I wonder how many children’s books could really double as some of the best self-help books out there if people let them. I can think of a number which have really made me think, right off the top of my head: The Little Bookroom, The Snowy Day, The Fox and the Star are some I’ve written about, but there are plenty more out there. Today we’re going to talk about one which, to me, exemplifies a good self-help book for both adults and children: Quackers, written and illustrated by Liz Wong.
Don’t give me that skeptical look, and don’t run away if you think you don’t need a self-help book. If you’re like me, you hate that term for the genre. What I mean when I say “self-help” book is “a book which makes you think about who you are, who you want to be, and how to be the best person you can be.” That’s pretty broad, and can apply to a lot of books out there, of course– Tess of the D’Urbervilles comes to mind– but some books are more conscious of it than others. Lots of children’s books are very conscious of the formative role they have in helping children figure out who they want to be. Some take a rather didactic route, and I don’t generally go for those books. Others, and Quackers is a prime example, focus on building character and story, and the thoughtfulness slips into the story in a natural way.
Let me give you an example of how lovely this book is. When I went to The Children’s Book Shop (which is where I found this one), the shop staff were browsing the shelves for some good options for me. They stopped dead in front of the face-out display of Quackers. “Awww,” one smiled. Then the owner glanced over and chuckled when she saw it. They told me, “We all just can’t stop giggling over this one,” and handed it over. I looked at the cover. “Awww!” I smiled. I opened to the front page, glanced over it, and chuckled. Who doesn’t love a book which automatically makes everyone smile and chuckle?
Hey, new plan for world peace: Someone send a copy of this book to every single member of the military in every country, and also to the world leaders and the UN. Then declare it International Storytime for five minutes. Repeat International Storytime as needed. Then we give Liz Wong the Nobel Peace Prize.
I hear you, you load of skeptics. (By the way, I really prefer “sceptics,” but no one seems to write that these days. What’s your position on this pressing issue?) You all want to know more about the book before delivering it worldwide. I’d be annoyed by your skepticism, but: a) it’s my job to tell you about awesome books and I love doing it; b) I’d rather partner with you in my bid for world peace than with Amazon Prime. Still, have a little faith, people!
But, sure, let’s talk about Quackers. Quackers has four legs with pretty little paws, a tail, stripy orange fur with a creamy belly, and he meows. He’s a duck. He lives in the duck pond with his fellow ducks. All of his friends are ducks. But sometimes he feels out of place. Everyone else quacks, the food is rather unappealing, and he doesn’t like getting wet. Then one day he meets a strange duck who meows, just as he does, and they can talk! The strange duck’s name is Mittens, who says he’s really a cat, and they chase mice, drink milk, and clean themselves. Quackers fits right in– and this is where many stories might end. Liz Wong is a smart cookie, though, and knows that Quackers’ story carries on. He misses his duck friends, and goes back to see them. The story doesn’t end there, either. Why would it? Here’s how it ends: Quackers splits his time between his two homes, and he’s a duck, he’s a cat, but, as the story tells us: “most of all, he’s just Quackers, and that makes him completely happy.” (Feel free to smile and say, “Awwwwww!” You’ll fit right in.)
My retelling here has an obvious failing: it lacks the illustrations. Scroll back up to look at the cover image I embedded. Liz Wong worked with watercolor and digital tools, and I love the combination. The ever so slight shadings and variation in colour keep the illustrations from looking flat, while the precise rounding of the ducks and cats gives them a cuteness just short of being too cartoony. To use the most technical of technical language, I’d say the cuteness is squishy-stuffed-animal-cuteness, not overly-exaggerated-anime-style-cuteness. If you’re me, you’re going to find yourself with an overwhelming urge to dive through the book and hug Quackers on every single damned page. I’m warning you all: reading this book may result in unintended stuffed animal purchases to follow. (Oh, hey, I’m sitting right across the street from a toy store…) Wait, I have an idea! Can they make Quackers stuffies? Quackers and his ducks? Quackers and Mittens? I would buy them all.
