Not long after my first child was born, my mom presented me with a box of treasures... dozens of books I had grown up reading (or had read to me). Included in this box were some twenty-odd National Geographic kids' books from the 1970s, old Dr. Seuss, Disney, and other books. One of the interesting and refreshing things about these old books is that they are much harsher and matter-of-fact about the world than today's children's books. They don't sugarcoat that animals eat other animals or that there are bad things that happen in the world. They aren't malevolent, just more honest. Some of them also have messages that are hard to come by nowadays.
The box of treasures also included a dozen or so Whitman Tell-a-Tale books. These are quite small -- roughly 6.5 x 5.5 inches, and averaging 20 pages -- and were among my favorites growing up. The Tell-a-Tale books have titles like Eloise and the Old Blue Truck and Mimi: The Merry-Go-Round Cat. Mimi is one of my now nearly 5-year-old daughter's favorite books (she loves cats).
But my favorite as a young boy was Diddle Daddle Duckling by author Grace Irene Bennett, and illustrator June Goldsborough. The copy I have is from 1971, but some quick research tells me that it was first published in 1934. The story follows a young duckling who, finding the cupboard bare, heads out into the world to rectify the situation.
The condition of my copy is bad. It's beyond dogeared, and is barely held together by 30-year-old tape that is yellowed and brittle. Just in case, I scanned the entire book, so that it wouldn't be lost forever.
I'd like to post all of the scanned images, but after looking into copyright law, the best I can guess is that the book is not yet in the public domain. As such, I'll only post a few images and summarize the story enough to show why this book was so important to me as a young boy, and is even more meaningful to me now. Below you'll find pages from the book, interspersed with text that describes the story from the pages I haven't included. (be sure to read the text in the images, because I don't necessarily recount what they say -- clicking on them opens them full size so the text is more legible)
Yup, 25 cents is all this book cost in the early 1970s. Note the tape holding the binding together, and the tattered pages peeking out.
The book opens with the matter of fact statement that Diddle Daddle and his family were poor. No excuses, no blaming the non-existent father.
Diddle Daddle found that the family had no food, grabbed his hat, and set out on the road. When he found Mrs. C. Dog, he asked her for a job. Sadly, her puppies did all of her work for her and she had no job to offer. Undeterred, Diddle Daddle continued on to see Mrs. Hen, but found the same result. He sat and thought, and finally had an idea. He stood tall and tried to quack like a big duck, and walked until he found a sign that read "Puddle Duck's Garage."
Old Puddle Duck decided to give him a job. Diddle Daddle hung his hat on a nail, put on a leather apron, and set to work.
He worked and worked, and at the end of the day, hung the apron on a hook and washed himself off with a hose.
Diddle Daddle Duck walked to the bakery with his money and looked at all the chocolate cakes and doughnuts, still fresh and warm. But he had more important goals in mind.
"I have a job! I have a job!" he sang to his mother. His brothers and sisters gathered around and Diddle Daddle Duckling and his mother handed out portions of the buns that he had bought with his hard-earned money. When tucking him in that night, his mother said, "I'm proud of you."
What a perfect parable extolling the virtues of productive work, honesty, integrity, and pride! He identifies a problem (poverty) and the values the problem is harming (his mother and siblings); he develops a plan (find a job) and works hard to execute it; and he achieves his goals and feels pride because of it.
Something in this book spoke to me at a very early age. I wouldn't read Ayn Rand for nearly 15 years after I outgrew Diddle Daddle Duckling, but now I see that I get the same thrill reading about Howard Roark or Hank Rearden as I do when I look back at this story of a little duck.
I had forgotten this story until I went through the box my mother saved. I vaguely recalled the book itself and that it had been my favorite, but not what it was about. When I read it again, thirty years later, my jaw dropped at the simple clarity and honesty of the message. This is what children's books should be like.
"And Diddle Daddle fell asleep, dreaming of buns and oilcans and watering cans. In his sleep he quacked, 'I have a job!'"