Friday, September 18, 2009

John Philip Duck

I don’t remember when I first heard the story of the ducks who live in the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, TN. The story originally goes that the owner and a buddy, who had just returned from a duck hunting trip were staying in the hotel. They decided for a lark to release some of the live decoy ducks they had into the fountain. It was an immediate hit with the patrons. The current bellman at the hotel (who also happened to be a former animal trainer) taught the ducks to walk on command. And ever since, the lobby of the Peabody Hotel has always been graced with ducks.

Apparently the story was a bit hit with Patricia Polacco as well. Polacco created John Philip Duck as a fictionalized account of how the birds got their origin. The story follows Edward, the son of the bellman at the Peabody, who finds a lost duck one day. He adopts the duck and takes care of it but with one hitch. He also works at the Peabody during the week. So for weeks on end he smuggles the duck into the hotel during the week and takes it home to the family farm on weekend. The staff at the hotel fall in love with the little duck. And over time Edward teaches the young duck to walk on cue. When he turns on a march by John Philip Sousa the duck will follow wherever Edward tells him. One day the hotel manager finds the duck and threatens to throw both Edward and the duck out. But the patrons love the little swimming duck. The manager must be convinced that the duck can obey though. So Edward trains him and some other live decoy ducks that are given to him, to walk on cue into the fountain. They are then to stay until he again turns on the march and they are to walk out. He manages to pull it off, and becomes Duckmaster for the Peabody Hotel.

This is an adorable story that takes a real-life history and fills in some of the cracks in the story. There appears to be little information about the original Duckmaster so Polacco creates a warm and caring character to fill the position. I actually enjoyed her idea of a foundling duck more than the idea that this was something thought up by drunken duck hunters. In this story we see how much Edward cares for the birds and works hard to make sure they will be able to live in the hotel. Even the touch of adding the John Philip Sousa marches makes the story a little more human. In actuality the original ducks were named after the owners. (all ducks after the original group have not been named) That said Polacco tries to stay as true to the tradition as possible. The ducks are always mallards, and include one male and three females. That is how they are portrayed in the book. Every morning and evening a red carpet is rolled out and the ducks are led in by the Duckmaster. She even beautifully captures the little fountain that is their home during the day.

The artwork on this book is just fantastic. Polacco uses watercolors and pencil to bring the hotel and its staff to life. The book opens with a couple colorful spreads of Edward’s parents farm. With tons of different colors and careful shading she creates beautiful rural scenes. The hotel scenes are less colorful and much more sparse. Many of the hotel scenes are done with more pencil than watercolor. That said Polacco captures her cast well, ducks and humans. With just a couple lines she creates a unique and interesting patrons, a whole cast of staff, and a very passionate young man. The ducks are drawn with an emphasis on color. I loved the idea behind this book and how well Polacco was able to pull it off. I guarantee children reading this book will want to know more about the luxury hotel that offers live ducks in their lobby. I even spent some time learning more about the tradition after reading this book. (Like how duck is not allowed to be served in the hotel restaurant) This is a wonderful story that tells a mostly accurate history.

The actual ducks at the Peabody and the fountain they live in.

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