Tuesday, May 09, 2006

You're a Weird-Ass Picture Book, Walliwigs

MotherReader recently started a conversation about weird-ass picture books--and in particular, the fact that a disproportionate number of these books seem to have been penned by, well, foreigners. Today I'd like to jump into that conversation, and present You're Somebody Special, Walliwigs, by the (sure enough!) South African author/illustrator Joan Rankin.

This cheerfully-illustrated little book was selected by my four-year-old on a visit to the library yesterday afternoon. I've read it a few times now, and I tell you, this book is weird on so many levels that I despair of describing them all. A tour de force of muddled themes and aborted plot lines, apparently drawing inspiration from Are You My Mother?, The Ugly Duckling, Horace, and The Book of Job. Let's just take a look, shall we?

Walliwigs is a baby parrot, whose mother (described in the text as "silly" and "somewhat foolish," for which read "neglectful" and "probably inebriated") builds her nest in the smokestack of a steamship, then flies off one day to do some sightseeing, leaving the infant Walliwigs all alone. The ship is launched, and sails out to sea. What will Walliwigs's mother do to get her baby back?

Well... nothing, apparently. At any rate, she never appears in the book again. (That might have led to a plot.) Instead, Walliwigs is rescued by the people on the ship. But... is he safe? The cook is talking ominously about "pineapple-parrot pie"! The ship's boy, tasked with caring for Walliwigs, doesn't like parrots, thinks Walliwigs is a nuisance--and loves his parrot-eating pet python, Harold! How will Walliwigs escape?!

Well, in the event, he doesn't have to; no one tries to harm him in any way. It was a close call, but once again, we have successfully dodged the "plot" bullet. Arriving in port, the ship's boy casually gives Walliwigs to his aunt, who (finding his recipe for pineapple-parrot pie unappetizing) just as casually tosses him in with her hens--the only birds she particularly cares for.

Here, Walliwigs finds a home with Martha, the loving broody hen who adopts him as her own chick, despite all the aloof and judgemental sniping of the other hens, who find him "scrawny," "ugly," and a "misfit." He grows to birdhood secure in the love of his devoted new mother, and would no doubt live happily ever after if only the book would take pity on us and end, but instead, the uncaring aunt (who has "had enough of Walliwigs's funny ways"), gives him away to an ornithologist friend of hers.

Walliwigs has no desire to leave the only motherly love he has ever known, but he is bound, caged, and dragged away. Poor Martha is inconsolable. How can they ever be reunited?

Then again, on second thought, who needs to reunite? Martha receives a letter from Walliwigs. He's entirely delighted with his new mother-free life! It turns out he's a rare parrot, so they've been treating him extremely well (and also apparently teaching him how to write). He is to be married "as soon as a suitable bride is found." The book closes with Martha daydreaming about what she'll wear to the wedding, as the suddenly-impressed hens try to court her friendship.

The only way this story could be any creepier is if the suitable bride turned out to be Walliwigs's mother.

On the other hand, at least then it would have closure.