When I was in ninth grade or so I learned that a fellow classmate owned a pet skunk. I joke not. Apparently these things do happen. While not strictly domesticated, it is possible to remove the scent glands from the animal, rendering it relatively harmless (teeth and claws aside). This was a good thing since if you grow up in Michigan you’re pretty much guaranteed to know the stink of the skunk (hopefully not firsthand). I assume that there must be kids in the world who don’t know this particular olfactory pleasure. And skunks, when viewed from a safe distance in a photo or a picture, are rather adorable looking. A Pet for Petunia is sort of made for both those kids who may be a bit unaware of the downside of skunk ownership and those others who are already in on the joke. Kids ask for all kinds of crazy pets. Few requests, however, are quite as uniquely skewed as those that involve animals that can turn you on to the wonders of tomato soup baths. In a field of I-want-a-pet-book A Pet for Petunia stands alone.
To know Petunia is to know her obsessions. And one obsession that Petunia is currently harboring is an overwhelming, almost incalculable desire to own a very particular animal as a pet: a skunk. Boy, she’d just do anything for a skunk. And when her parents tell her in no uncertain terms that this plan will not be happening their answer seems insufficient to her. Skunks stink? Clearly there’s a bit of parental prejudice at work here. After storming out of her house (“naturally Petunia must leave home”) as luck would have it she encounters her very own, one-of-a-kind, skunk! A real one! Yet as the age old adage says, be careful what you wish for. Sometimes you might just get it.
The book is written entirely in the present tense, which I found interesting. At first I wasn’t quite certain why this was. Then I got to the moment when Petunia hears her parents say that skunks stink and launches into an offensive. The book goes from one sentence per page to about twenty-two sentences on a single page. I realized that sentences like “I bet Katie’s parents would get HER a skunk!” what the story sounded like. “A Pet for Petunia” is similar in many ways to the old Mo Willems tale Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. Or, even more on the nose, The Pigeon Wants a Puppy. This means that the book may be perfect for readalouds to large groups of kids. I haven’t tested it out myself but I bet that a creative reader could have a lot of fun not only with Petunia’s somewhat familiar pleas, but also the book’s cute twist at the end.
Because Mr. Schmid is both the author and the illustrator, he’s allowed to have complete creative control over what the text of his picture book says as well as what it shows. So when I first started to read the book and hear Petunia’s pleas, I suffered a very brief moment of confusion. Here you have Petunia, desperately pleading with her parents for a pet skunk while all the time there appears to BE a small purple collared mammal in her possession with a distinctly skunk-like appearance. As you go through the book you come to the realization that this is just a stuffed skunk. It doesn’t seem to have much initial influence over the plot until you get to the end of the book. Then the stuffed pal takes on a great deal of importance. That’s the kind of thing that Schmid the author would have had to have explained to Schmid the illustrator if he’d ended up being two people. As it stands, the stuffed “pet” isn’t even really mentioned in the text directly. It’s useful since it gives Petunia someone to discuss things with aside from her parents, but you could certainly excise it from the narrative if you were to rewrite the book.
It’s also fascinating to think that in this book, Schmid has turned the child reader into the ultimate authority: the parent. Maybe kids reading this book know that skunks stink and maybe they don’t, but the way Schmid has drawn the images he has Petunia plead her little purple heart out to you, the viewer. She’s looking right at you. She’s making her pro-pet pitch to you. And when the parents respond, you don’t see them at all. All that happens is that the page goes entirely purple with a single sentence on it. ” `They stink’, say her parents.” It’s almost as if the reader is telling Petunia this. Kids love being placed in a position of authority and they especially like to deny characters in the same way that they themselves have been denied. Schmid taps into that strange bit of schadenfreude. All power to him.
The use of color is almost entirely inspired (with the exception of one little picture). For the most part you’re dealing with the thickly penciled Petunia in black with her watercolored purple stripes against a pure white background. A little shot of yellow watercolor will highlight some minor detail; A baseball or a flower in a vase. Then comes the moment when the parents inform Petunia in no uncertain terms that skunks stink. All at once her background goes a yellow/brown color so as to best depict her horror at her parents’ prejudices. All this works very well in the context of the book. Then you get to an odd selection when Petunia has finally sniffed a skunk at a relatively close range and has run hell-for-leather back to the safety of her bedroom. Once in the bedroom she discusses the stinkiness of the skunk with her stuffed one, but for some reason Schmid has colored the bedspread yellow in this section. Not the whole bedspread, mind you, but a little section near the little skunk. Coming so close on the heels of the stink section, it’s hard to look at these pictures as anything but a moment when the stuffed skunk, by some miraculous means, has peed on the bedspread. Mind you, I have a filthy mind so it’s possible that no one else would see this, but if I know kids there may be a bit of confusion with this section.
Of course skunks don’t constantly stink. We can just assume that the skunk in this tale recently got somebody and maybe that accounts for why it has remained stinky. Put that theory into practice and you have a fun little book about a failed child manipulation. You might want to consider pairing it with other I-want-a-pet picture books out there. Books like Wanted: The Perfect Pet and maybe a chapter book like A Room with a Zoo (which somehow manages to include every conceivable pet EXCEPT for skunks). Yet by itself, A Pet for Petunia stands on its own. Fun book. Fun art. A good potential storytime text. And perfect for the kid that’s obsessed with skunks (they exist) nothing else will do. Who knew skunks could be so charming?
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from author for review.
Other Blog Reviews:
- You’ve gotta check out the Petunia/Paul Schmid feature over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Consider it your thing to do.
- Browse inside the book here for a peek.
Video: And finally, a low-key book trailer for Petunia.