A direct descendant of Maurice Sendak’s Pierre, Michael Sussman’s Duckworth, the Difficult Child tells the story of a boy swallowed by a massive cobra. The book’s memorable opening line sets the stage for readers, just before we see the snake slide out of the boy’s wardrobe: “Duckworth was building a castle out of toothpicks when he heard a hissing sound.” Duckworth’s anxious parents are no help; they’re too busy reading a parenting self-help book to listen to their son and, instead, put him to work, per their book’s instructions, on household chores. After the cobra swallows him whole, the parents assume Duckworth is in a costume and carry on with their day.
Sussman’s sendup of modern parenting (he is a clinical psychologist), dedicated to “difficult children everywhere,” is well paired with illustrator Júlia Sardà, who is capable of pulling off a quirky Gorey-esque vibe. She brings distant, angular lines and cool colors to Duckworth’s home and even to his parents, which are effectively juxtaposed with the curving, sensual lines and vivid orange of the mammoth snake. Sardà does offbeat well; she paints a ping pong table in the middle of the family’s front yard. The book also features a smaller, playful font size when Duckworth speaks to his family from inside the cobra.
The parents, who are far from intuitive (“according to this book” and “the book says,” they consistently tell their son), are actually the difficult ones in this eccentric story. There’s an understated humor to Duckworth’s ability to tolerate them and his necessity for self-sufficiency. After all, in the end, Duckworth saves himself.
Julie Danielson conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.