Whiff of Pine, a Hint of Skunk: A Forest of Poems
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written by Deborah Ruddell; illustrated by Joan Rankin
Deborah Ruddell’s first book for children,
the poetic bird-themed collection Today at the Bluebird Café (BCCB
1/07), had the assurance of old masters in the field such as Douglas
Florian. Now she’s proved it was no fluke with A Whiff of Pine, a Hint
of Skunk, another stellar poetical overview of the wild world.
This time she’s focusing not on a specific class of animal but on a
specific ecosystem, the forest. The verses depict various denizens of
the woods in a
sequence of twenty-two poems that loosely progress through the seasons,
starting in spring (“Spring Welcome”) and working their way around the
year to winter’s close (“Woodchuck’s Wake-Up Morning”). The poems are
critter-rich, with even those entries treating the general atmosphere
of forest or season focusing on the presence of animals. Featured
woodlanders range from snails (“The Great Snail Race: An Eyewitness
Account”) and our cover-amphibian tree frog (“A Tree Frog’s Lazy
Afternoon”) through land mammals such as chipmunks (“Chipmunks, Inc.”)
and deer (“The Forest’s Royal Family”) to the tree-dwelling birds
(“Woodpecker Feud”), with longterm kid favorites like raccoons brushing
shoulders with the less-
limned, such as salamanders.
The rhymed poems vary in form, but they’re all tightly constructed,
with polished rhythms and clever language and imagery. Humor underlies
many of the verses, as in “A Wild Turkey Comments on His Portrait,”
wherein the titular bird bemoans the hand-tracing pictures made in his
name (“My head is quite distinguished/ and it’s nothing like your
thumb”); there’s also crisp wordplay (the night owl is “patiently
perfecting/ the position of his beak”) and stealthy lyricism (the tree
frog “glances at the gloomy skies/ and pulls the shades across her
eyes”). It’s a particularly amusing conceit that these animals are
aware of the world beyond them (perhaps they’re forest-dwellers simply
by choice?): the opossum daydreams about her marsupial relatives Down
Under, and the fox sneers at the servile life of the domestic dog.
In poetry collections, the illustrations can make or break a book, and
Rankin is a splendid partner indeed, expanding Ruddell’s forest world
into a friendly, curious, and fascinating place. The artist uses her
watercolors with uncommon delicacy: the intricate hatchwork creates
distinct textures for the fox’s coat, the raccoon’s stippled fur, and
the needles on the conifers, and the softly meticulous aggregation of
spotches perfectly conveys the toad’s rough skin. These precise
elements provide a structural counterpoint for the white space and
cloudier washes of color in the backgrounds. Yet the art perfects the
landscape as a milieu while allowing its characters center stage;
Rankin is particularly deft at an understated comedy of pose and
expression that allows young humans to empathize but keeps the animal,
whether it be the sunglasses-sporting turtle or the spa-spoiled
squirrel, nature-study believable. The art also acknowledges that
forests aren’t exactly human-free zones, but the people here are
clearly subservient to the woodsy regulars: the guy and his dog trot
along nervously as the owl hoots, while kids, modeling naturalist
behavior, peer curiously from a respectful distance at the snail and
the green tiger beetle.
The happy result is a lively and inviting collection that invites both
examination of poetry and examination of habitat; the vivacious verses
are suitable for reading aloud or alone, inside or outside (some of
them could, in fact, be turned into excellent hiking chants
considerably more situationally appropriate than “Ninety- Nine Bottles
of Beer on the Wall”). Ruddell has now firmly established herself as a
poet of impeccable craft, and young listeners and readers will be happy
to join her for this walk in the woods.
Deborah Stevenson, Editor
Cover image by Joan Rankin from A
Whiff of Pine, a Hint of Skunk: A Forest of Poems ©2009.
Used by permission of Margaret K. McElderry Books.
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This page was last updated on March 1, 2009.