The Duck and The Darklings: Can my reading year get better than this?

posted in: Glenda Millard, Stephen Michael King | 11

I have my first contender for the very best picture book I’ll read all 2015.

duckdarklingsThe Duck and the Darklings written by Glenda Millard, and illustrated by Stephen Michael King is a gentle and powerful heart salve. It is a tiny yet quenching oasis of love and hope. It is funny and quirky and lyrical and poignant and lovely in that way that makes your lips feel a little like singing when you read its words.

Grandpa and Peterboy live underground because the earth above has fallen into ruin. A quiet air of melancholy pervades their home whilst they remember happier, healthier and brighter times past. One day Peterboy finds a wounded duck which he brings home, even though they have little food to share. Compassion, thoughtfulness and generosity heal the duck, but once she is well enough she is drawn by instinct to leave and fly across the skies. The thought of losing his new friend makes Peterboy sad. Can he let that which he loves go?

Millard has written an exquisite story about hope and friendship. Rarely will you come across a picture book full with such glorious verbal imagery, where in almost every line words and sentences feel like they have been recast, hewn afresh from the language we use everyday. Melodic and evocative, I can’t remember the last time I read aloud a picture book and so enjoyed simply feeling and hearing the sentences blossom into the air as I shared the story.

With echoes of Leonni’s Frederick, The Duck and the Darklings explores the power of stories, real, remembered and imagined, to sustain us. For me it was also a metaphor for mourning and a way through, back to finding a sense of hope after experiencing depression, and how building relationships, even if they ultimately change and move on, is a that which brings us life.

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M and J probably didn’t react the same way, I shall freely admit! As child readers of this book they adored its unconventionality, its playfulness, its whimsy. Grandpa in the book is highly inventive (there are many illustrations of his contraptions), Peterboy is brave, inquisitive and kind. He has freedom to roam and a valued role in the family and both these aspects also hugely appealed to my kids.

King’s illustrations are a perfect match for this very special story. With lots of black, dark blues and purples, mixing seemingly chaotic splashes and brushes with fine detail, humour and increasing use of colour as hope gradually fills the world between the book’s pages, King has created a beguiling landscape.

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To paraphrase a line from The Duck and the Darklings, when I’m searching for books to share with my family and with you here on the blog, I wish “for more than crumbs and crusts”; I wish for “scrap[s] of wonderfulness.” And a piece of wonderfulness is truly what this book is.

A detail from the backcover of The Duck and the Darklings. This was the image which especially inspired our sculpture.
A detail from the backcover of The Duck and the Darklings. This was the image which especially inspired our “playing by the book”.

Inspired by the darkness and the forest and flowers which grow as the earth heals, thanks to the blooming of hope and friendship between Peterboy, Idaduck and Grandpa, we created our own sculpture taking King’s illustrations as are starting point. To create the sculpture we used a large cardboard box, a piece of polystyrene (packaging from another box), jam jar and bottle lids, twigs, acrylic paint and tape.

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First J painted the inside of the cardboard box and the twigs black, matching the black stemmed plants in King’s illustrations. She also painted the back of the lids black (where they weren’t already black), and the insides of the lids bright colours. For all of this it was important to use acrylic paint (rather than poster paint) as it adheres to almost any surface, including wood, metal and plastic.

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Once the paint was dry we used the tape to stick the lids on the ends of the twigs to create “flowers”, which we embellished with paper leaves.

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Then to bring light into our sculpture we used small batteries and LEDs to create pinpricks of magic.

I think you can just about see in the photo series below how J loved the “magic” of being able to turn the LED on by positioning it carefully on the battery. A simple but exciting introduction to electricity and circuits! We used small CR2032 3V lithium batteries and 5mm LEDs, and what J had to investigate is what difference it made as to which side of the battery the long leg of the LED (LEDs have one long leg, and one short) needed to be on, in order for the LED to light up. Once she’d cracked the magic-making we used electrical tape to fix the LEDs in position, taping around both legs of the LED and the battery to prevent any movement.

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J stuck her LED lights through holes in the boxes once we’d assembled all our flowers inside the large cardboard box she’d painting black. To help the flowers stand upright, I “hid” a piece of polystyrene packaging under the base of the box. Thus, when J made a hole for her flower to stand in, the flower’s stem also went into the thick polystyrene base, helping it to stay vertical. You can just see the polystyrene in the picture – under the flap at the bottom of the box.

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Finally we turned off all the lights in our room and entered into our own Darkness, gradually filling with light and hope and renewal.

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Whilst making our garden in the darkness we listened to music I think could light up any darkness:

  • As steals the Morn by Handel, sung here by Mark Padmore and played by the English Consort. Exquisite, soothing, restorative.
  • Bless the glad earth also by Handel, the last piece in Act 2 of his opera Semele. You can see the production which moved me to tears the first time I saw it here, with ‘Bless the glad earth’ starting around the 45 minute mark. Yeah, I know it’s opera, but don’t think the kids won’t enjoy it; in my experience the “dressing up”, the theatricality, and the whole pomp of it can appeal to kids quite a lot! Just like many kids can fall in love with going to see a ballet, I’m convinced just as many could enjoy opera if given half a chance.


  • Other activities which might go really well with reading The Duck and the Darklings include:

  • Creating a candle hat just like those worn by the Darklings. Seeing as we’re on a role with LEDs I might use one of them, but alternatively you could create a candle out of toilet rolls like Creative Jewish Mom did and attach to your favourite hat (or make one like these from Ikat Bag)
  • Reading the Kingdom of Silk series by the same author and illustrator pair. It’s actually thanks to this series of short novels for young children that I discovered The Duck and the Darklings. The series is remarkable and I will be reviewing this hopefully next month on the blog, but I can’t resist an extra opportunity to bring it to your attention as it is something rare and incredible.

  • Have you read anything yet this year which has simply taken your breath away?

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of The Duck and the Darklings from the UK distributors, Murdoch Books (YES! This Australian book is easily available here in the UK, your local bookshop should be able to order it without you having to resort to Amazon).

    11 Responses

    1. Using those LED lights is a very nifty idea.

      Your words and sentences about the words and sentences in the book have drawn me in – I love it when the language we use everyday is used in a fresh and delicious way!
      Claire Potter recently posted..Giveaway: The Little Blighters Books!

      • Thanks Claire, the LEDs are proving lots of fun with both the kids. I feel a bit ambivalent about using so many batteries, but the girls are excited and engaged by what they can do with the batteries and LEDs – we have another book linked project in the pipeline which uses them.

    2. Beautiful! What a fantastic project.

    3. Ohhh, this is so beautiful – the review and the magical creations you made! I immediately ordered the book and am excited to read and drift into a new, enchanted space 🙂

    4. I reviewed it last year Zoe and hope it wins an award this year, as it deserves to. Do look out for other books by Millard – she’s one of my favourite picture book authors.
      Susan Stephenson recently posted..A List of Useful Clipart for Education

      • Thanks Susan, I am most definitely keeping my eye out for more books by Millard – she’s been wonderful to discover.

    5. Hermosa historia! y todo lo que inspira. Soy de Argentina, ha llegado este libro a mi país? Soy maestra y me interesa tenerlo!!

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