Encores for Skunk, Badger, and Young Foxes: Will a sequel win the Newbery?
The “sequels” question comes up every year on Heavy Medal, and I assume it must be looked at by every real Committee. For me, it usually hits two ways. There’s the procedural element (does it stand up to the Newbery Terms and Criteria?) and the personal side (do my expectations affect my evaluation?)
I usually feel okay about the Criteria side. These state that the committee must only consider “books of the specified calendar year.” I take that to mean that we need to find excellence (or lack of excellence) in the current year’s book, and that it must exist for readers whether or not they’ve read the previous book. We’ve discussed several sequels already this year, including titles by Gary Schmidt, Kevin Henkes, and Kate Mitford. I recently read a couple of others that I’ve been really looking forward to based on the excellence of their predecessors:
EGGS MARKS THE SPOT by Amy Timberlake
Readers of SKUNK AND BADGER might appreciate the “delineation of character” in EGGS MARKS THE SPOT just a bit sooner than those who haven’t met the duo before, but that’s it. We don’t need to know how the two housemates met to quickly grasp their unique and engaging personas. It comes through in the first chapter, with Badger’s endearing, but kind of obsessive devotion to “Important Rock Work” and Skunk’s scatter-y enthusiasm for all sorts of things and animals.
The distinct style is apparent from the start. Though the book is short and illustrated, vocabulary and sentence structure are miles beyond that of books like BILLY MILLER and HARRY’S FIRST 100 DAYS. Along with the language, Timberlake has creative ways of rendering a scene, like when the friends leave on their trip, with Skunk so dwarfed by his giant yellow backpack (“paw crafted and paw-sewn by the badger geniuses at SunSett Adventures” (25)) that Badger only sees the backpack in motion:
The yellow backpack made the right and moved steadily forward.
Trudge. Trudge. Trudge.
Two yard sheep, chewing in circles, watched the yellow backpack pass and then stared at Badger as he raced after it.
“Staring is rude,” Badger hissed.
“Blaaaa,” said a yard sheep unblinkingly.
Beside the yellow backpack, Badger said, “I’ve got the map. I’ll lead, all right?”
Skunk’s voice floated up. “Okay.”p 38-39
Development of a plot is unconventional The first half is all about the delightful quirkiness of the characters. Once they discover the dinosaur egg, though (p 75), it shifts towards action and even suspense. Here’s where I slip back to my memories of the first book. In that case, I thought the lack of forward motion and conflict made the book ultimately less engaging than some others. Here, though, we’ve got a villainous fisher, a gang of unionized rats, a dinosaur, and…action!:
Rope in paw, the first rat crept toward the dinosaur.
And then, in a movement so fast Badger wasn’t sure he saw it, the dinosaur pinned the rope with the toenail on its upturned toe and slurped up the rat.p 96
I think the shift from characterization works well. It’s interesting to see the reactions of Skunk and Badger to real peril, compared to minor dramas of rock hunts and backpacks. And Fisher filled the villain’s role just right; I found him more interesting, for instance, than the standard fantasy bad guys in THE BEATRYCE PROPHECY or the western bad guys in PONY.
I have no sequel concerns with this one. Audience may be a question. In a comment on a different post, Leonard posted: “I strongly feel it’s for older readers (like 47 year olds).” I looked at two published reviews: one put the age level at graders 2-4 (age 7-9 or so) while the other was ages 8-12. I actually think both could be true: for 7-9 year olds as a read-aloud and 8-12 might be right for independent readers. It’s not for every reader, but I think it will resonate with some kids, and not just the 47+ crowd.
SCARY STORIES FOR YOUNG FOXES: THE CITY by Christian McKay Heidicker
I was very pleased when the first book was named a Newbery Honor book in 2020. It didn’t seem to need a sequel, but this one is built around a clever premise, where the young protagonists know the heroes of the first book only through stories handed down through generations.
The first seven chapters (“The White Barn” section) are terrific. If you read the first book, it’s fascinating to learn that the stories of Mia and Uly, which we know as inspirational tales of fox courage and adventuresomeness, are now being used as cautionary tales to keep young foxes content and uncurious about their comfortable, but secretly perilous existence. This adds a heightened intensity as 0-370 (later “Oleo”) discovers the terrible truth. The stories still help to steel his courage for his quest, though:
When Mia and Uly had first entered the wilderness, they’d had their mothers’ lessons to guide them. But 0-370’s mom had never taught him anything beyond the lies of what happened in the White Barn. She had never imagined he’d need more than that.
0-370 stared deeper into the wood. He still had Mia’s and Uly’s stories. And knew that if he stayed where he was, something would find him.
0-370 took his first step toward the unknown.p 23 (ebook version)
Readers that missed the first book discover how those old stories were misused at a later stage, when 0-370 meets the other foxes and we learn how they view the Mia and Uly stories. Both ways work, and both play a part in the development of plot and interpretation of theme. So again, I don’t see any sequel barriers for this book in terms of Newbery consideration.
This time, though, I did have to try to set aside my personal expectations for this second book. I remember the expert pacing of the first one, with the careful mixture of stories and interludes, and missed that effortless quality here. In Newbery evaluation, I can’t make that comparison, so instead I try to examine the plot and style in the second book only. It doesn’t matter if it’s distinguished in the same manner the first one did, just that it’s distinguished, specifically in comparison to this year’s eligible titles.
Sequel aside, the book was mostly built around several action-packed scenes and they weren’t all engaging to me.. The way the author sticks to the fox-eye view is nicely done, but at times I had to work too hard to interpret what was going on. Suspenseful scenes were somehow less gripping than they should have been. The moment when Cozy tries to climb to the roof of the cage (280-283) is one example. It feels a little more like a movie scene description; the action-movie dialogue (“You got this, Coze!”) adds to that a bit too. I wasn’t always exactly sure what was going on in the action-packed moments of PONY or THE RACONTEUR’S COMMONPLACE BOOK, but I remained completely involved in the world of those books, and that wasn’t always true with this one. This is still a terrific book, with high levels of suspense that exceed even a straight horror novel like DEEP WATERS, and it’s one I’ll definitely recommend to kids, even if the first book isn’t on hand. But not quite at the nomination level for me.
I just started another fox sequel (PAX, JOURNEY HOME) and hope to soon get my hands on Sharon Draper’s follow-up to 2010’s OUT OF MY MIND. OUT OF MY HEART was just published on November 7th. Please share thoughts below on sequels, foxes, and whether or not the second Skunk and Badger book has any chance at this award, or is it just me…?
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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