Manifestly good intentions and charming illustrations can’t rescue this high-concept, lead-footed tale, burdened with wince-inducing subtext.
Hatched from the happy, mixed-species union of penguin (dad) and rabbit (mom)—Little Benguin greets the world—only to be instantly rejected. “Because Little Benguin was unusual, people were afraid of him. And because people were afraid, Little Benguin was alone.” Unispecies age mates jeer at his looks; his self-esteem plummets (“I am an alien. I am a monster”); his parents worry uselessly. He longs to be “normal.” When a hungry wolf shows up, Little Benguin leads him away, using superskills—running, swimming—his mixed-species heritage has given him. Throughout, the plot relies on dated, offensive plant- and animal-breeding stereotypes. Grateful fair-weather friends throw a party in his honor. (Disconnected from the grim content, the sunny art seems to have wandered in from a different story.) Questions are begged: Why is it assumed that being mixed will prompt universal rejection? What if the wolf hadn’t shown up? Why is it up to Little Benguin to prove himself acceptable to the majority? Who gets to define what is “normal”? Tackling xenophobia, racial and otherwise, in a picture book is a worthy goal, but replacing negative with positive stereotypes doesn’t achieve it.
Skip the dated allegory and seek out Arnold Adoff and Jacqueline Woodson instead. (Picture book. 3-5)