A Review of The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards
By REBECCA, August 6, 2012
Ben, Tom, and Lindy Potter meet Professor Savant one Halloween night, and aren’t sure whether they believe him that there is a place called Whangdoodleland, where the last of that kind rules over a kingdom of otherworldly creatures. But, the more they practice the Professor’s methods of using their imagination to get closer and closer to Whangdoodleland, the more convinced they become that they can travel there and meet the Whangdoodle. Once they’re in Whangdoodleland, however, they realize that imagination is a dangerous tool that can be used against them just as easily as they can use it for their own purposes.
why am i re-reading this?
I’ve been feeling a little lazy and uninspired in my reading lately. Maybe it’s the oppressive heat of this interminable summer; maybe just a little slump brought on by a borderline-shameful bout of attention-span-ruining tv on dvd watching; I dunno. Either way, I decided it was time to go back to my roots and pull one of my childhood favorites off the shelf. I first read The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles as a very young kid (it’s middle grade, I should mention) and had no idea that the author who created this super creative world was none other than the rather stern, besmocked, rosy-lipped Mary Poppins that my sister made us watch repeatedly. What?! Someone who can act, sing, dance, and write?
No fair! Inspiring!
I have really strong memories of the world of Whangdoodleland from reading it as a kid. It’s filled with awesome creatures and gorgeous landscapes:
“Their first impression of the forest was that it was dark and gloomy. But as their eyes adjusted to the light, they saw that it was unusually colorful.
The plum-colored trees had brown, gnarled trunks. Most of them were embraced by a vivid pink ivy, growing and twining around the tall columns and twisted limbs. Garlands of the honey-cream flowers hung from the branches, linking one tree to another. The floor was mossy and bedded with ferns the color of amethyst. Huge pearl-white and crimson orchids grew at the side of the road, which pointed straight as an arrow into the dark interior.
Then they saw the eyes. There were thousands of them—large, unblinking, tortoiseshell-yellow orbs staring down through the leaves from every part of the forest” (169).
But my favorite thing about The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles was that Professor Savant wasn’t able to get to Whangdoodleland without the Potter kids because the only way to get there is to have a boundless and malleable imagination—an imagination that only children have. So, Savant engages the kids in what is, to them, a great adventure; at the same time, though, he is placing them in great danger because he is dependent on the resource of their imagination. Lindy is seven, Thomas is ten, and Ben is thirteen. By the logic of the book, Lindy has the deftest imagination and is better than her brothers at surrendering to it entirely. Some of the most interesting moments in the book are when Ben, on the cusp of losing his childish ability to view reality as something different, is unable to do what he needs to do to keep himself and his siblings safe. At the start of the book, his maturity makes him responsible and trustworthy; someone Lindy looks up to. But, in Whangdoodleland, he’s something of a liability, and Edwards does a great job of capitalizing on those moments.
did the book hold up?
Mostly. I had forgotten that the mythology of mystical creatures in Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles is that these creatures used to have a lot of power when people believed in them, but
“as the years passed, man became involved in technology and agriculture and industry. Of course, it was natural for him to want to learn about his environment and the laws of nature, about the universe and how to get to the moon, and so on. But as he broadened the new part of his mind, so he closed down a beautiful and fascinating part of the old—the area of fantasy. The more knowledge man gained, the more self-conscious he became about believing in fanciful creatures. People began to think that such things as dragons, goblins and gremlins didn’t exist. The terrible thing is that when man dismissed all the fanciful creatures from his mind, the Whangdoodles disappeared along with them” (34).
This sets up the stuff about kids’ versus adults’ imaginations and their relative power really well. One of the tropes that I often like in middle grade fantasy is the way that fear gains power the more you believe in it—the nightmare of imagination’s power. Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles has a splash of this for sure, but it wasn’t quite as dark as I remembered. The Prock, a skinny, slinking man who I always thought of as a sinister villain when I read the book as a kid now appeared to me as a totally reasonably watchdog of the magic of Whangdoodleland. He tries to stop the Professor and the Potters from getting to Whangdoodleland and meeting the Whangdoodle because he fears that if they can get there then humans could potentially overrun Whangdoodleland.
The scenes where the Professor trains the Potters to get in touch with their senses and imaginations totally hold up (plus they are constantly eating picnics and scones and stuff, yum!) and I found myself wishing, just as I did when I was a kid, that I could go on grand adventures via my imagination.
The only thing that felt a great deal different on this reading was the quest that the Potters go on to get through Whangdoodleland and meet the Whangdoodle. It didn’t seem quite as tense and suspenseful as I remembered, and the little clues they get along the way didn’t seem quite as clever. Still, though, the meeting with the Whangdoodle was just as delightful as I remembered and the ending just as good.
Check out this awesome art that a 3rd grade class did after reading The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles:
procured from: my home library
So, what about you? Any childhood favorites you’ve been meaning to dust off?