2021 Newbery Buzz #3: Skunk and Badger

We’re continuing our annual “Newbery Buzz” series today with round #3 for 2021. (We have already discussed Chirp and King and the Dragonflies earlier this month.) As a reminder, we do not know which books the actual Newbery committee is seriously considering; we discuss books we’ve been hearing lots of “buzz” about in the children’s literature channels and try to determine if the book might have a shot.

Today Betsy and Megan are discussing a great chapter book that Megan enjoyed reading aloud with her boys.

Betsy: Megan, you and I both enjoyed this new chapter book, Skunk and Badger, from Amy Timberlake (and we’re both big fans of her picture book, The Dirty Cowboy!). A chapter book might not appear robust enough to compete for the Newbery, but it’s not the first time a chapter book would get some Newbery attention. Frog and Toad Together won a Newbery Honor in 1973. Picture books have even won before (most recently with Last Stop on Market Street, another book you and I both enjoyed). Another recent winner, The One and Only Ivan, is on a similar reading level as Skunk and Badger.

So, the question isn’t whether a chapter book can win a Newbery. The real question is, is Skunk and Badger, in particular, distinguished enough to win a Newbery? I gave the book a starred review earlier this fall, so obviously I think the book is distinguished at some level. Before we discuss what makes it distinguished, would you give our readers a brief summary of the book?

Megan: Sure. Badger is committed to his Important Rock Work, living in a brownstone provided by Aunt Lula. He is content with his solitary life, eating dry handfuls of cereal when sustenance is absolutely necessary, and is the ultimate introverted bachelor. When Skunk shows up at his door due to Aunt Lula’s extension of kindness, he expects a warm welcome. Unfortunately, Badger doesn’t want a roommate. Timberlake does a marvelous job at developing her characters and making them more compelling than the actual events. How would you describe the differences in their characters, Betsy? 

Betsy: That’s one of the most distinguished features of this book, Megan! Well, that and the way in which Timberlake manages to communicate so much about them with such understated childlike language. Badger’s Important Rock Work (caps required!) is a good indication of his demeanor: rock work is not the most, um, exciting work there is. Badger is content to sit all day peering through his various instruments and attempting to classify one new specimen of rock. He’s carefully arranged his rocks around the room and is content with them as company. Then Skunk arrives, immediately causing a ruckus. Skunk is excited! What a great house! Let’s make breakfast! Where Badger is introverted and un-emotive, Skunk is extroverted and lets it all hang out. No one has to wonder what Skunk is thinking or feeling. In classic odd couple fashion, Skunk and Badger are opposites in nearly every way.

Megan, the odd couple trope is nothing new in children’s literature, particularly in early readers; Frog and Toad are a classic example. What do you think makes Skunk and Badger such a wonderful little book? How do the actual events play into it? 

Megan: This is a great example of how point of view makes such a difference. We see Skunk’s emotions through Badger’s eyes, but we FEEL loss along with Badger. Loss of privacy, dignity, and something he didn’t realize he was missing. Badger is the one who needs to change; it’s like the fulcrum is in a different place to create the balance. 

It’s a book with animal characters, like many other classics that put difficult issues on a child’s level. Can you give some examples of how Timberlake succeeds with this?

Betsy: Sure. One issue that’s front and center is the importance of friendship and the work involved in being friends with someone, with loving someone who’s different from you. After a year like 2020, I think everyone would agree that in person friendship and community and companionship are important! 

But another, more “grown-up” issue that Skunk and Badger introduces is homelessness. Skunk is unwanted, and he needs a home. We might not think of homeless people as “skunks,” but it’s no stretch of the imagination to agree that skunks, as animals, are generally unwanted animals. Even young children know this! So, for Badger to welcome Skunk in and befriend him despite his evident dislike of this new creature… well, this is a great example of children seeing love and service in action. Needy people can be difficult to love: they might smell funny (especially to a child; even a nursing home smells funny to children). They might have weird clothes or wear their hair differently or have a different skin color or talk funny or … The sky’s the limit! Skunk and Badger is a great example of how to push past our own insecurities and preferences in order to serve others and build relationships with them. Well, Megan, does Skunk and Badger have what it takes? Do you think it could get some Newbery love this year?

Megan: I certainly hope so. Timberlake is a talented teller of tales, and this book has all the crafting of character, language, and Story that we love to see.

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