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Odd Duck

Odd DuckFirst, let me remind you that my expertise is not comic books or graphic novels. I DID grow up reading lots and lots of comic books of the Archie & Veronica and Baby Huey variety and have read many graphic novels for young adults. The TOON books have their own special place in my classroom. I am a fan. I am just not an expert and have trouble evaluating them. Given the large number of exceptional graphic novels this year (and stay tuned for a guest post on that very subject by Heavy Medal’s Jonathan Hunt next week), I imagine that the Caldecott committee members are spending some quality time reading about the elements of graphic novels and educating themselves further about them. I know I would be cramming right about now. (Simply cruising the net for some online education is making my head spin just a little bit.)

Now that I have made my disclaimer, I must say that I was taken by Odd Duck from the very beginning. It is not a comic book, but it shares enough characteristics to make it feel quite different from a traditional picture book. In a good way.

I loved the look of this one. We have mostly traditional double-page spreads mixed with half- and quarter- page panels. When the characters (or narrator) talk, it is often (but not always) in word bubbles. The font looks handwritten but is easy to read. The colors are slightly muted and the pages are filled with details that show us everything about Theodora and Chad. Though there are many words on most pages, the story is easy to decipher without the words, and the illustrations add much.

More than anything, this book is very, very funny. Here we have another version of The Odd Couple (just made that connection this second) — Theodora has a plan, a schedule, a neat house and is so controlled that she can balance a cup of tea on her head…while swimming. Or riding a bicycle. Enter new neighbor Chad, and we can see that Theodora’s world is about to be rocked. Chad has a pot of weeds on his front porch, a busted window in his house, and a giant cardboard chicken in his yard (among other things). Theodora can hardly wait for Chad to travel south for the winter. He does not — and their friendship is born.

The cartoon style is perfect for this comic tale of unlikely friendship, misunderstanding, self-knowledge, anger, and forgiveness. The spread with the slamming doors is one of my favorites. Theodora’s curtains look like they are writhing in anger — perhaps about to burst into flames! When the two friends reconcile, the pace slows as each duck walks carefully toward the other’s house in a familiar dance of apology that is full of familiar trepidation for anyone who has had to swallow pride and hope for the best.

While many friendship books drown in lessons and sweetness, this stays true to its quirky core and lets the characters work things out for themselves.

Now, I think I should go make a cup of tea. If only I could balance it on my head. Or had two odd friends to share the pot with.

Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.



  1. Scott McCloud’s UNDERSTANDING COMICS is awesome – that to me would be the go-to guide for someone wanting to better … well… understand comics. It’s engaging, funny, and above all else, informative. (And it’s in comic book format, too.)

    And I love ODD DUCK. Sara Varon is one of the best comic artists going right now. For some odd (ha) reason, Chad reminds me of a cross between Jack Gantos and Christopher Lloyd – when I read this book I hear Gantos’s voice when I read Chad’s text, and I see Lloyd’s animated movements when I look at the visuals. But that’s probably just me. Since character resemblance to celebrities apparently isn’t part of the Caldecott criteria, I’ll finish this by saying that I also appreciate the way the illustrations so strongly support the story.

  2. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Too, too funny, Sam. You have given me a whole new appreciation for this book.
    Not that I really needed it.
    What Robin said plus:

    1) All the comics elements (ie the nontraditional picture book elements) not only add to the humor but advance and deepen the narrative. Small touches like the arrows that proceed Theodora and Chad when they storm into their separate houses, underscoring their separateness. And larger tells such as when Varon pictures and labels Theodora’s heavy post-argument heart.

    2) I love how you can always see all of the ducks when they are swimming. Their whole bodies, above the water and under the water. Well done! Also I love that T. always wears shoes while swimming. Very odd 😉

    3) Which leads me to how much I appreciate the book’s point of view. It is made super clear right from the beginning how odd Theodora really is, yet because the story is told from her point of view, we are (almost) just as surprised as she is to realize it. I think that must be really hard to pull off.

    4) This book is published by First Second, Roaring Brook’s graphic novel imprint. So, is this a picture book or a graphic novel? Or, is there really a difference? And, does it matter?

  3. Elisa Gall says:

    Robin, thanks for pointing out the Odd Couple-ODD DUCK connection! I don’t think I’d have realized that on my own.

    Sam, I love UNDERSTANDING COMICS (and all of McCloud’s books) and agree that it is a great starting place for folks looking to learn and think more about the format.

    Martha, regarding your last question, my take on things is that it doesn’t matter. To me, all books written in the comics format fall under the picture book umbrella. Not all PBs are comics, but all comics are PBs in that they provide the reader with a visual experience. I love your points about how the arrows and labels deepen Varon’s narrative, and I think that’s the sort of stuff that is helpful to keep in mind. It’s less important to decide whether a work fits into a “graphic novel” or “comics” definition (those things are complicated enough!), but more interesting to consider how the artist uses a sequence of illustrations (and text also, if it’s there) to tell her story. I know plenty of people have other ways of considering this, and I’m interested in what you all think. Please share!

  4. Jill Moss says:

    I agree that it doesn’t really matter if you know what kind of book this is to enjoy it. It is very enjoyable. The only reason I want to know what kind of book it is, is to figure out where to shelve the dang thing!

  5. Sam Bloom says:

    Jill, at the risk of totally derailing the conversation, my library system shelves ODD DUCK with the easy books. That tends to be the way we do things with graphic novels for the very young (all of the Toon books that are Level 1 – Little Mouse Gets Dressed, Silly Lilly, etc. – are also shelved with picture books) and/or graphic novel/picture book hybrids like this book.

  6. Elisa Gall says:

    I love the puzzlement that comes from this exact shelving situation. It just shows the impossible challenge of categorizing works into these strict categories and formats, when our world is not so clear-cut.

    I’d like to say that if it’s 32 or 40 pages long, I shelve it with the Everybodies. This would explain why The Snowman and Bluebird and In the Night Kitchen are there. But really, I just go by imprint mostly. Mr. Wuffles is with the PBs, because it came from Clarion. Monster on a Hill is with the comics, because it’s from Top Shelf. (A flawed system, I’ll admit.) I’d like to think that if one of my students challenged a book’s location, I’d be open to talking about (and maybe even actually) changing it. That discussion could be really insightful (and fun) for the both of us.

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