THE UNEXPECTED LOVE STORY OF ALFRED FIDDLEDUCKLING
by Timothy Basil Ering - Walker Books, 2017
ages 2 to 8 years / picture books + emotional resilience, heartwarmers
If there is one certainty over the course of a lifetime, any lifetime, it's that there will always be something unexpected coming.
Sometimes it’s a storm and sometimes it’s the ‘most beautiful sound’ we’ve ever heard.
Alfred Fiddleduckling experiences both.
Alfred is a soon-to-hatch-egg when the story begins, safely nestled in a fiddle case on a sweet little boat loaded with new ducks for the Captain’s home.
There’s such joy and delight on the boat as the Captain, his dog and the ducks dance to the sounds of the fiddle.
When the first unexpected moment comes, a storm lashes the boat and the egg is set adrift in the fiddle case. It hatches and the little duckling (who the Captain planned to call Alfred, after himself), finds himself floating alone on the sea.
The second unexpected moment comes when Alfred spies the fiddle floating in the waves, and, as he caresses the fiddle ‘so it would not feel as lonely as he did’ it makes ‘the most beautiful sound Alfred has ever heard.’
A new and deep love begins for Alfred—the sort of love that carries him ‘through the fog, over wave after wave’ until eventually Alfred finds land.
There are more unexpected moments for Alfred: Unexpected fear that reveals itself in the music that he plays. Unexpected relief, when the fear-inducing dog dances to the glorious sounds of the fiddle and becomes an ally, friend and fellow traveller. Unexpected love when Alfred and the dog make their way to the Captain’s home on the bay, where his gentle wife waits with ‘tears of worry’ on her cheek. And unexpected joy when the Captain’s wife begs, ‘Don’t ever stop playing your wonderful music. You are a very special duckling.’
This wonder of a story moves through a range of feelings familiar to many children—loneliness, fear, security, love, hope, joy and redemption. They’re the sort of feelings that follow change, whether big or small. For Alfred, life changes in every way possible. For children, changes may be part of the ebb of normal life—but they can feel equally momentous. New schools, new family members, moving house, losing friends, new teachers and more can all feel like storms—or like beautiful music—in a child’s life.
It has a vibrancy to it that is perfectly balanced with tension so that readers feel the same relief and joy and hope that Alfred feels—a wonderful way for little ones to practice working through emotions.
The power in this book:
1) It offers reassurance that life is okay even in its messiest moments—and it affirms the universality of the unexpected.
2) It has wonderful sense of community and shared experience. Every character is impacted by the unexpected storm and the unexpected music. Alfred’s gentle music reassures and beckons, and everyone in the story benefits. The storm is just as devastating to the Captain’s wife as it is to the Captain, his dog, the ducks and Alfred, even though she isn’t with them in the midst of the storm.
3) As we read, we get to see (and sometimes talk about) varied responses to coping with the same unexpected event. Alfred floats along in the safety of this egg at first, then plays beautiful music throughout the crisis. The Captain’s wife cries and watches, his dog follows the music, the Captain himself stays with the remains of his boat and seeks a way home.
All of these responses work to find a way through the storm and its aftermath. There’s an unstated but profound respect in the story for each reaction, and a tender invitation to find our own path and value other’s. (I especially love that those who cry and watch are respected and valued—in a do-something kind of world we sometimes undervalue those who feel deeply.)
4) It messages that friends can often make navigating the unexpected more bearable. When Alfred Fiddleduckling finds the dog and they become instant friends, they find that ‘Being lost with a friend was much better than being lost alone.’ They each now have a ‘best buddy’.
5) It takes a deep and complex look at friendship. The friendship alone is not enough—‘Sadly, though, lost was lost.’. The new friends still need to be rescued and it is the ‘tiny quivering music left in the fiddle' that finds its way to the rescuer.
6) It uses metaphor. There’s a lovely metaphor in the Captain’s wife, who hears the ‘tiny quivering music’ and runs to the rescue of Alfred and the dog. Rescuers listen, they run, they rescue whoever they find. Listening carefully is the key, if we hope to rescue we need to hear the music, and if we hope to be rescued we need to keep playing.
7) It builds to a wonderful, inspiring moment at the end of the book—a moment that reminds us that when we are lost or far from home, it’s best to listen for the music, to find the beauty or the light; because that is what will bring us safely home.
It's a brilliant conversation starter:
Once the story has sunk into your hearts it might be helpful to talk about how we are like Alfred Fiddleduckling. Are there times when we just have to keep playing or making beautiful metaphorical music? When might we have to listen really hard to hear the music? (It’s really important that a story with the emotional depth of this one doesn’t become a test, though.)
A small reading hint:
When I read aloud I frequently choose one moment in a book that speaks to me—and then I’ll talk about that moment in a way that offers a way in for a child to talk about their most impactful moment. In this book, that moment for me is the very last page. (There’s no text beyond ‘The End’, but there is a simply glorious illustration showing Alfred’s joyful music emanating from the little house shared by the Captain and his wife.)
I’d probably say something like, ‘Oh I just love the colours of the music—I feel so hopeful when I look at them, I wonder why that is?’ And then I’d flick back through the pages looking at other ways Alfred’s music is depicted.
This story of unexpected love is a perfect read-it-before-you-need-it book. It’s a story that is both interesting and overflowing with love and hope, with imagination-capturing pictures, and so very much to draw on in difficult times.
I really, really like it.