Wordless Wednesday: Skunk On A String & Interview With Thao Lam

It is late on another Wednesday and I have been holding this wordless book interview for far too long as well. I fell in love with this book the first time I saw the trailer and I was delighted to receive a copy from Owlkids Books. A humorous story about a skunk in a terrible predicament traveling over a colorful and lively city – this book is a delightful way to usher out August and welcome in the next month. I hope you enjoy Skunk On A String by Thao Lam, 2016. And especially Thao’s lovely interview. I so enjoyed reading her answers!

One of the first things that captivated me about this book was the opening parade sequence. Our summers in NYC are filled with parades of a variety of celebrations and styles. There is just something so fun and entertaining about parades, and I love that Thao opened a story about a distinctly black and white animal with such a colorful entourage.

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There is no explanation for why the skunk appears on a string, just suddenly there he is stuck among all the balloons. He looks terrified and shocked. And the situation just grows worse. People in the parade are shocked, tenants in an apartment building’s windows are bewildered. The skunk passes a construction site, a zoo, a garbage truck, water, a dessert, and finally a fairground. It is a thrilling adventure with the most excellent expressions crossing the skunk’s face.

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I love that you easily and quickly are on the skunk’s side. You feel for the little guy. No matter how he came about being stuck on a string, you are cheering for him to sort the mess out in a safe manner. It is humorous and yet also a bit surprising to see people and animals watch him pass by, obviously surprised, but not try to help in any way. At least, that’s how I see it. But maybe I’ve been in NYC too long where, for the most part, it is every man for himself. Ha! That is the joy of a wordless book – you can make of it what you want. It certainly can look like there is some help offered here and there. Or it can be taken that people are delighted by the balloon and then shocked by the skunk’s appearance. You certainly don’t ever want to be surprised by a skunk!

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There is so much happening in this story, and yes – small spoiler – the skunk does figure out a solution. But the ending will make you laugh and give great delight in your newfound skunk buddy too.

I love the way Thao has paced the book. There are pages that are full spreads of action, and others that have panels of scenes. Sometimes, the panels feel chaotic with so much going on; but truthfully, they feel like it is supposed to feel that way. A skunk entering any scene would be chaotic.

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But can we please admire these illustrations some more? I just love the texture, patterns, and feel of Thao’s work. It is all collage and I think the amount of expression and emotion she is able to make out of cut paper is just applause-worthy. I love the little skunk’s faces the most! And I really love the way Thao has reserved black and white almost completely for the skunk and makes all the other scenery and people appear in vibrant colors and patterns. The skunk truly looks and feels out of place.

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But enough from me and my thoughts. You will adore hearing from Thao Lam herself. I am so thrilled about this first picture book from her and so excited that she was able to carve out some time to answer my questions. Here we go:

Question: What motivated you to create a wordless picture book as opposed to a traditional text + illustration book?

Thao Lam: I have a really hard time expressing myself with words so a wordless picture book allows me to tell my story visually. I love the fact that language is not an issue in wordless picture books; all you need is an imagination.

Q: Was there ever text or narration in your head for Skunk On A String or did it always perform silently?

TL: Story ideas tend to pop in my head visually and play out like silent movies. Years ago while I was taking a shower an image of a skunk tied to a balloon popped in my head. It made me laugh and made me curious. How did the skunk find himself tied to a balloon? Where was he going? More importantly, how was he going to get down?

Q: Is there a specific storyline and conclusion to Skunk On A String that you hope the reader gets or is it a bit open-ended in your opinion?

TL: One of the great things about a wordless picture book is that the story is open for interpretation. You can read it a dozen different times and the story would be different each time. Each reader will also bring a different experience to the book. Since the launch of Skunk On A String, many readers have been sharing their take on the story; it has been amazing hearing it from someone else’s perspective. For example, the spread with the construction crew – many readers thought the construction worker gave the skunk the sandwich – in my head the skunk grabbed the sandwich as he floated by.

Q: Was it a more challenging experience to create a wordless book than a text book or is every book different, period?

TL: Skunk On A String is my first book so I never wrote a book with text before. Wordless picture books do have their own set of challenges. Without the use of text, I had to make sure the actions and expressions of the characters are visually clear. My next book has one word in it so I am slowly trying my hands at writing a text book.

Q: Is there a soundtrack that you hear for Skunk On A String?

TL: There was no soundtrack in my head as I was working on Skunk. However, I spent a couple of days listening to music for the book trailer. For the trailer I worked really closely with Kjell Boersma and Owlkids Books. Since the story did not have text, the music helped set the tone and assist in the descriptive narrative. I really wanted something jolly and light.

Q: I absolutely love your collage textures and edges! Did you create all the art by hand or is there digital manipulation as well?

TL: All the illustrations are hand cut with scissors. I used a combination of collage scrapbook paper, paint, and pencil crayons. By the time I had everything cut out there are so many little pieces that it felt like I am putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

Q: Do you consider wordless picture books a better solitary experience or more exciting as a read-aloud?

TL: I have always read wordless pictures books by myself; it wasn’t until recently when I became a mom that I learned how much fun it is to read them aloud. Unlike picture books with text, I find myself having more of a dialogue with my daughter. Instead of just listening to me read the text, she actively participates in the storytelling. For example, I would point to the skunk and ask my daughter “Where is he going?” and then we would talk about it.

Q: Have you ever shared Skunk On A String in a storytime? Do you have tips for how it or any other wordless picture books could be read aloud?

TL: I was really nervous sharing Skunk On A String for the first time to an audience (I don’t like public speaking). I did a lot of research online and got lots of advice from librarians and teachers also. I think reading a wordless picture book aloud is harder because you have no script (text) to go by but it does allow you to be more engaging during storytime. The audience participation plays an important role in the telling of a wordless picture book. To engage your audience, you need to get a dialogue going with them. Ask questions. Ask them to tell you what they see. What they think is happening or will happen next. Have them tell you the story.

Q: In your author bio on the book jacket, it mentions how picture books played a key role in helping you learn English and understand the new culture as a child. Were wordless books a part of that process? Did you treat picture books as wordless until you could read the text?

TL: I didn’t discover wordless picture books until after I learned to read, so while I was learning English, every picture book with text was a wordless picture book. I relied on the illustrations to help me understand and interpret the story.

Q: Do you have any favorite wordless picture books?

TL: I have quite a collection of wordless picture books, but hands down my favorite is Tuesday by David Wiesner. I am a huge fan of his work. His stories are wildly imaginative and the illustrations are packed with so much detail that you always discover something new with each reading.

I also love Wave by Suzy Lee and Float by Daniel Miyares.

Q: And lastly, because you never really read a picture book alone and I adore brainstorming book groupings, do you have any books that you consider to pair well with Skunk On A String, wordless or not?

TL: The Red Book by Barbara Lehman is a wordless book that is also about balloons and adventure.

The Day the Crayons Came Home written by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers, is another good one. It’s a story told through post cards. I keep imagining the skunk sending me post cards; telling me all about his adventures, the people he has met and the places he has seen traveling around the world tied to a balloon.

Oh, I loved all of Thao’s book suggestions and thoughts about reading wordless books aloud. Thank you so much for joining the conversation, Thao! And thanks, readers, for checking out another Wordless Wednesday. Happy last day of August (or first day of September depending on when you pick this up)!

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