As a new parent, I’ve recently started paying more attention to children’s story books. Bear cubs at bath time. Lost little llamas looking for their mamas. That sort of reading material. But what I’ve discovered is that in even the world of kiddie lit, you can never judge a book by its cover, no matter how cloyingly cute and cuddly the baby animal on it is. Indeed, there is often more literary subtext padding these chunky little children’s tomes than in a Jonathan Franzen novel.
Take, for instance, the new Little Quack series from Little Simon, written by Lauren Thompson and illustrated by Derek Anderson. Its protagonist is a young, impetuous duckling named Little Quack, who wanders through the woods around his idyllic pond on a seemingly innocent journey of self-discovery. In Little Quack Loves Colors, for instance, Little Quack is joined by another duckling named Piddle, and the two frolic through the forest pointing out different colors they each love. Little Quack loves “yellow buttercups,” but Piddle prefers “red ladybugs.” Over the next 16 pages, though, the tension builds and the mood darkens. As the two characters continue to pick different colors, it becomes increasingly clear they can never agree on anything. They both become locked in their own color bias. The metaphor for American political bifurcation is all too obvious; each duckling is totally unable to see past his own ideology, and therefore unable to pass meaningful health care legislation for the pond. In the end, Little Quack and Piddle finally agree that they both love “oozy brown.” But is that a sign of hope? Or are they both merely slinging mud?
Little Quack Counts, thankfully, offers a more upbeat storyline. In this volume, Little Quack has a different sidekick, a Sancho Panza-esque duckling named Widdle, and together they embark on an ambitious mathematical quest to count everything they see in the woods. “Little Quack and Widdle see 1 butterfly.” “Little Quack and Widdle see 4 flowers.” Little Quack’s name always comes first, establishing the social hierarchy of the relationship, but it’s still more of a partnership than with Piddle. There’s no way they can ever complete their assignment of counting everything—it is, ultimately, an existential mission—but at least they count together, not at each other. And when crisis strikes—“5 bees! Oh, no!”—the two friends hug each other for comfort, before paddling away to a safer part of the pond, into the warm waiting wings of “1 Mama Duck.” As with every classic literary journey, this one ends by returning home.