illustrated by Rebecca Harry
She is the littlest of five ducklings. She is the last to eat and the last to swim. Father Duck worries that Ruby won’t catch up. But Mother Duck knows that Ruby will flourish
… in her own time.
“A warm family saga expertly told and beautifully illustrated.”
Kathryn Ross, THE SCOTSMAN
“A warm-hearted and reassuring story.”
Julia Eccleshare, THE GUARDIAN
Authors are often asked where they get the ideas for their stories. In my case, I often come up with what I consider to be a good title and then I try to think of a story that will go with it. And that is how this story came about.
We have a lake near our house that I occasionally jog around in the mornings. At the time that this story was written, there was a swan’s nest among the reeds at one end of the lake and that gave me the idea for the book’s title Once Upon a Time, Upon a Nest (the book was retitled for the US and the UK paperback editions). I substituted ducks for swans and the story grew from there.
Although the book is centred on Ruby, the smallest of five ducklings, the only speaking characters are her parents, so we see much of the story from their point of view. Father Duck is anxious about Ruby who is small and slow to develop compared with her four larger siblings. But Mother Duck reassures him that Ruby will flourish – “in her own time.”
I know that many parents have had similar anxieties about their child’s development. So, while this book is principally for children, I hope that the story’s reassuring message will strike a chord with parents as well. Any parent needing additional reassurance might like to know that even the greatest of achievers can have a slow start. In a biography written by Einstein’s sister, Maja, she informs us that her brother “developed slowly in childhood, and he had such difficulty with language that those around him feared he would never learn to speak.”*
I can remember feeling unusually satisfied with the story when I’d finished it. Although the text was much shorter and the plot was far simpler than most of my picture books, it felt right and I imagined that I would have little trouble getting it published. However this was not the case. The first publisher I showed it to turned it down on the basis that, although it had a nice feel, the plot was far too simple and “would need too many changes made to it before it would begin to work”. Other publishers misinterpreted it as a re-telling of the Ugly Duckling and when I explained that it wasn’t, suggested that I should re-write it as such, which I was unwilling to do. Almost two years later, having been turned down by a dozen other publishers, Macmillan enthusiastically accepted the story. And – despite the first publisher’s comments – the only change they asked me to make was to the names of Ruby’s brothers, who were originally called Ronald and Robert.
It took several months to find a suitable illustrator. There are only seven characters in the story and all of them are ducks, five of which needed to be shown at various stages of development, from duckling through to adult. So we needed someone who could draw ducks that would be recognisable as individual characters. This is not simple and several illustrators were considered before settling upon Rebecca Harry. Rebecca’s characters are instantly appealing, and I think that her illustrations have a warmth and simplicity that perfectly compliments the text.
A good illustrator extends the story with their illustrations and this book provides an excellent example of this. Although the text stated that Ruby returns to her parents at the end of the story, it was Rebecca’s idea to show Ruby with a young family of her own on the final spread. This brings the story full circle and makes the conclusion far more satisfying.
* It’s ironic then that one of the most popular brands of infant development products goes by the name of Baby Einstein!
“Once Upon A Time, Upon a Nest by Jonathan Emmett and Rebecca Harry is a warm, family saga expertly told and beautifully illustrated, with some of the most endearing ducks ever to waddle across the pages of a picture book. Little Ruby is a bit slower at hatching, eating and swimming than her siblings and Father duck is worried about her progress, but Mother knows she will flourish ‘in her own time’ and, of course, she’s right. It’s sweet, but not sickly, and the youngest members of the family will love this comforting story.”
Kathryn Ross, THE SCOTSMAN
“Messages about doing things in your own time are never wasted, particularly for today’s over-achieving pre-schoolers (and their parents) … Soft-focus fluffy-duckling illustrations complement this warm-hearted and reassuring story.”
Julia Eccleshare, THE GUARDIAN
“Painterly texture expressively applied ensures that every spread in this engaging picture book is full of movement and life and every slight curve of a beak or inclination of a neck convey the emotions of Father and Mother Duck as they worry about Ruby, the last hatched and smallest of their brood … Harry’s debut picture book artwork is an assured and confident interpretation of Emmett’s warmly sensitive text.”
Rosemary Stones, BOOKS FOR KEEPS
“Soft-edged forms and pastels create characters that mirror the lyrical language and calm tone of the story … Children will love the repetition and simple language. Adults will appreciate the reassuring and timeless message of honoring one’s own rhythm in growing up. This message is not new, yet has a freshness and life all its own.”
“This charming book celebrates an individual’s determination and sense of self. The pacing of the rhythmic text is ideal for family storytimes that include youngsters of varying ages. Harry’s soft, pastel paintings are gentle and appealing. They are slightly textured, suggesting the look of feathers, nests, and river reeds … Astute readers will recognize her parents’ strength as they provide the necessary time and space for her to accomplish her goals.”
Shawn Brommer, SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL