Chih-Yuan Chen's Guji Guji
Book review by Monica Friedman
Adoption, Families, Crocodiles, and Ducks: The Best Picture Book You've Never Heard of
Guji Guji is bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter than the rest of the ducklings in Mother Duck's joyful brood, and this, the astute observer will understand, is due to the fact that the "odd-looking" Guji Guji is biologically, physiologically, and genetically a crocodile. And yet...
Raised as a prey animal, he is socially and culturally identical to his adopted family, as "no matter how quick they were, or what they looked liked, Mother Duck loved all her ducklings the same."
There is no ugly duckling in this story, just a good-hearted, family-oriented child who is never forced to confront his otherness until the day a pack of predators-socially and culturally crocodilian-recognize his situation and try to exploit it for personal gain.
"You're just like us," the other crocodiles explain, a "bad crocodile" whose evolutionary inheritance is the eating of "fat, delicious ducks." To this end, they insist that Guji Guji trick his family into jumping directly into their mouths, "Because we are all crocodiles, and crocodiles help each other."
Having never thought of himself as anything other than a duck, young Guji Guji is forced to examine his own soul and determine who he truly is: "not a bad crocodile," but "not exactly a duck, either." His solution, combining some classic cartoon tropes, becomes an exercise in loyalty, problem-solving, and subterfuge. The crocodiles are routed and Guji Guji can embrace his unique heritage as the world's only self-actuated "crocoduck."
Inspired by the life of an ethnically Korean friend adopted by non-Korean Americans, Chen wrote this story in the hopes that children throughout the world could learn respect for people and things that appear different and embrace the miracle of all life in all its forms. Like Alan Say's Allison, this is a story that honors the growing American tradition of families who do not look alike, and the predicament of the child who can see his or her differences.
However, Guji Guji is not only about adoption, or about racial and cultural identity. The message transcends mere multiculturalism and speaks to acceptance on a minute level. The "bad crocodiles" are comfortable with their identities. Their crime is in asking Guji Guji to betray his identity, and their punishment is only fitting. Guji Guji's siblings, Crayon, Zebra, and Moonlight, are all named and celebrated for their unique physical features. The message is that appearance, although usually the first aspect we use to determine personality, has little or nothing to do with the content of someone's character.
Don't judge a crocodile by his tough, scaly exterior, one might say.
The award-winning Guji Guji engages children with its comical concept and artwork and a situation that turns from humorous to frightening to celebratory. It provides a good springboard for adults wishing to address questions of identity, acceptance, family, and loyalty with small children, whose sense of justice helps them draw sensible conclusions as to what constitutes kinship. Also, it's just a delightful book.
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