Duckling

Authored by Kamila Shamsie
Illustrated by Laura Barrett
Published by Vintage

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Through the ages, fairy tales have been rich ground for retelling and reframing. The familiar structure makes them readily adaptable and in recent years, in particular, there have been versions that have played with the originals, sometimes telling them from another perspective or giving them a twist or different ending. This retelling of The Ugly Duckling is part of a new picture book series, Fairy Tale Revolution, giving these familiar tales a contemporary and feminist twist. The original is much loved by young children and there have been several animated and musical versions. However, this retelling by Kamila Shamsie contains adult concepts making it more suitable for older readers from KS2 upwards and including an adult audience. Unlike some retold fairy tales that sanitise the darker elements for current sensibilities this version contains themes such as bullying, discrimination and abuse of power.

The start of the story remains true to the original albeit our ‘ugly’ duckling is a female in this version. Of the nine baby birds who hatch from their mother’s eggs, one is noticeably different and does not fit in with the appearance or behaviour of her siblings. That is the case in the original too, not ‘ugly’ merely different. Ostracised by the other farmyard animals, bullied by the Grand Old Duck and finally rejected by her mother who had initially supported her, the little duckling flees the farm and ventures into the world beyond. Once there she experiences further discrimination and unkindness as she is unable to find anywhere where she fits in. The familiar elements are there of course; the wild geese who befriend her, the hunters, the farmer who rescues her and the swans who finally recognise her for what she is.

Despite the mistreatment that is meted out on the duckling she also encounters kindness on her journey and this affects her character. Where this story differs greatly from the original is that although accepted by the swans the ugly duckling wants to be accepted as herself, not judged merely on appearance and she courageously stands up for the right to be different. She feels shame at the way the swans make fun of the way the stork looks and does not want to be party to their behaviour. There are important messages here about treatment of any viewed as an outsider, whatever the reason. This could easily be seen as a story about a refugee, or body shaming or discrimination based on colour, religion or ethnicity. The ending provides a joyous celebration as the duckling embarks on life’s adventure with the support and companionship of those who helped her. I loved this version more than the original.

This is a well-presented book and the silhouette illustrations, in a woodcut style, by Laura Barrett are fitting and complement the story perfectly. An excellent book for use in the classroom.

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