Retroview: Tacky the Penguin

Lacking anything terribly interesting to review, I’ve decided to write a retroview of a book I liked when I was young, Tacky the Penguin.

Rereading it today, I’m sorry that I didn’t notice it sooner. Helen Lester’s Tacky the Penguin is a rather unabashed reappropriation of the major idea in The Ugly Duckling. Sure, Tacky’s just an odd duck–figuratively, not literally–when the ugly duckling’s really a swan, but the moral is very much the same. Both attempt to say that what’s inside is far more important than what’s outside, and both do it relatively well.

Before we get too far into the comparison, we need a quick plot synopsis. Tacky the Penguin lives with a small group of other penguins, tellingly named Goodly, Lovely, Angel, Neatly, and Perfect (remember that there’s no irony in books for five-year-olds). While the other penguins wear false collars and solid-colored bow ties, Tacky wears a flowered Hawaiian shirt and a plaid bow tie. While the others are staid and graceful, Tacky’s predictably clumsy and odd.

But when hunters unexpectedly arrive, it’s Tacky who saves the day. By being himself, Tacky manages to convince the hunters that he (and his hiding friends) are not penguins, or certainly not penguins worth hunting. They’re not graceful, they don’t dive well, and they sing terribly. The hunters run away. Tacky is then, predictably, welcomed and loved by the other penguins.

It’s easy to point to all the silly notions this book is built upon–that hunters won’t kill annoying animals, that penguins wear clothes, pass judgments on other penguins, and are all males–but I’m pretty sure there’s nothing to gain from that. After all, sometimes a children’s book should be judged as a children’s book.

Compared with The Ugly Duckling, Tacky may be a simpler and more straightforward validation of the inside-not-outside message. After all, the ugly duckling has to change to prove the point, Tacky only has to be his own clever self.

Tacky has a simple message that I grasp as readily now as I did when I was five: being different can be good. Does such a message vastly over-simplify life? Yes. Does it work well for five-year-olds? It did for me.

I would have a hard time recommending Tacky to anyone over the age of eight. The book itself is shorter than these few paragraphs have been. But for someone at least a little bit like I was at five, Tacky’s not a bad book to read.


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