The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards
Aug 27, 2014
I read a book with no pictures to my children. Did you hear that? Zero pictures. As in, none.
I'm pretty sure this is an event that will go down in our family's history.
Because not only did we read it, we loved every. single. word.
When Ben, Tom, and Lindy meet Professor Savant in the zoo one Sunday afternoon, they have not the slightest inkling that their lives are about to become significantly more interesting. The professor tells them about "an imaginary creature of undefined character" called a Whangdoodle. But he is only imaginary because hundreds of years ago everyone stopped believing that he existed. The professor tells the children there is only one Whangdoodle left in the world, and he lives in a magical land that is inaccessible to humans.
For years, Professor Savant has been trying to catch a glimpse of the infamous creature, but it takes a healthy and vibrant and perceptive imagination to bridge the gap between reality and fantasy. The professor thinks the Potter children might just be imaginative enough to try it.
With the help of their scrappy caps and a lot of practice exercises, the children and professor enter Whangdoodleland. They are immediately in awe of the golden river and purple trees and flutterbys, but being in Whangdoodleland is only half the achievement. They still have to get to the Whangdoodle, and the prime minister (known as the Prock) will do anything to stop them. Soon they are facing Tree Squeaks and Sidewinders and a terrifying Gyascutus, but it turns out the real obstacle isn't in Whangdoodleland at all . . .
Before I started reading it, I warned Aaron and Max about the lack of illustrations. For many months now, they haven't even needed the illustrations the way they used to. Lately, they've just been icing on the cake. But needed or not, there were still times while we were reading this book when we all asked, "Wouldn't it be fun to see a picture of the Whiffle Bird or the soda fountain or the Brainstrain?" In many ways, it seemed like the type of book that would be illustrated.
However, in the end, the lack of illustrations seemed fitting since the whole book is about using your imagination and believing in the impossible. Somehow, it just wouldn't seem right to give the Potter children all the fun and not allow the reader to use his/her own imagination. Little did I know this was actually Julie Andrews' intention. After we finished the book, I read the author's note where she said, "My publishers asked me if I wished to have the book illustrated. The tale is about using one's imagination (and discovering what is under one's very nose), and I hoped that readers would discover the Whangdoodle for themselves--just as I had--so I decided not to." How fitting then that this happened to be our very first chapter book without pictures.
The book is magical in every way. Whangdoodleland feels like something akin to Oz, and every bend in the road revealed a new delight. One of my favorites? The Fruit-of-the-Month Tree where every month produces a different kind of fruit. I wish I could grow one of those in my backyard.
Of course I loved Lindy, Tom, and Ben, but two of my favorite characters were actually the Prock and the professor. The Prock was the perfect villain for my four-year-old and six-year-old because he was intimidating and threatening, but he wasn't evil. In fact, by the end of the book, he had worked his way into our affections (but lest you think he displayed a sudden, unbelievable change in personality, he didn't, but his actions finally made sense).
And while the Prock was the perfect villain, the professor was the perfect mentor. He possessed childlike faith that he exercised frequently, almost to a fault (as when he told the children to leap from a speeding train). He was immature enough that he could relate really well to the children (except in the instance where Tom and Ben joyfully hopped onto Gazooks, thinking that they were actually minibikes--then suddenly, he was all reproachful that they'd let themselves get deceived. In my opinion, he was a little unfair, and Lindy concurred as much) but also wise and cautious.
The best moment of the book for me was when the professor and children had almost reached the Whangdoodle's palace. They had only to cross the bridge, and they'd be there. And . . . the professor couldn't see the bridge. This was so startling and heartbreaking. In spite of his creative mind and youthful heart, his age betrayed him. With this revelation, the story took on new meaning for me. As hard as we might try, it is sometimes impossible to cast off the responsibilities of adulthood. And I loved that because of this, the reader could see why the children were absolutely essential in this adventure and how the professor relied on them as much as they relied on him.
I'm so glad I didn't let the lack of pictures scare me away because this was definitely one of our favorite readalouds of the summer. It encapsulates all the magic of childhood in one adventurous story. In the words of the professor, "Miracles, contrary to popular belief, do not just happen. A miracle is the achievement of the impossible, and it is only when we put aside our greed, anger, pride and prejudice so that our minds are open and ready to accept it, that a miracle can occur."
P.S. I was a little hesitant to read something by Julie Andrews since it often seems like famous people can write anything and people will buy it just because they wrote it, but this one is actually quite well-written and can be enjoyed equally by Julie Andrews' fans and not.