whiff of pine
Cover illustration
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.
A Whiff of Pine, a Hint of Skunk:  A Forest of Poems

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

whiff of pine

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.