Nancy Carpenter is quickly becoming one of my favorite illustrators. And in her latest illustrated title, Eva Moore’s Lucky Ducklings (Orchard Books, February), what is described as “a true rescue story,” she renders her illustrations via charcoal and digital media, the former being a medium I love to see used in picture books (and which she does very well).
I think it’s safe to say that Lucky Ducklings will be one of 2013’s great picture books, though it’s still early in the year. This book works on every level, and I don’t think it’ll meet many children it won’t straight-up delight.
An opening copyright-page note states, “This is a true story about a mama duck and her five ducklings.” The story then opens with: “The Duck family lived in a pretty pond in a green, green park, in a sunlit little town at the end of a long, long island.” Mama Duck and her ducklings are heading into town for a walk:
Right behind her came Pippin, Bippin, Tippin, Dippin … and last of all … Little Joe.”
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Fortunately, someone spots them (the illustration opening this post), because later, on their way over a storm drain grate, each duckling falls through the slats and down into the great-underneath below. “Oh, dear!” writes Moore. “That could have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t, because …” (This is a repeated refrain in the book—”that could have been the end of the story, but…”—and it goes far, without ever being annoying, in propelling the story forward.) Since someone had seen what had happened—the friendly tollbooth worker, that is—the fire department is summoned, and help is on its way.
The kind, concerned community works together to retrieve the baby ducklings and reunite them with their mother. Carpenter occasionally plays with perspective, such as showing us the shocked humans’ faces peering down through the grate, as if we readers are the frightened ducklings looking up. We also see from that same point-of-view Fireman Paul climbing “down, down into the storm drain,” as the community—feathered and otherwise—waits to see what the outcome will be.
Moore writes with a rhythm both entertaining and soothing (”What a fine day for a walk! Off they went through the green, green park.”) Carpenter sets off Little Joe from the others; we already know he stands out, given he possesses the only name that doesn’t rhyme, but Carpenter shows him always last, always curious about his surroundings and falling behind.
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Many times she breaks up spreads into panels to further differentiate the creatures, the first time being when they fall through the storm drain grate. (And notice the trash in the spread above? There’s a very subtle let’s-take-care-of-our-planet-already message here, a treat for observant readers.)
Though it’s a frightening notion for young children (to be separated from a parent, not to mention falling down, down, down through what appears to be a tiny space)—and they can easily relate here, given these tiny ducklings who are unintentionally separated from their caretaker—there’s still humor here. One never worries that the ducklings are harmed, and Little Joe (of course it’s Little Joe!) even looks as if he’s having fun with his fall, both webbed feet clinging to the sides, as if he’s swinging down. (I guess it’s arguable they didn’t even cluelessly step right through the cracks; perhaps they were just curious to see what was down there, peeking without realizing their entire bodies would fall through.) There’s a comforting humor, too, in Mama Duck’s fierce determination: “Whack! Whack!” she calls, once she discovers they’re missing. “Get away from my babies!” It’s here she clears the area of humans, as she spreads her great wings.
And it’s a delight to see Carpenter’s color palette at work here, opening the story with warm, cozy shades of green and yellow, which then get darker in hue as the story progresses, as the ducklings face danger. She wraps it all up with a beautiful final spread and closing illustration, once again back to the more soothing pastel shades, the greens of the grass and blues of the water.
The opening note states that this true-life event took place in 2000 in Montauk, New York. But if it all brings to your mind a certain Caldecott-winning book by Robert McCloskey, I wouldn’t be surprised. It does for me — and even includes a spread of a man with his arms extended and hands out, stopping traffic to let the ducklings cross the road. McCloskey’s was a cop; Carpenter’s, a fireman. But you get the idea. Is that spread a direct homage to the classic book? One wonders.
An appealing story that will resonate with many children. Picture book lovers (and especially McCloskey fans), don’t miss it.
Illustrations from LUCKY DUCKLINGS copyright 2013 by Eva Moore, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter. Used with permission from Orchard Books/Scholastic.