You’re probably all wondering when I’m going to get back to talking about how this book relates to thinking about who you are, though. Well, in one way it’s obvious: Quackers (don’t you love that name?) thinks he’s a duck, and feels out of place because he’s not! He has to find out who he is, and, once he has, he’ll be at home and be happy. Just like the Ugly Duckling, right? Poor duckling– he’s not a duckling, and once he finds out that he was really a cygnet, ultimately a swan, then he was happy! Except that, with apologies to Hans Christian Andersen, Quackers is both more realistic and a bit less preachy. (I love you, Andersen, but you really can verge on the preachy sometimes, you know.)
First of all, there’s the realism. If one were a cat who grew up to think he was a duck (totally realistic), and one suddenly recognized that, in point of fact, the feline way of life came more naturally, would one entirely forget the ducks with whom one grew up? I doubt it. The first time I read Quackers I found myself thinking, “Oh, please, please don’t let him leave those cute ducks behind!” And he doesn’t. He knows his ducks, and he remembers them, and while he’s happy to have found other people like him, he still retains a kinship with the ducks.
Let’s turn that around a bit: say you’re a human, feeling a bit uncomfortable in your own skin for some reason. You’re just not quite sure where you belong– maybe you’ve been pigeonholed as one thing for all your life, but it doesn’t feel 100% right. You suddenly try something new, or maybe have an epiphany of some kind. You’re in a new place, either physically or mentally or both. But can you completely forget all you learned, all you once were, whether the experiences were good or bad? Do you have to choose between who you feel you are more naturally and your entire past life? And what do you want to be? The ideal, I think, of what Quackers is aiming for, is to have the power of choice: he keeps what he wants in his own life. He assumes he’ll never be abandoned by his old friends– and he isn’t. He assumes his new friends will accept him for who he is– and they do. We know, alas, that in daily life this doesn’t always work out so happily, but it’s a beautiful exemplar.
Let me tell you my secret: I think this book is about as good as Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Stick with me. Tess is out of place in her community from the very beginning, and the rape sets her permanently apart. Her contact with her community, her out-of-placeness there, has ruined her for the world with which she more closely identifies, however; she feels an affinity for her husband’s world and way of thought, but is never going to fit in there, either. And so, with no place in the world, the world cuts her out. Sorry– this is where I always choke up. But here’s the thing: I choked up when I read Quackers, too. It’s the story of Tess if Tess’s society were less dreadful and more accepting of differences. It’s an ode to finding out who you are, accepting it, and being accepted.
As for the not being preachy? Well, I think that comes from a few different aspects of how Liz Wong works. First of all, Quackers is a pretty well-developed character for a cat who thinks he’s a duck. (He’s so cute!) We get to know him, and share his feelings as he’s a little out of place, then cautiously happy in his new life; as he misses his old home, and finally works out his own place. In other words, we experience his life through his eyes. It’s about him, not about him telling you who you should be or what you should do. It’s like having a friend who says, “I see how you feel,” instead of, “This is what I think you should do.” And it elicits the same reactions from you. “I see how you feel, Quackers. That must be hard for you! Oh, you figured it out? I’m happy for you!” Lastly, there’s the silliness: if you embrace your own absurdity, how can you be preachy? Well, Quackers enthusiastically embraces being a cat who believes he’s a duck. It’s silly, even absurd, but it works, and it really undercuts any taste of moralizing there might otherwise have been.
The best way to show how this book works, I think, is to share the Changeling’s reaction. As we read, she mostly picks up on Quackers’ feelings: “He’s sad! He wants to go home!” As we read on: “There’s another kitty! What’s his name? Oh, look at all the kitties!” And, at the end, “Oh, look, he found all the ducks! And the cats! He’s so, so happy.” I can’t even say how happy it makes me to see her picking up on expressing those feelings. If she can express them for a duck-cat, she can express them for herself, and that’s a wonderful thing to learn.
So, folks, what do you say? Are you with me? Let’s get this book out there, and get Liz Wong the Nobel Peace Prize. Or at least make sure as many kids read it as possible.