The main characters of Illinois author Amy Timberlake’s charming new book, “Skunk and Badger,” fall into the familiar and beloved genre of odd-couple friends. At 122 pages, it’s like the Frog and Toad series but for the next level of reader. The setting and voice makes “Skunk and Badger” feel like a children’s classic. Illustrator Jon Klassen’s sepia-toned drawings contribute to that effect.
Badger is a solid, slow moving fellow doing “Important Rock Work.” Skunk is more like a used car salesman in the slick, friendly way he has.
These two are not instant friends. In fact, at first Badger, who lives in a brownstone generously lent to him by his Aunt Lula, a pine marten, thinks this annoying Skunk is a door-to-door “sales skunk.” Finally, Badger learns that Aunt Lula has invited Skunk to share the brownstone with Badger … it seems hard for a skunk to find a home.
Since the brownstone is Badger’s aunt’s, and his aunt is letting him live there rent free, Badger must agree to this arrangement. Badger is grudging at first, putting Skunk in the “Special Guest Closet” instead of the spacious upstairs room his aunt suggested.
As someone familiar with the academic life, I especially appreciated Badger. He often refers to needing grant money, space to do his Important Rock Work, and getting his rock discoveries published. Plus, we get to see the tools and instruments he uses to do his work and we even learn a bit about how a rock scientist might identify rocks. I loved this sneaky little lesson in geology and the friendly, fond nod to the life of an academic.
Skunk might be slick, but he is also kind and generous. While Badger subsists on “cold cereal in a cold bowl with cold milk,” Skunk cooks up a nice, hot breakfast every morning and shares it with Badger. Of course, he then reveals the universal rule; “he who cooks does not clean.” Badger is not amused. Skunk is good at making himself at home and it’s not too long before Skunk moves from the “Special Guest Closet” into the big room upstairs where he can see the moon.
In addition to Skunk and Badger, there are several comic elements: first of all there is Badger’s ukulele — a ukulele is always good for a chuckle — and then there are the chickens. Skunk blows his chicken whistle (is that really a thing?) and one hundred chickens of all types appear. This description of the chickens is like poetry:
“The wattles! The combs! The bright red faces! Oblongs, rounds, tiny, and shrub-sized. … There were chickens strolling on stork legs … Chickens wearing bell-bottoms, plumed berets, and flippers, all made of feathers.”
Just like with the sneaky geology lesson, Timberlake introduces the young reader to a marvelous array of chicken types (Blue-Botted Bantam, Silkie, Orloff, Jersey Giant, Ko Shamo, Transylvania Naked-Neck) and we all chuckle at their antics.
Badger thinks his life was much better before Skunk showed up, and Timberlake does a great job showing Badger’s conflicted feelings and not-always-gracious behavior in the face of this upheaval to his normally calm and ordered life. Still, the reader can guess what happens by the end. Also, if you or your young reader is an audiobook fan, the rendition by Michael Boatman is marvelous!
I really appreciate this book because it fills a gap in middle grade books. It is a pretty hefty book for newly independent readers, who need something to read after devouring Frog and Toad, but before embarking on some of the weightier middle grade offerings. Timberlake has an extensive website for the book (amytimberlake.com), including interviews, photographs of the book at various bookstores around the world (you can buy it in German and many other languages), the audiobook link and more.
I would encourage you all to check it out. It is full of fun!!
First published in the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette March 14, 2021