I have elementary-aged daughters, and I often tell them how much I like weird people. I think most of us adults tend to think of childhood as this romantically quirky time, during which children readily accept the eccentricities of other children. And, yes, this happens sometimes (the younger they are, the more likely it is), but I’m also struck by how often it doesn’t happen in the elementary years. It’s remarkable to me at what young ages children identify the odd ones out and how they subtly exclude those a bit left of center, so to speak. Hence, my parental duty, even if my girls seem to inherently appreciate and truly enjoy weird people (whew), to remind them that “weird” can be lots of good things.
Cecil Castellucci and Sara Varon get this, and their new graphic novel for children, Odd Duck, is all about the beauty of being weird. Rather, it’s about the wisdom of accepting your raging oddities and letting them shine, which is really what “being weird” is all about.
Check out this, my favorite line in the book: “Politely, she tried to ignore his defects.” That would be Theodora, the duck, trying her best to disregard what she considers the freakishness of her new neighbor, Chad (also a duck).
Theodora lives alone, and she is happy with things just as they are. Nothing much rattles her. Then again, she doesn’t really ever try anything new, quite frankly. She’s got her daily wingspan and quacking exercises, and every morning she works on her posture by swimming in a straight line in the pond by her house with a cup of rose hip tea on her head. She always has exact change at the grocery store where she consistently purchases the same kind of salsa, and she’s judgmental, whether she’s aware of it or not. (She’s quick to identify the “good ducks” in her world.) She also likes to be alone. When she wishes on a star, her wish is always that “nothing in her happy life would ever change.”
When Chad shows up next door, Theodora, knowing that a good duck is a gracious one, bakes him a cake. She’s “determined to make the best of a bad situation,” because she’s noted the “terrible screeching that could be music” coming from his house, not to mention his yard sculpture (Conceptual sculpture! Gasp!), smelly porch armchair, and shoddy gardening. Trying to politely ignore his defects is challenging—he has, for one, askew feathers, some dyed strange colors—and after talking to him a while, she decides there’s no way they’ll ever be friends. “Chad was not her style of duck.”
Ah, how often we nonfeathered creatures do this, too—determine, that is, that there are types of friends for us and exclude those who have habits, tendencies or hobbies all new to us.
As it turns out, they do become friends. Best friends even. But what happens next throws a wrench in their friendship. “Look at that odd duck!” another duck calls out one day, as Theodora and Chad walk by. Each is convinced that the rude bystander was talking about the other: Theodora always knew that Chad was the oddest of all ducks, yet “[y]ou are a duck who swims with a teacup on her head, eats mango salsa, quilts, likes old books, and stays home for winter!” Chad tells her. Hoo boy, this throws poor, sheltered Theodora for a loop.
Castellucci paces this story well, giving us time to get to know the characters and never rushing a moment, never forcing any interactions. She also manages to make her point—“it’s not so bad to be odd, not when you have an odd friend”—without hitting readers over the head with it. To boot, she pulls off a genuinely sweet, yet never saccharine, story as well.
As for Varon’s work, it’s all in the delightful details. In what is (as the Kirkus review notes) part picture book and part graphic novel, she populates Theodora’s and Chad’s worlds with just the right odds and ends and accessories and peculiarities. In the opening wordless spread, for instance, readers can soak in Theodora’s carefully planned life, as she lies in bed sleeping, everything laid out just so in her bedroom. Contrast this with the first time we see Chad’s front yard, what with the giant cardboard chicken and busted front window in the home. It’s funny stuff, and readers really root for the duo to make it work.
I think readers of all ages will enjoy this, the memorable and entertaining story that is a reminder of the odd duck in each of us.
ODD DUCK. Copyright © 2013 by Cecil Castellucci. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Sara Varon. Published by First Second Books, New York. Illustration used with permission of the publisher.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.