I could get some freelance work, and the first publications that responded were Ranger Rick and Jack and Jill. These seemed to be where people responded to my work most. When I saw an advertisement for Cricket magazine I thought, ‘Whoa! that’s beautiful! I love that cover!’ It was [Caldecott Medal winner] Trina Schart Hyman who had done the cover.
It turned out she was the art director at the time, and I sent her some drawings. She didn’t like them at all. She said, ‘This is not what we want. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of what we’re looking for. It’s all too Madison Avenue.’ My drawings were indeed very ‘Madison Avenue,’ because they were advertisements, but I wrote her back and said, ‘We live in a one-room cabin, we take a bath in a small galvanized tub. I catch our food, we grow our food and I heat the house with the wood that I cut on our property. I’m as far away from Madison Avenue as you can get.’ She responded by sending me a another letter, asking me to send something that better represented me. So I sent her my journal drawings, and she responded by giving me a Farley Mowat story to illustrate. After that I became kind of a regular at Cricket.
B: How wonderful when an editor sees talent and reaches out and says this isn’t what they want, but encourages you nonetheless.
A: Well, back in that time—and I’m sure that it still happens somewhere today, but not with me because I’m so old and I’ve been at it so long—people would say they recognize raw talent and if you were willing to hear some criticism and accept guidance, they would mentor you along. They would help you. and they would help you. Trina would write and say that I couldn’t draw hands very well and that I should work on that. That was enormous for someone like me who never had a single formal art lesson. I always drew from my natural ability and for Trina to – as such a skilled artist as she was—to show that interest in me was a godsend. I loved her. It turns out we lived pretty close to one another I visited her at her home here in Lyme, all the way up until she passed away [in 2014]. I used to bring her trout, so she could have fresh fish to eat.
B: What a powerful relationship.
J: Yes. Our daughters were friends, and we ended up living fairly close here—I was in Vermont, she was in New Hampshire.
B: Your work speaks to children and to adults. While they’re realistic, they’re obviously not photographs. They show this love and appreciation of the natural world. It was wonderful that Trina saw that you had such talent. You said writing wasn’t something you ever thought you would do, but now you do a lot of it. What is your work process now? How do you start a new book?
J: Ideas come to me in bits and pieces and over the course of many years. It took me seven years to write Pirates of Crocodile Swamp, and almost eighteen years to write Frozen Wild, which is out now making the rounds. These things are always based on true events, things I’ve seen and things that I know about. Still, they are fictionalized stories. Whereas with the nonfiction books, I normally become fascinated with something, or fall in love with a place, or an environment, like the Florida Keys, for instance, or the Everglades, and then after four to five years of visiting the place, photographing, sketching, and writing in my journal, usually I get some idea of what I might be able to do in a book. The pictures always come to me first. As the drawings take shape on my board I’m always fascinated by them being there, because, like I said, have no training in this, and I believe it’s some sort of gift that I am able to make a picture. Sometimes I’ll walk by my drawing board during the course of that day, and I just stare at it wondering where it comes from. Then the picture itself inspires me to write the words, and that’s when the words come.
B: Could you talk about Manatee Morning?
J: I tell this story in schools a lot. We went to Florida because I wanted to see manatees in a
wild environment. Deanna and I searched and searched, and we couldn’t
find any. We kept going further
south into Florida and finally we found manatees down in Chokoloskee in
the Everglades. I had seen them at Sea
World, and the state park where you can go under the river in a tunnel and see them in the wild, but you’re sort of in a zoo-like
environment. I wanted to see them in the true wild. When
that occurred, it was very happy experience for me, and I came home and I
first wrote a song about them because I had always written songs
long before I wrote books. I wrote a song called “The Manatee Morning,” which inspired the book. This was the first time I ever left rhymes in my text for a
book. (A number of books were written first as songs, but I took
the rhyme out in order to qualify it in my mind as picture book
text.) I did the book
exactly the way the song was written—to the words of the song. And it
captures the animals beautifully because the music is very gentle, and
the wording is very careful and gentle, and it captures what I think
manatees represent when you see them in the wild.
B: Since that book
has been published, [in 2000] have you noticed the book being used to promote manatee awareness? Do you find your books being used to educate children on the
importance of these and other animals in the wild?
A: I’ve done two more
books on manatees in that regard. I did one called All About
Manatees (2008) for Scholastic which was more of a science book, which gets
into their needs and how they what they eat and how they live. Then
there was a picture book called Slow Down for Manatees (2010) about a
particular rescue effort where a manatee gets hit
by a boat. It goes to a sea park in Miami where they take the animal in and they bring it back to health. In this case, the scientists discovered the manatee was pregnant after they
had rescued this wounded manatee. I wondered whether they would keep the calf as a money maker once it was born, because
everybody wants to go to the zoo and see a baby manatee. Or would they
do the right thing, and that would be to let it go with its mother. Happily they were both released. I wrote this
little story that reflected that event.
get interested in an animal, it’s never
scientific at first, it’s just a pure love, fascination,
and joy that an animal brings me. Once I get to know the animal and
see it and watch it and study it, then it becomes more of a subject of curiosity. That’s when the science and animal
welfare comes into it. That’s how the story usually builds
in my mind.
Next time, we talk about Arnosky’s favorite animals, climate change, and what’s on his drawing board now.