05 July 2016

Sitting Ducks

Sitting Ducks is a children's picture book by Michael Bedard, originally published in the United States in 1998 by the Puttnam And Grosset Group, and later given a UK publication in 2000 by Walker Books, a company well known for high-quality picture book publishing. Several computer animated spin-off films have been released or are in the production process, and a tasteful number of merchandise products aimed, uncharacteristically, at art collectors, are available.

The book concerns an accident at the Colossal Duck Factory, where every day newly-hatched ducks roll off the assembly line, the first step on their journey to the plates of hungry alligators via the food-filled streets of Ducktown. One day, an unhatched egg rolls gently off one of the conveyor belts, leading to a most unusual friendship. Rather than hand the duck in, the worker alligator who discovers the little duck, his head no doubt filled with visions of duck à l'orange and hoi sin sauce, slips him into his lunchbox and sneaks him home.

Left with an array of tasty snacks each day, the alligator's plan goes extremely well, until that fateful moment the alligator realises that their growing friendship precludes the possibility of a tasty, duck-based meal later on. Of course, later on in the book the little duck wanders merrily through town, encountering something nasty in the Decoy Café along the way, thus discovering the horrible truth about Ducktown, alligators and the cruel reality of the food chain.

One cunning plan later, and the liberation of Ducktown begins. Fly or die! is the message, and eventually, after plenty of hard work, that's just what happens, and the Southern decadence of the Flapping Arms Seaside Resort becomes the new home of several thousand ducks and one (just one!) alligator.

The story, though witty and fantastic, pales into insignificance beside Bedard's art work. With smooth, airbrushed photo-realistic look, each page adds immeasurably to the story. Take, for example, the vastness of the factory, in the midst of which is a small, curious duck, his two black dot eyes somehow conveying utter astonishment and completely guilelessness. And speaking of facial expression, don't forget to take in the other diners at the restaurant when, in an awkward moment, the two friends are offered today's special: duck soup.

The best images in the book, however, surely has to be those which pay tribute to other, well-known works of art. Poker-playing dogs are replaced by a table of anthropomorphised ducks, expressing utter disbelief at the Decoy Café menu, and the little duck with his small bowl of popcorn is only missing a duck hide in the corner to be a perfect tribute to Gary Larson's The Far Side cartoon.

Of course, such in-jokes tempt one to believe that the book is not aimed at children at all. The closer look at the theme which, though extremely amusing on the surface, is suspiciously well-crafted adds to the suspicion that that the whole story is some sort of samizdat manifesto for change. It has everything: oppressed minorities, a powerful worker caste controlling the means of production, segregated ghettos for the minority and, what's more, the duck and the alligator sleep in the same bed with their arms round each other. Like Mao Tse Duck said, change must come at the barrel of a gun...

But, no, it's just a children's book, surely? Just a children's book... but a damn good one at at that.

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