Interview: Amy Timberlake

Hi there, Amy! Thanks so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to chat about your new book, Skunk and Badger!

Hi Jarrett! Thanks for having me. Yay!

First off, can you tell us what the book is about?

Skunk and Badger is about two animals who are forced to become roommates. This does not go well. The badger — an Important Rock Scientist — has moved into the brownstone first. How will he do his Important Rock Work with a roommate? How will he find his focus, focus, focus? Difficulties abound. There are too many chickens.  

Can you share where these characters came from? Did the idea for the story come first, or did Badger and Skunk?

Skunk and Badger came first? I think? A long time ago, I tried to write a story in the style of Marjorie Sharmat’s “Nate the Great,” with a skunk as the main character. Also, as I was packing up in a recent move, I came across this story about a badger who collected stamps. Anyway, neither of these tries amounted to anything. Then years went by, and I was re-reading A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories and I thought, What if I wrote something like this but in my own style? What would that be like? That’s when I was able to start writing “Skunk and Badger.” 

In addition to the themes woven throughout the story, there are two topics delved into relatively deeply: rocks and chickens! Did you have an interest in these topics before sitting down to write Skunk and Badger? Did you do any research to learn more about them?

I find chickens funny. I like the way they peer and scrutinize and then, peck-peck-PECK! Also, all those tufts and booties and wattles! And why all the varieties? Look up ‘Transylvania Naked Neck chicken!’ What do you think of that? 

And rocks run in the family. My uncle is a geologist and my grandfather worked in the copper industry. My grandmother landscaped her front lawn with old mining equipment and tumbles of big rocks. In the home I grew up in, books were held upright with geode bookends. Still, none of this meant I was interested in rocks or geology. But then Badger walked into my story with his magnifying glass and his quartzite and I had to learn about rocks and geology. I’m doing the best I can to keep up with him. Badger knows far more about rocks than I do. 

Geology — whew! — it’s mind-bending! Or mind-stretching? Anyway, you have to conceptualize a huge span of time. I’ve got this Earth Science textbook. I’ve read histories, and geology written for non-scientists. I took a beginner geology course up at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota because I had to find a way in. Badger needed to see like a geologist, and that’s tough. Geologists don’t look at the landscape in the same way that everyone else does. Geologists read history and time in the rocks around them. That rolling hill? Those sharp-edged mountains? They look completely different to a geologist. You may see something still and lovely; a geologist sees action and violence. 

Skunk and Badger features both spot and full page illustrations by Jon Klassen (plus one absolutely stunning spread!). What was it like working with Jon? What did you think when you first saw his art for the book?

I’ve loved the process of working with Jon. I trust him! 

That said, we each did our work separately and so, when the first illustration arrived it felt as if it came out of the blue. Elise Howard, my editor at Algonquin Young Readers, emailed it. I opened that email and yelled. In front of me was Badger. He sat at his rock table. He was in his rock room. Then I said, “There he is. That’s Badger. He’s in his rock room.” I said this to myself, to Phil (my husband), and to Elise Howard (when she called later). Seeing that image felt both right and eerie. I mean, I recognized Badger, as if yeah, there was the badger who lived in my head, focus-focus-focusing on his Important Rock Work. How was that possible? I’d only just opened the email! Also, at that point, Jon and I had not spoken. I’m still shook by this. I don’t know how Jon did that — but wow.

Skunk and Badger couldn’t be more timely, but there are qualities of the writing, illustration, and general presentation that make it feel classic. While reading, I especially couldn’t help but think of The Wind and the Willows and the Frog and Toad books. Was this intentional? Did these books, or any other older children’s books, play a role in the process of Skunk and Badger‘s creation?

The writing was inspired by A.A. Milne in particular, so that sort of storytelling (the style of it, the shape and size of it, the craftsmanship) was in my head from the beginning. Jon wanted to illustrate the text using full-color spreads printed on thicker, glossy paper that are tucked into the book and bound with the rest of the pages. This is something done in traditional book publishing. Algonquin Young Readers and Jon took these ideas and ran with them. The design of this book is something very special. As a ‘book object’ I consider it a work of art. Honestly, it’s been dreamy to have any part in something like this!   

What do you hope your readers — especially the young ones — take away from Skunk and Badger?

I am hoping for discussion! Maybe about getting along? Or about apologies? Or how disparate creatures — feathered, scaled, or furred — come together in community? Or perhaps they’ll decide to take a day and see the world through Skunk’s eyes. I love how Skunk sees the world! 

Skunk and Badger is listed as the first book in a series. Can you tell us anything about what’s in store for this pair?

In the second book, it’s summer. Skunk and Badger leave the brownstone on an adventure that goes, well, alarmingly astray…  

Are you doing anything else — interviews, events, etc. — to celebrate the release of Skunk and Badger? If so, where can readers find out about that, as well as more about you and your work?

Everything is at amytimberlake.com

Is there a celebration of Skunk and Badger? YES! (See “Events” on amytimberlake.com.) Throughout September and October, there’ll be a virtual book tour where I’ll be live and in conversation with various folks including Jon Klassen, Lisa Yee, Betsy Bird, and Jim Higgins of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. There’s also a blog tour going on September 13-19th.

 I hope to see and meet you there!    

Thanks Jarret and MG Book Village for having me! I loved being here!

Amy Timberlake’s work has received a Newbery Honor, an Edgar, and a Golden Kite Award. One book was chosen to be a Book Sense Pick, another was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review. Her books have made several “best books of the year” lists, and she loves it whenever her books are chosen to be part of a state reading list. Chicago’s Lifeline Theatre has adapted both One Came Home and The Dirty Cowboy for the stage. She’s received residency fellowships from Hedgebrook, and The Anderson Center. She was recently awarded The Sterling North Legacy Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature. She is represented by Steven Malk at Writers House. Amy grew up in Hudson, Wisconsin. She attended Mount Holyoke College and majored in History. She also holds an M.A. in English/Creative Writing. Most of the time, she can be found in Chicago, where she lives with her husband. But on especially good days she can be found walking on a long, long trail.

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