Amy Timberlake, who won a Newbery Honor for One Came Home, introduces a pair of unlikely animal roommates in her latest book, Skunk and Badger, a middle grade novel illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen. In this series launch, curmudgeonly Badger is irate when perky Skunk arrives, suitcase in hand, at the brownstone where he lives alone and delights in his solitude and quiet life, which centers on his beloved rock collection. As Timberlake’s anecdotal story unfolds, the odd couple learns to accept change and to accommodate and appreciate the quirks of the other. PW spoke with the author about the genesis and writing of Skunk and Badger, which has picked up three starred reviews, including one from PW.
You have written two realistic novels, One Came Home and That Girl Lucy Moon, as well as a picture book, The Dirty Cowboy, so writing an animal tale takes you in a new direction. What inspired this creative venture?
I was actually working on a different book project, not exactly a follow-up to One Came Home, but a story that is attached to it, when I first thought about doing an animal story. I basically got stuck on the novel I was working on and realized I was writing in circles. I started re-reading classic animal stories, like Paddington and Beatrix Potter tales, and—in particular—the Winnie the Pooh books, which I hadn’t read in a long time. It struck me that these stories are so beautifully crafted, with so many little nuggets, and the idea began playing in my mind, “What would happen if I wrote that kind of episodic animal story that would be read aloud?” My parents read those books to me before bed when I was growing up, and I decided that was the kind of story I wanted to write next, and that I was going to give it a try, and have a good time with it!
Did the characters of Skunk and Badger—and the storyline about their unlikely friendship—come to you easily?
You know, it’s kind of difficult to remember how the characters came to me, but I would say that the way I tend to do things is let characters play in my head for quite a while before I eventually try putting something on the page—it’s a long thought process. Skunk and Badger had a couple of earlier versions—they certainly did not come to me fully formed.
Is there any significance to your choice of species?
Well, I love words, and I find the word “skunk” really funny. With the second and last letters both being “k,” when you say it out loud, it sounds like you have a cold. And when you say “badger,” to me it sounds like you’re digging a trench with the word. Also, I love black-and-white animals, and I love stripes, which is something I realized recently looking around my house!
Once you landed on the identities of the characters, did you find their voices quickly?
When I write a story, I’m always interested to discover how many layers of voice there are in it. Each character has a different voice, but there is also the voice of the story itself—how it is told. When I find the voice and shape of the story, the pieces come together, and the characters are able to appear. With Skunk and Badger, I was also thinking about my memories of the movie, The Odd Couple, and about the importance, when bringing very different characters together, of making them as opposite as possible, so that readers think, “Oh dear, this is not going to work out!” That became my space for playing with the structure and voices of this story.
Though your novel’s themes of tolerance, accepting differences, and learning to get along against great odds seem especially resonant today, is it correct to assume that you completed the story prior to 2020’s violent events?
That’s interesting. Yeah, Skunk and Badger does have a seriousness running through it. I actually was reading about the Syrian refugee crisis when I began to work on the novel. Though this story has a lot of lightness and play in it, the horror I felt at what I was reading in the news definitely worked its way into the story. Once I introduced the conflict between the characters, I knew I had a mess on my hands. How are these two creatures going to come together now? It seemed improbable. Anyway, I knew they had to resolve this in a way that felt believable to me. Eventually, Badger makes a sacrifice that enables Skunk to choose Badger as a roommate. When I found that resolution, I thought, “Okay.”
Were you pleased to learn that Jon Klassen signed on to illustrate Skunk and Badger—and was the art he created in line with your vision of the characters and setting?
The first thing my agent, Steve Malk, did when I sent him the first two chapters of the manuscript was show it to Jon, whom he also represents, and I was so happy when he said he was interested. I knew his work was going to be fabulous—that his pictures would be funny and his timing would be perfect. And when Elise Howard, my editor at Algonquin, emailed me the first illustration Jon submitted—a picture of Badger, bent over the table in his rock room—I literally screamed. I called Elise, and said, “There he is—this is exactly how Badger looks!” Jon was spot-on.
Did you initially envision that Skunk and Badger’s story would extend beyond the first book?
I began writing the book not knowing if Steve would like it or would tell me I should return to the novel I had been working on. But when he saw the early chapters, he liked them a lot, and suggested that I continue the story. When it came time to sell the project, he told me that publishers were likely to want more than a single book—and asked me if I had any more story ideas for the characters. Right away, I said, “Yes—I do!” I’ve never before had a book character I wanted to keep telling stories about but, perhaps because the Winnie the Pooh connection was always part of my thinking, I could easily imagine Skunk and Badger’s episodic stories continuing. So, when I finished the first, I immediately started the second book, Egg Marks the Spot!, which will come out in September 2021.
Was it rewarding to revisit these characters’ world?
Oh, it was awesome! After I had set up the characters of Skunk and Badger in the first book and got them settled into the brownstone successfully, I could make other things happen to them, and there are so many surprises and crazy happenings in the second book! I cannot wait for Jon to see it. I have only had my words illustrated once before, when Adam Rex was the illustrator of The Dirty Cowboy. I’ve been really lucky—I mean, Adam Rex and Jon Klassen? Come on! With both illustrators, it is so easy to say, “Okay, here it is. The ball is in your court—do whatever you want!” I cannot wait to see what Jon does. I know whatever he chooses to do will be amazing and fun.
Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake, illus. by Jon Klassen. Algonquin, $18.95 Sept. 15 ISBN 978-1-64375-005-7