Wednesday, September 22

Hoddy Doddy

by Jack Kent 
Greenwillow / William Morrow 1979

Three folksy tales of the town fools in an Old World unnamed Danish town.  An interesting window onto a slightly politically incorrect beginning reader by the creator of the King Aroo comic strip. 

In a little Danish town, where these stories are all set, we see three small portraits of hoddy doddy's, or what Kent calls "foolish fellows." The first is a baker who, when told a Norwegian ship has arrived, goes to the harbor because he's never seen a Norwegian before.  When he arrives at the dock the ship is empty except for some stray lobsters that have fallen out of nets, and the baker assumes these are the Norwegians.  In the second tale, the town has learned that the enemy is approaching. In their panic to save the town clock, their most powerful possession, they dump it into the harbor where no one is likely to find it... including the townfolk.  In the last tale a town-proud miller spends his free time admiring how much better his homeland is than others. Upon hearing a contest between cuckoos of neighboring town, he decides to climb the tree and help his town's cuckoo win the contest.  For this he gets a statue erected in his honor as a town hero.

There is little denying the amount of story Kent manages to pack into these brief tales – and their illustrations take on the sort of Old World charm reminiscent of Paul Coker's work with the Rankin Bass animated holiday specials that also mined this territory – but there's something off kilter about identifying the residents from this town as being from Denmark.  The matter of fact presentation and definition of the phrase hoddy doddy makes it seem as if we are reading regional folk tales, but I've recently become aware of the phrase through The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in which it's defined as "all ass and no body," which itself was slang to describe short, clumsy people.

I can't presume that the late Jack Kent, whose visual work strikes a nostalgic thrum in me, was attempting to make fun of the Danes deliberately.  It may be that he'd heard the phrase and its meaning divorced from its original use and was simply using it as a peg on which to hang a set of fool's stories.  But it may also have been that its offensiveness went unnoticed until after publication, which may explain why it appears to be no longer in print but not why it's still readily available in my town library.  There's also the chance that I'm being overly sensitive, but it really jumped out at me from page one.

Had Kent not singled out "a town in Denmark" all I would have been able to talk about was his skill at condensing three vignettes into an enjoyable beginning reader with humor and an economy of language.

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