The Sissy Duckling (2002), written by Harvey Fierstein and illustrated by Henry Cole, is the story of Elmer, a little boy Duck who loves to build, paint, cook, and play make-believe. Elmer is quite happy, even though he spends a lot of time playing alone – not quite fitting in with the girl or boy ducks.
Elmer’s hyper-masculine father is less happy with Elmer’s isolation and demands he learn to play baseball so he can join the other boy ducks. Elmer gives it a chance, and is unphased with his own lack of skills, sashaying of the field flamboyantly once he strikes out at bat.
Elmer’s dad is upset because the other ducks call Elmer a sissy. Elmer hears his father complaining to his mother, and when she puts him to bed, he asks what the word “sissy” means. She tells him it’s a mean way of saying you challenge people’s expectations, but she reassures him that she loves him and thinks he’s perfect.
The next day, Elmer is greeted by a bully who calls him a sissy. At first, he has a sassy comeback, but when the other ducks begin to mock him, Elmer is deflated. Elmer’s bully finds him after school and chases him all the way home. When his father finds out, instead of being sympathetic he criticizes his son as weak and calls him a sissy. Elmer’s mother continues to be gently supportive.
Upset he is disappointing his parents, Elmer runs away from home. Because he has important survival skills, he can make himself a cozy home on the other side of the pond.
He returns home just before his flock flies south for the winter and witnesses his mother crying because she must leave without him. Immediately after the flock takes to the sky, hunters begin to shoot at them.
One of the wounded ducks is Elmer’s father. When he sees Elmer standing over him, far from being relieved and gratefully, he says: “You don’t see any other ducks coming back to rescue me. For once in your life can’t you act like a normal duck?” Elmer ignores his father’s complaint and brings him back to his home.
Elmer’s father begins to feel guilty that Elmer will not survive because he saved him. But Elmer is confident that they will not only survive, they will enjoy it. Father and son spend the winter getting to know each other, and they do, in fact, enjoy their time together.
When the flock returns, Elmer’s bully has been made leader, but Elmer’s dad quickly changes that by coming forward and explaining that Elmer saved him. The flock then celebrate Elmer for his bravery.
Henry Cole does a phenomenal job creating expressive ducks. He maintains a strong sense of energy while his color choices have a cozy cuddle-up and read me again feel.
I love that Fierstein allows Elmer to make the hard choice of living alone so that he can be happy. He doesn’t need other ducks, but he is also beautifully open to forgiveness. A delightful read, highly recommended!
This review is part of my “Snapshots of LGBTQ Kid Lit” project. I’m working on a book, The New Queer Children’s Literature: Exploring the Principles and Politics of LGBTQ* Children’s Picture Books, which is under contract with the University Press of Mississippi. Part of my research is identifying and interpreting English-language children’s picture books with LGBTQ* content published in the US and Canada between 1979 and 2019. Follow my blog to follow my journey!