I am drawn to stories about animals and love to write them myself. I recently came across this little curiosity, a picture book from 1945 by Jack Townend, amongst the many curiosities that crowd my bookshelves.
It’s no surprise that “A story about ducks” is a tale about… well… ducks. Yet these are some rather adventurous ducks, especially for 1945, who leave the river, hitch a ride with a baker and go visit the local fair. There, they pay for a ticket on a “switchback” using one of their eggs (a switchback is some sort of rollercoaster), and then get chased by a group of angry-looking men, who decide that ducks should not just roam free. The ducks are boxed up and left at the train station to become “Christmas Dinner”, only to escape through sheer determination and fly home again as fast as their wings can carry them!
This story certainly gets better as you go along. The bored ducks at the beginning are rather boring themselves. But as the ducks get more and more bold, you start getting more and more worried about them. Is the baker going to try to eat them? Will they go splat on the rollercoaster? Like all young adventurers in the big, bad world, we know in the end something big and bad might happen to them. And that’s what makes the story a story, after all, and what gives them the chance to become heroes.
The illustrations are worth the read alone. It’s true the ducks all seem to have one expression most of the time – eyes wide and beak quacking. They are put in some rather alarming situations though and ducks can sometimes look just like that! The pictures are made using a technique called lithography, where the artist draws lines on a metal plate that is used to print onto paper. These scratchy lines create angular and curved shapes throughout the book and almost make everything look like its moving (even the buildings which, of course, are not). Ink was scarce during World War II (1939-1945) when this was made and printing for children's books back in the old days wasn't usually fancy but the basic, bold colours only add to the feeling each picture is its own small world.
My favourite characters in the book are the pair of “told you so” birds that follow the ducks around and decide in the end that the ducks really are clever. But the ducks are too tired by then to even notice.