February 08, 2018


The Book about Nothing. By Mike Bender. Illustrated by Hugh Murphy. Crown. $17.99.

Nobody’s Duck. By Mary Sullivan. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.

     You would think that the concept of zero would be a pretty clear and obvious one, but it was not always so: the idea of zero as a digit dates only to about 500 C.E., and the ancient Greeks even argued about nothingness as a philosophical concept. How, they wondered, could nothing be anything? Mike Bender wonders the same thing in The Book about Nothing, but cuts the philosophical Gordian knot by simply asserting that “even nothing is SOMETHING.” The fact that the narrator who makes this statement is a dodo – a bird whose current population is zero – is surely due to Hugh Murphy’s skewed sense of humor, which shows in the illustrations again and again. The interesting thing about The Book of Nothing, the thing that makes it fun, is that it requires young readers to think about what is and is not in an unusual way. For instance, “if you eat all the chocolate chip cookies” in a cookie jar, the jar is not empty but is “chock-full of nothing.” And when you take a bath, what you are wearing is nothing. And in what seems like a second nod to Lewis Carroll – the dodo’s appearance being the first – there is even a suggestion that kids “can get a bunch of balloons and a big cake and celebrate NOTHING,” which seems remarkably like the un-birthday party in Alice in Wonderland except for the fact that all the attendees shown in The Book of Nothing are monkeys. Not everything here is in what adults will consider the best of taste – explaining away a burp by saying it was nothing is one thing, but the toilet humor about what is left behind after flushing (preceded by a panel in which “you forgot to flush!”) is a bit much. Still, there is a nice mixture of the amusing and the thoughtful here – the latter most clearly exemplified by the statement that “with nothing, anything is possible.” Quite so. Think about it.

     And speaking of negatives, Mary Sullivan’s Nobody’s Duck raises the issue of whose duck the title character really is, and what it means to be someone’s duck in the first place. Among anthropomorphic-animal stories, this is an offbeat one: the hat-wearing, travel-bag-carrying duck shows up on the lawn outside the home of a pajama-clad alligator and remains there all night, leading the irritated alligator to come outside the next morning – wearing a tie – to ask, “Whose duck are you?” The duck roots around in his bag, discovers a thinking cap in it (complete with lightbulb), considers the question, and responds that he is nobody’s duck. But “you must be somebody’s duck,” the alligator says, and sets off to find out what is what, pulling the duck in a wagon (the duck’s expression of enjoyment contrasting delightfully with the alligator’s of irritation). At various locations, the duck, instead of speaking, emits excited quacks – leading the alligator to think the duck belongs there. At the library, for example, the alligator asks the librarian (a giraffe), “Is this your duck?” She says no – while the duck gathers books and presents a library card. The duck then sits happily reading while the increasingly frustrated alligator waits. Exactly what bothers the alligator is never clear and is not the book’s point: what matters is all the fun the duck has and the way he pulls the reluctant alligator into it. After the library, as the duck quacks with amusement while reading books in the wagon, the alligator heads for a movie theater, where the alligator asks the pig at the ticket window if this is his duck. The excited duck, meanwhile, is responding enthusiastically to a poster advertising “Dogzilla Strikes Again,” and soon buys two movie tickets for himself and the alligator. They watch the film – both wearing 3D glasses – and then the alligator pulls the duck onward, finding that the duck does not belong with the operator of a Go-Kart track or in a skydiving business. So whose duck is the duck? The answer, of course, is that he is the alligator’s duck – which the alligator realizes, as he thinks back over the day’s adventures, really means he is the alligator’s friend. An amusing final twist, over a couple of stacks of duck-prepared pancakes, neatly wraps up this unusual friendship book in which nobody’s duck is very definitely somebody to enjoy.

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