I am reading this aloud to my granddaughter’s kindergarten tomorrow. I like it more for its history and illustrations than for the story. It was read to me as a child, but it was not a particular favorite; neither was it especially beloved by Jonathan or Ben. There’s not a lot of plot here.
The charm is in seeing things from a duck’s perspective, both physically in the overhead and ground-level points of view, and in re-understanding human objects from their metaphorical point of view. The child knows what a bicycle is, and the artificial swan, and the city traffic, and so gets to feel more knowledgeable than the Mallards, even though they are parents and have the title Mr. and Mrs and are adults. The rhyming names of the ducklings (and the discovery that the names are in alphabetical order) are fun, and the old-fashionedness of the cars and the clothes gives an historic flavor that wasn’t present when the book first came out. If one lives close to Boston, one can also go and see the places in the book, now complete with statues of ducks. Not that I ever went to Boston Public Gardens myself until I was an adult, but there are those for whom this is a fourth-generation experience.
Plus, ducklings are cute, and they look funny fooling around and doing duckling stuff and quacking.
But there’s a fair bit that doesn’t add up here, even when you’re a child. Mr. Mallard just takes off for a week because he feels like it. Just wants to see what’s farther up the river…yeah, there’s a good reason for your Dad to just hit the skies. And Mom’s not irritated one bit. The island that they decide to hatch the ducklings on really isn’t any safer than the one in the public garden, and now you’ve got to march eight dumb innocents through city traffic to get back. McCloskey seems determined to get his picture of ducklings walking through Boston whatever the cost to sense.
Mother ducks understanding the hand-gestures of policemen is also a bit odd. It’s easier to do willing suspension of disbelief that they talk – animals in children’s books always talk* – than that they act like real ducks 95% of the time and then suddenly develop an uninstructed level of abstraction beyond even small humans.
It’s clear that McCloskey is mostly interested in how things look and working certain pictures into the story than in whether the story itself hangs together. Come to think of it, Blueberries For Sal has the same problem. The humans are really humans, and the bears are really bears. That is in fact the whole point of the story, this bear-perspective/human perspective contrast, until suddenly there’s this complex overlap of mothers and children, which gets everyone worried but no one gets mauled or shot. Sure kids, there’s no real problem with separating a cub from its mother or following a bear, because she’s a mom, and that always works out. Everyone just breathes a sigh of relief and has a good laugh after the mixup. This is particularly troubling for me because my granddaughters actually go to bear country a fair bit, and I’d rather not have them minimise the danger.
Is it too late to switch to Where Can An Elephant Hide?
* which is what drives that half of environmentalism that has nothing to do with cleaning things up