Saturday, March 05, 2016

Floating Free: Skunk on a String by Thao Lam

It's a parade!

Costumed paraders proudly stride down the street, tightly holding the strings of assorted helium balloon critters. A fabric-printed frog, bird, octopus, fish, panda and kitty, all reach for the sky as they pass by.

And then, one hind leg strangely snared by the string of a helium balloon, there floats ... a skunk borne up by a single balloon.

Panic results as the skunk-o-phobic parade goers drop their strings and scatter, the street suddenly littered with dropped ice cream cones and spilled popcorn.

The skunk floats above the fray, up and up past the windows where former parade watchers now shrink. One kind lady snatches a pair of bloomers from the clothesline stretching between the building and holds them high futilely as the skunk floats by just beyond reach.

The skunk floats free, rising past a towering sky crane and three high-steel workers eating their lunch from a seat on a cross beam, one managing to pass his sandwich to the skunk as he goes by. The soaring skunk also manages to snatch a string of sausages from a garbage truck before he sails over the sea, where an octopus watches agog and a fish gawks.  Soon, though, he sails over  high desert buttes until...

. . . he finally drops to rest in an empty seat of an amusement park Ferris wheel! And there, at last, he manages to untie the string and free himself from the balloon.

But, both feet on the ground, the now earthbound hero instantly regrets his decision. His grand adventure is over! But then, as the crowd scatters from the threat of skunk scent, he spots something!

It's a pushcart with a bunch of unsold helium balloons, and the skunk seizes the opportunity to shake the bonds of gravity once more.

It's up, up, and away yet again, in Thao Lam's forthcoming Skunk on a String (Owl Kids Books, 2016), a clever collection of paper collage illustrations that wordlessly tells the tale well. Lam's high-flying theme plumbs the nature of freedom and control in charming artwork that juxtaposes repeat-pattern fabric-print curvaceous figures with angular shapes of buildings and buttes (even the skunk's balloon is an irregular hexagon), with the black-and-white hero set amid bright pastels against bright white backgrounds. Single- and two-page spreads also contrast with frame-by-frame panels to let the illustrations tell the story sequentially in a steady left-to-right flow. There is clever book design here, but also a theme that artfully reworks poet Browning's famous line:

"Ah, but a skunk's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

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